Clinton Library spurs development | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Clinton Library spurs development

Posted By on Wed, Sep 6, 2006 at 8:26 AM

The Wall Street Journal today turns its attention to the Clinton Presidential Library's role in sparking a downtown renaissance in Little Rock.

The $165 million Clinton Presidential Center opened in 2004, well after Little Rock officials had scrapped the tax in favor of a bond to fund the purchase of the property. Despite the initial opposition of some residents to the idea that the city would pay for the land, many real-estate experts credit the architectural showpiece designed by James Polshek and Richard Olcott -- part of a complex which includes a park, Oval Office replica and a treasure trove of documents -- with jumpstarting a downtown revitalization in Little Rock.

The presidential library center, which drew about 500,000 visitors last year, has helped transform an area filled with older warehouses "where you wouldn't want to walk around at night" into a tourist destination and a corridor of nonprofit headquarters, says Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey. It also helped expand the boundaries of the redevelopment already under way in the adjacent River Market district to the west, which was already buzzing with a farmer's market and restaurants in the late 1990s.

"We were grinding out the first few downs and the Presidential Center was the 50-yard pass," says Rett Tucker, a partner with Moses Tucker Real Estate, a Little Rock-based real-estate services company which helped amass the property for the center. Moses Tucker is now building an 18-story condo tower, billed as the city's tallest new building since the 1980s. The 300 Third Tower, to be completed next year, is one of many projects completed or launched since the late 1990s in downtown Little Rock and across the river in North Little Rock, with a total estimated investment value of more than $1 billion, according to Joey Dean, vice president of economic development with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

More excerpts after the jump.

The area's nonfarm employment rose by about 2.1% in July from the year-earlier month, above the U.S. rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mark Thompson, an economic forecaster with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Institute for Economic Advancement, says housing and tourism have helped drive the region's historically stable economy, though rising interest rates could pose a risk going forward.

The pace of development has been particularly significant for a city the size of Little Rock, Arkansas's capital with some 184,000 residents and the center of a metropolitan area with about 643,000 people. Major projects have included a new $27.5 million headquarters for world hunger nonprofit Heifer International, next door to the library; some 300 new residential units under way or awarded permits in the downtown core since 2000; and several renovated hotels.

Not all sectors of the commercial real-estate market have felt a direct boost from the region's surge in investments. While estimates vary widely on the office vacancy rate in the central business district, most agree that the downtown office submarket is stabilizing, though still weaker than its suburban counterpart.

Stuart S. Mackey, vice president of brokerage for the Hathaway Group in Little Rock, says downtown had a vacancy rate of 21% in the first quarter, roughly double that in the suburbs.

Consolidation in the national banking industry in recent years, the departure of some companies for suburban locations and even vacancies left by groups like Heifer International moving into new headquarters -- though still in the city -- have left more space empty downtown, says Mr. Mackey.

Some see opportunity in the vacancies. Over the past two years, California-based real-estate company Tower Investments has purchased five older office buildings on a city block in the financial district. Tower plans to convert most of the space into condominiums, with asking prices in its first phase starting at $160,000. "Little Rock is on the map due to one and possibly two presidents coming out of there," says Tower Senior Vice President Alex Marks.

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