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Presidential Treatment in Little Rock

The "little rock" that gives Arkansas's capital its name sits nearly obscured under a bridge, the water of the Arkansas River slapping against it as tugboats shepherd barges upstream and down. It's not nearly the landmark it was when French explorer Bernard de La Harpe noted it in 1722 as he was charting the river. There's a plaque, but the grimy reminder of the city's founding looks forlorn. Every eye in Little Rock is turned farther downstreamnow, where the glassy, glossy William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park rises from a previously run-down warehouse district and extends to the river's edge.

The opening of the center will take place November 14 to 18 in a gala that will likely draw foreign heads of state, former U.S. presidents, movie stars, and Aretha Franklin. (Despite his recent heart surgery, Clinton is expected to participate.) The event, somewhat torturously titled "Arkansas Globecoming," will be an international gathering the likes of which the state has never seen and will feature concerts, film screenings, art exhibitions, panel discussions, ribbon cuttings, and, no doubt, endless speechifying. Little Rock boosters and businesspeople hope that when the din dies down, the celebration will have legs, with the center bringing an estimated 300,000 visitors to the town each year to soak up Clintoniana and to eat, drink, shop, visit other sights, and stay in hotels. What the center has already done is inject the city with a jolt of energy that has left it vastly transformed.

As a schoolkid growing up in Little Rock in the 1960's and 70's, I took the desultory local history tour, viewing La Harpe's unimpressive boulders, taking in the musty disrepair of the Old State House (Arkansas's original state capitol), and staring at a ragged mummy in the Museum of Science & History, at that time located in the house where General Douglas MacArthur was born. Though the city hitched itself to his wartime fame, he bad-mouthed the place and usually averred that he was really a Virginian. The fact that Clinton, the later, truer (if not always favorite) son of Arkansas, chose Little Rock in 1997 as the site of his presidential library ensured that future schoolchildren will have a more exciting tour to take. With a single, decisive stroke, he destined Little Rock (and not Hope or Hot Springs or Georgetown University) to become the guardian of his legacy, to the chagrin of some but to the unquestioned economic benefit of the city. As Stephen Chaffin, a local businessman and former executive director of the Downtown Partnership, a development organization, says: "I regularly have breakfast with a group of guys, none of whom, I don't think, ever voted for Clinton, and all of them see this as a good thing for the city."

Implied in the unreserved support is the hope that Little Rock's most notorious bit of history will be eclipsed: the 1957 integration fight at Central High School that landed the city on the network news and the cover of Life magazine as a bastion of civil rights resistance. Though a relatively peaceful era followed the crisis, during which the hottest battles were fought elsewhere in the South, Little Rock has remained tarred by the event. Throughout his public life, Clinton has sought to help the city erase some of the stain by embracing the history as a measure of progress. As governor, on the 30th anniversary, he invited the nine students who had been barred from the school to a ceremony at the governor's mansion, and while president, 11 years later, he signed legislation making the school a National Historic Site, accompanied by a permanent exhibit in a former gas station across the street.

Race relations may have contributed to the flight from downtown in the last quarter of the 20th century, with residents and businesses alike moving to the western suburbs, a fate Little Rock (population 183,133) shared with many other midsized American cities. An attempt at a pedestrian mall in the 1970's failed, leaving so many empty buildings that in 1985 the only interested lessee was a film crew making a TV miniseries about a terrorist attack (in which I was an extra); they blew up a storefront at the prime intersection of Main and Capitol. The thoroughfares were restored to auto traffic in the nineties.

If cranes and traffic cones are any indication, Little Rock is thriving, and the ripples emanate from the Clinton Center. New black asphalt roads and white concrete sidewalks zebra-stripe the downtown grid. And there's little doubt of the ex-president's assertion, in an e-mail exchange I had with him in June, that his library "has already been an economic engine for the city and region. I am very proud of that." Downtown is now the hottest area in Little Rock, something unthinkable even a few years ago. An existing retail development called the River Market had already brought some life, but the Clinton commitment is what set real estate sizzling. Some $800 million worth of construction has been completed or promised since the announcement of the library's location. Acxiom, the world's largest processor of consumer data(credit-card information, to you), invested in a $30 million, 12-story office building a few blocks from the library. Another new multiuse building contains an upscale restaurant and loft condos, one of which was purchased by North Little Rock native Mary Steenburgen and her husband, Ted Danson, the actors and close FOB's. Sustainable-agriculture and antihunger organization Heifer International has purchased land adjacent to the Clinton Center for its $13.9 million headquarters.

Old sites have received face-lifts as well. The formerly dilapidated Curran Hall (1842) has been renovated into the city's main tourist information center. The Historic Arkansas Museum, including outbuildings dating from the state's territorial past in the early 1800's, added six handsome new galleryspaces and reversed its entrance to face President Clinton Ave- nue. And recessed tracks are being laid for a trolley, which will resemble the ones that last rolled through the city streets in the 1940's; it will link the various hotels and museums, eventually crossing the river to North Little Rock and Alltel Arena, the area's main concert and sports venue. One former budget hotel on Interstate 30 has been refurbished with Clintonian themes; another will give discounts to scholars and students coming to use the archives. Earlier, the Peabody Hotel Group, famous for its Memphis property and the daily march of the ducks to the lobby fountain, chose to open a branch in Little Rock (complete with parading ducks) and spent $40 million refurbishing the infamous Excelsior Hotel, site of the alleged Paula Jones incident. (The hotel is now called the Peabody Little Rock.)

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