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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.

Already, the Clinton library is credited in the city's winning the June 2005 national convention of LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens), which CVB Director Barry Travis says should bring 3,000 people to town. Their interest in the library overcame their inability to put all participants under one roof.

"To me the news is all positive," O'Byrne, who's been in the resort hotel business for many years. While hotels in other cities have been hurting, Little Rock's facilities, whose bread and butter have always been individual corporate travel, have held their own.

O'Byrne's goal is to "grab the low-hanging fruit" — to identify the organizations and tourists who fit the Little Rock picture — and to educate the area's hoteliers in just what it is Little Rock has to offer, from events to museums. "If folks ask the concierge what's happing in Little Rock and he says I don't know, that's not good."

In selling the library, Travis said, the bureau is looking first to the former president's natural constituencies — like educators and African Americans. Heifer will draw international interest, Travis said, which will present new challenges. "Who do you talk to and how, in their languages?"

 For now, however, Rutherford said, "the weak link" in the River Market district's development chain "is high-end retail." Without something for folks to do after they leave the library, how long can they be expected to stay in Little Rock? The more attractions, the better the tour bus and leisure travel trade.

But maybe, Vesta's owner Melissa Tanner surmised, it's "too soon still" for small retailers to make a go of it.

Two weeks ago, Tanner moved her dress, linens and furnishings shop that opened four years ago downtown to trendy Bowman Curve in West Little Rock, where she'll be surrounded by other shops and, she hopes, more well-heeled traffic.

She doesn't blame the city for River Market district's ills — 9-11 and the stock market dive can take credit for that, she said. But if the district is to offer retail, it has to offer more than just one or two shops to lure local business, she said. The city "should have planned for a way to get retail" to the district, Tanner said, beyond just saying "come down here and open a shop."

 Debra Wood, owner of River Market Artspace gallery at Cumberland and Clinton, said she'll hang on until she has to start borrowing money. But "someone needs to be out pounding the pavement, getting business to move down here."

New business is coming, in the form of Banana Joe's, a chain bar and restaurant that will fill several thousand square feet leased to Vesta's, Take a Hike and the Pour House Bar and Grill.

Because it's a chain, Vesta's Tanner noted, the restaurant will be able afford to lose a little money while it waits for the Presidential Center to open.

But because it's a chain, gallery owner Wood lamented, it won't distinguish Little Rock and the River Market district from any other shopping area in the country. Little Rock has an opportunity to "make a statement about this city," one that will replace the crisis at Central High as the defining image, Wood said. To do that, the area needs more unique, locally-owned retailers.

Artspace, one of the first shops that opened after the River Market renovation, is located on the corner of Clinton and Cumberland. It benefits, Wood said, from proximity to the Statehouse Convention Center — when it hosts teachers' meetings in particular — and other high-end places like Vesta's and Trio's restaurant across Cumberland. She does not expect to get much business from the clientele of Banana Joe's.

 Travis, on the other hand, said Banana Joe's is just what the River Market needs — a big name, a known entity that visitors can feel comfortable with.

And despite some shopkeeper grumblings that the convention business that Little Rock has attracted to date — two-thirds of which comes from Arkansas groups — isn't the type high-end retailers want to see, Travis and O'Byrne say all business is good business.

Besides, Travis said, the publicly-owned Statehouse Convention Center has an obligation to serve its tax base, and if that's the County Judge's Association or the Beta Clubs of Arkansas or the Arkansas Homeless Conference, great.

"We've got to put heads in beds," O'Byrne said — and those beds are all over the city, not just in the River Market district. Hotel occupancy rates currently are around 60 to 65 percent; "You take everything in that position."

There's other business that can succeed now in the River Market district, Travis said. A gift shop that combined fancy and affordable would be good, "a place you can go in with $10 and come out with something." A corner grocery store might work, Rutherford said.

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