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Ups and downs in the River Market 

It's the best of times, it's the worst of times. The River Market district is booming, the River Market district has been flooded with failure. The "pot of gold," as Clinton Presidential Library Foundation head Skip Rutherford calls the presidential project, has brought improvements.

But several River Market district businesses have found the rainbow route to that pot of gold a slippery proposition. Seven clothing and accessory stores have opened and closed along Markham and President Clinton Avenue since the announcement that the former president would build his library at the east end of the River Market district. Seven restaurants and a cyber coffee shop failed. Other retailers, including a guitar shop and a gallery, flopped.

It turns out that the promise of $250 million coming attraction wasn't enough to create a stable, successful shopping mecca in the present, one that would be up and running to give all those library-goers a place to shop afterward.

Despite the celebratory language that attends the River Market district's successes — a $24 million, 12-story Axciom building and its 400 employees is nothing to sniff at — there's an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Grumblings, that that the city should have promoted the area more aggressively, addressed problems like parking, reached out to higher-spending travelers.

The presidential library and the new headquarters for Heifer Project International scheduled for 2005 or 2006 have done and will continue to do the city a world of good. The late 2004 debut of the Clinton Presidential Center should start of flood of visitors that Rutherford predicts will hit 300,000 by the end of 2005. Even if he's off by a few thousand, the first year is bound to swamp Little Rock in tourists of some kind. In 2006, when library visits might be expected to drop off, Heifer's Global Village and office should keep new tourists coming.

If the neighborhood around the library is still struggling, what's to keep people hanging around after they've seen the exhibits? There's got to be more than one log on the fire to generate flames and heat.

 Rutherford's a little anxious. "We've got a chance to take this city to a higher level. It's a mistake to just sit back and wait until the library and Heifer" projects are built, he says. He wants to see national conventions booked, leisure travel promoted, blips made on the radar screen of the tour bus market. He's not so sure the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau is up to snuff yet.

On a trip to Memphis recently, Rutherford learned that that city has 1 million international visitors yearly. Graceland, the home of Elvis, gets 180,000 of those international visitors (and tons of other visitors.) The charismatic President Clinton's Secret Service name was Elvis — isn't it possible his library will have the same attraction? So what are we doing to promote national and international interest in coming to Little Rock?

The Convention and Visitors Bureau says it's been working hard for the past year to build convention business around the library. But, says new bureau marketing officer Dennis O'Byrne, "you've got to crawl before you walk." To sell the Clinton library, he said, meeting planners had to be sure that it would be open when it said it would be open. That hotel rooms yet unbuilt would be available.

O'Byrne is excited about the future of Little Rock as a tourist destination. The presidential library and Heifer's headquarters "will be transformational" for the city's business, he said. They'll give the city, whose largest hotel has only 450 rooms, the competitive edge it needs to draw sizable conventions that otherwise keep their attendees under one roof, O'Byrne said.

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