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Next Thursday, a library built for a successful guy from Hope, Ark., will open east of Interstate 30. It doesn’t sound like the moment a whole state has been waiting for, but it is: the minute the countdown numbers atop the William J. Clinton Presidential Center hit zero.
On Nov. 18, a crowd predicted to be unlike any seen since Election Day 1992 (but soberer) will pack what’s now President Clinton Avenue, the River Market district and its halo, downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. In the throng: President George W. Bush and his White House predecessors, including Jimmy Carter, accompanied by Roslynn Carter; and George H.W. Bush, with Barbara Bush. Statesmen from abroad. Glitterati from Hollywood, and what passes for glitterati at home: pols to Friends of Bill, those Arkansas Travelers at home to welcome the world to Little Rock.
The star of the show — besides President Clinton — will be the Clinton Center itself, designed by the New York City architectural firm of Polshek and Partners. Clinton people are quick to correct a reference to the 11th presidential library as a “presidential library,” since that sounds like something of a bore. If the interior is anything like the exterior of the building, the center will be anything but.
As every schoolchild knows by now, the $165 million (officially) silvery rectangle of steel, glass and limestone is Clinton’s rhetorical bridge to the 21st century made three-dimensional. But the design is rich in other symbolic gestures. Its outer glass skin, developed specially for the Clinton project and which appears to be embedded with fine lines, gives it transparency at night, creating a view of the interior as open as government should be. In daytime, the same glass reflects the light, making the structure shine like a beacon. Inside, the exhibits exist not in dark rooms set off from the world but in a space flooded with natural light and vistas of the city. In foggy weather, at just the right angle, the building loses its edge and becomes infinite, its silvery gray edges the color of the sky.
The architecture is ultramodern and sophisticated and unlike any other structure in Arkansas. It has surely won over its early critics who, in a cynical mood, once likened the slender, metallic form to a trailer. The designers of famed museums in New York and around the globe did not fail their Arkansas client.
The Clinton Center, with its accompanying Clinton School of Public Service in the remodeled historic Choctaw Railroad Station, inarguably lands Arkansas in the 21st century. That progress can be seen from its terraces, which offer a view of a skyline altered to the tune of nearly $1 billion since Arkansas sent a man to the White House.
The view of the city and the highways from the library captivated architect Polshek for the liveliness, context and spontaneity it would bring to the Clinton library. Looking back from the city to the library will be millions of travelers on Interstate 30, who’ll see an imposing but penetrable and human silvery building settled among a manicured 30-acre park on the bank of the Arkansas River. Once inside the library, the 300,000 visitors the Clinton Presidential Foundation expects in the first year will find the Clinton story told in two airy levels of exhibits that combine high-tech interactives and stately documents, with a reproduction of the Cabinet Room and a full-scale reproduction of the Oval Office. For sex appeal (as if the nation’s 42nd president weren’t charismatic enough himself), Elvis will be in the building — in a temporary exhibit on blues music.
Scholars will find innumerable documents, photographs, recordings and objects in the 70,000-square-foot archives, linked to the library by a passage over which is inscribed Clinton’s exhortation: “Let Us Build a Bridge to the 21st Century.”
The former president himself will also be there from time to time, in the off-limits top-floor residence. But who would be surprised to see him pop in and lead visitors around his museum himself?
The run-up to the formal dedication of the library on Nov. 18 and its public opening on Nov. 19 will be a swirl of activity, with Aretha Franklin providing the vocals (see the full calendar of activities in subsequent pages). Things get off to a running start with a Presidential Fun Run 5K on Saturday morning, Nov. 13. Art, music, film, special events crowd the following five days. President Clinton will appear at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will appear at a fund-raiser for the Governor’s Mansion, John Glenn will give a talk on space and Al Franken will do his down-to-earth political humor. A quarter million dollars of sculpture dotting a new path leading from the River Market to the park entrance will be dedicated. Free music in the Riverfest Amphitheatre, a fireworks display, a fashion show. And, at a hotel ballroom near you, private parties nightly for former staffers who knew Bill as POTUS and Hillary as FLOTUS. Finally, the public will be admitted to the Clinton library, where they may judge for themselves if the wait was worth it.
The completion of the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, Little Rock’s movers and shakers say, signals not an end but a beginning, a cultural enrichment to give definition — and the status of destination — to Central Arkansas.
That’s the future.
