When President Clinton selected the site for his presidential library in 1997, the River Market already had opened in the nearby warehouse district. A newly landscaped riverfront, including an amphitheater, accompanied the building, and the Central Arkansas Library System had completed its flagship branch a block away. With construction underway for an expanded Statehouse Convention Center and Alltel Arena, the stage was set for what backers hoped would be a revitalization of the district.
“It would have been a very exciting cultural and entertainment district that would have continued to evolve on its own,” said Jimmy Moses, a developer widely credited for Little Rock’s downtown renaissance. “But the pace was pushed up half a lifetime when the library site was chosen.”
The Clinton Center exponentially accelerated the pace of development around the River Market, leading to an influx of bars, restaurants, hotels and retail that have transformed that area. In less than eight years, real estate values have skyrocketed, old buildings have been restored, and few vestiges of the neighborhood’s former character remain.
“What the Clinton library provided was the anchor,” said Skip Rutherford, president of the Clinton Foundation. “It became the catalyst for development.”
With the transformation of the River Market almost complete, already attention is turning to other downtown areas that could benefit from the opening of the Clinton Center and the resulting infusion of capital.
One obvious starting point is the neighborhood surrounding the Clinton Center. Like the River Market, much of the property in that area is occupied by warehouses, although it is also transversed by railroad tracks, and scattered with small businesses and residences. Heifer International decided to build a new headquarters complex on several acres adjacent to the Clinton Center, a Comfort Inn opened a few blocks away, and Lions World Services for the Blind recently announced plans to move its offices nearby, although it has not yet decided on a specific location.
In an effort to spur further development in that area, the city of Little Rock created a Presidential Park Overlay District following the model of the River Market District. The law sets new zoning and design standards for streets and buildings within the district’s boundaries, which run from Interstate 30 east to Bond Street, and from the Arkansas River south to an axis that starts at Ninth Street on the west side and ends at Sixth Street at the eastern edge.
Downtown advocates floated a proposal to build a new baseball stadium for Little Rock’s minor league team, the Arkansas Travelers, between Fourth and Seventh streets on the east side of I-30. However, the Travelers have accepted an offer from North Little Rock to relocate there. Other ideas for the neighborhood include building a marina on the Arkansas River near the Clinton Center and Heifer Project sites, and developing the highly visible Arkansas Democrat-Gazette property on Fourth Street.
“There has been some discussion about building an office building there sometime,” said Paul Smith, the general manager of the Democrat-Gazette. “Someday we could even have all of our offices there, but we haven’t made any definite decisions.” Smith added that anything they do there would be in addition to their current printing facility, which would remain.
In the meantime, the increased tourism anticipated after the Clinton Center opens is motivating Little Rock financier Warren Stephens to move forward with a $100 million plan to create a theater and arts district on the other side of the River Market, along Main Street in downtown. Stephens has been quietly assembling real estate within a six-block corridor, and the centerpiece of the project is a proposed new home for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre on property located between Second and Third streets. The Rep has applied to the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation for a $14 million grant that would go a long way toward paying for the $21 million theater design.
David Knight, the chairman of the Rep’s board of directors, said that a decision on the grant is not due until August 2005, but that the Clinton Center opening could make a positive difference.
“I think that when you are talking about downtown renovation, a rising tide lifts all boats,” Knight said. “Downtown restoration in general helps everyone’s chances, and that would include the Clinton library and Heifer Project.”
North Little Rock is also poised to realize benefits from its proximity to the Clinton Center. Besides Alltel Arena and the new ballpark, there is a good chance that a vacant tract of land directly across the river from the Clinton Center will be the site of a major development. With plans in place to convert the Rock Island Railroad bridge into a pedestrian crossing, visitors to the state’s most popular tourist destination could easily find their way to that North Little Rock location.
The new direction of downtown development is not lost on Rutherford, who always has touted the Clinton Center as a boon to the city.
“When we chose our site, we saw an exciting, developing River Market,” he said. “Now we have seen a complete transformation, and we hope to see development going up Main Street and more development east of I-30.”