Seven years ago, people weren’t so convinced. When Clinton announced Nov. 7, 1997, that he’d chosen the Little Rock site — on land the city offered to buy, prepare and lease for $1 a year — the general naysaying by Clinton detractors swelled. A penny tax balloon to pay for the land was floated and popped. The board’s decision to issue bonds instead drew a taxpayer lawsuit. (She’s still suing.) The condemnation of the land prompted a suit by a landowner who claimed the the land was not truly a park. (He lost.) The Clinton Foundation itself filed a suit after the state Department of Economic Development denied the non-profit Clinton Center a “business enterprise” tax break. (A circuit judge ruled in October that the Foundation qualified for the $3.5 million break.)
Even supporters shook their heads at the site — a gravelly industrial district crisscrossed by train tracks on the wrong side of I-30, accessible by a road that would pass under an interstate. Imagination failed them, it turns out.
Chalk the roadblocks up to Clinton’s ability to inspire negative passion. Credit Clinton’s huge appeal — which inspired the Secret Service to nickname him Elvis — and vision to make his library a success.
Ask Mayor Jim Dailey who to credit for landing the Clinton library and he’ll tell you City Director Dean Kumpuris. Ask Kumpuris, who just had a street named for him in the Clinton Presidential Park, and he’ll say it was many, though he singled out City Manager Bruce Moore at the Oct. 2 dedication of the street.
The street honors the years of effort Kumpuris — described by his friend and downtown realtor Rett Tucker as a “bulldog” — put in to land the library in Little Rock.
Moore recalled the time when the library “was not a done deal” for Little Rock, or even Arkansas. Both the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Yale University were courting Clinton.
Kumpuris and a “who’s who” cavalry of Little Rock boosters — an improbable alliance, perhaps, including Arkansas Democrat-Gazette owner Walter Hussman, retired utility executive Jerry Mauldin, downtown real estate majordomo Jimmy Moses, former city director Lottie Shackelford, banker Bill Bowen and lawyer Herschel Friday — sent envoys to the White House in 1994 to propose Little Rock as the right site for the library.
When Clinton gave Central Arkansas the nod, Kumpuris, Moore and others listed 30 sites — 21 south of the river and 9 north — in Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville were considered initially.
When Kumpuris and Moore ranked the site east of I-30 first, it got what Moore called a “Huh?” reaction.
But Hillary Clinton loved the River Market area, Moore said — “I remember when the First Lady came and said, ‘This is going to be a great place for the president to work a rope line.’ ” “Synergy” became the word of the day.
Kumpuris Street leads to Heifer International, which once considered making its new headquarters in Chicago, not in a shabby industrial district in Little Rock. Now its headquarters and Global Village will be the library’s neighbor.
Since Heifer started putting up the armature of its new headquarters, other organizations have announced East Side buys: The Lions World Services, now located on Fair Park Boulevard, is looking at land near the library for new offices and dormitories. CareLink, a non-profit that offers services for people over 50, has purchased four acres on the east side of Heifer International for a 55,000-square-foot center for activities and offices. The Lighthouse Point Marina is still afloat, if not actually landed. Moses Tucker Real Estate just announced plans to build a $45 million, 17-story luxury condominium tower they’ll call “300 Third” after its site at Third and Cumberland streets.
What if there had been no Clinton Center? Would there have been progress downtown, spun off from the Alltel Arena and River Market projects?
Yes, Tucker says. “But it would have been slower and smaller.” Tucker made a football analogy. “We’ve made a couple, three first downs and we’re getting close to the 50-yard-line. The Clinton library is the 50-yard pass.”
The score so far: Add up the $23 million First Security Building, where the new Marriott is housed, the latest in a series of high-dollar buildings. Acxiom’s highrise ($35 million), the Peabody Hotel redo ($33 million), the Block 2 Lofts ($21 million), the River Rail ($15.7 million in public dollars), the Arkansas Capital Commercial building ($14 million). The Holiday Inn redo ($6 million), the new city parking deck ($6 million in public dollars), the Central Arkansas Library’s gubernatorial archives ($5 million), and so forth and so on.
Kumpuris sees a bright picture, and it’s got no dollar signs in it. It’s a picture of some 50 acres of parkland both landscaped and natural, with trails and a playground. “Last weekend I went down and walked on the northernmost trail on the river,” Kumpuris said. “It will blow people away when they get down there.”
The park will give Little Rock a new heart, an expanse of green where people will come “and spend your whole day doing nothing that costs any money.”
That central core that is so important to a city’s health is back up to 98.6, and Little Rock is beginning to close in on the “next level of great mid-sized cities,” he said.
“The morning of the 18th when the president opens the library, it will be a tremendous moment in Little Rock history,” Moore said. It’s a beginning; “the best is yet to come.”