Editor’s note: The author of this article, John Brummett, is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The story appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can read here.
It was the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 28, 1997.
Then-President Bill Clinton had announced in February of that year that his presidential library would be placed in Central Arkansas. The Greater Little Rock area had prevailed over Fayetteville, Georgetown and Yale. But the specific site within Central Arkansas remained a matter of competition.
Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris got word that President and First Lady Clinton, in town and staying at the late Dorothy Rodham’s Hillcrest condominium, were ready to see the proposed downtown Little Rock site east of Interstate 30. It was one of four local possibilities. The others were a site near the Bowen Law School and McArthur Park, the current site off Cantrell Road of the Episcopal Collegiate School and the current riverfront site in North Little Rock of Dickey-Stephens Park.
This visit was unplanned, an all-of-a-sudden thing. City officials were unprepared. Bill Clinton can sometimes display a certain spontaneity.
So Kumpuris and then-mayor’s assistant Bruce Moore – the point-persons for advocating a Little Rock site and clearly prejudiced in favor of the fledging River Market and this downtown site east of I-30 – joined the black-vehicle motorcade that ventured eastward under Interstate 30 and into . . . well, a no-man’s land, pretty much.
The idea had been for the motorcade to drive up a ramp and onto the concrete roof of an abandoned book depository just east of Interstate 30. That would provide the optimum southeastward overview of the site.
The Secret Service vetoed that. It hadn’t had time to assess the structure for vehicular safety. So the presidential party – Clinton, Hillary, Kumpuris, Moore and local Clinton library coordinator Skip Rutherford – got out of the limousine and walked up the ramp. Then the group encountered a gate that no one knew how to open.
“This is crazy,” Kumpuris remembers a Secret Service agent saying as Bill and Hillary and others edged their way around the gate, venturing perilously close to the edge of the building.
What was below them if they fell?
“Air,” Kumpuris recalls.
Everyone negotiated the situation safely. Bill and Hillary stood and looked southward, eastward, then behind them to the Arkansas River.
They saw warehouses, most abandoned. They saw vines growing onto an abandoned Rock Island Bridge. They saw cans, bottles, assorted debris and a wild wetland – all worthy of the Murky Bottoms name that the late columnist Richard Allin had given this place.
Kumpuris and Moore were pointing to sections and extolling ideas for development, envisioning aloud the certain loveliness that awaited.
“I felt kind of like a used car salesman,” Kumpuris recalls.
The Clintons were nodding, revealing themselves to be somewhere understandably between euphoric and horrified.
Rutherford says it was the strangest thing. There he stood on the roof of a book depository with an American president and an uneasy Secret Service detail.
A couple of weeks later Clinton was back in town for a final personal look at the then-two finalists – “Murky Bottoms” and the site in North Little Rock now graced by Dickey-Stephens Park.
He seemed to be leaning to Little Rock. Actually, it appeared the fix was in. He had Kumpuris in the car with him. He had no one from North Little Rock as a passenger.
But then-Mayor Patrick Henry Hays of North Little Rock was not to be deterred.
Hays got a tip on the imminent visit. He and a small party met the motorcade in the street.
“How did he know we were coming?” Clinton asked of Kumpuris, who said Pat Hays was a resourceful sonofagun.
Here access and imagination were easier. The space was open, level and readily available. Several businessman in North Little Rock had pledged $40,000 apiece to buy the land and deed it for the library free and clear. Across the glassy river rose the best view of downtown Little Rock’s skyline. North Little Rock essentially competed with Little Rock by framing a nice picture of Little Rock.
Little Rock’s advantages were not readily evident. Its site contained many parcels, some in active use. That would require condemnation and public money.
But the advantages were real and strong.
The National Archives preferred the larger space of Little Rock’s untamed site, needing room for a museum, the actual archives storage and essential parking and landscaping. Several eminent architects had been whisked in and all preferred what they could envision on “Murky Bottoms.”
Little Rock’s advocacy was intense. Not too long before, Kumpuris had been in a meeting that included Jerry Maulden, the former Entergy head who led a commission that helped persuade Clinton to choose Central Arkansas generally.
Maulden, a North Little Rock native, was pushing for the north-shore site. Kumpuris leaned forward and told him to forget it – that North Little Rock already had been ceded the new multi-purpose arena; that this was Little Rock’s turn.
The Clinton motorcade had driven past Little Rock’s then-fledgling River Market en route from “Murky Bottoms” to North Little Rock. Bruce Moore remembers Hillary looking at the River Market pavilion and saying she could see Bill working a rope line there every Saturday morning.
Then, in a few days, Clinton notified Rutherford that he indeed was choosing the Little Rock site. Rutherford immediately drove to the winning urban wilderness and looked around.
There was the muck, the trash, the overgrowth.
“I didn’t know where to start,” he says.
There were plenty of obstacles.
At least one of the warehouses to be removed, the Mays Supply building, framed an old Rock Island freight depot that railroad buffs believed to be historic and worthy of that designation and protection. So the city moved quickly on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving of ’97 to demolish it. That same day, the railroad buffs sought an injunction in federal court against demolition. Federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele dismissed the petition as moot when a city official testified that, actually, the building had been brought to the ground that morning. It was a ruthless act by the city, but perhaps essential. The warehouse/depot sat precisely where the library itself was to rise.
Local political and taxpayer opposition could well have derailed the city’s obligation to sell park revenue bonds to acquire the land for donation for the library. A petition drive to refer the issue to the ballot – where it might have lost amid the Lewinsky scandal that broke in 1998 – came up short of signatures.
The owner of the Mays Supply warehouse, businessman Eugene Pfeifer, had been among the businessmen pledging $40,000 for the North Little Rock site. He resisted Little Rock’s use of eminent domain to condemn his property and other parcels to buy the library site. He opposed the city’s tactic of calling the library site a park and using public revenue in the form of park proceeds from the zoo and municipal golf courses. But he lost in court.
Then when Clinton left office in January 2001, he invited a New York federal grand jury probe into his granting a pardon to international fugitive Marc Rich, whose wife had made a large donation to the library. The investigation had a year-long chilling effect on large donations, which fell under subpoena for a while.
But all obstacles were overcome, or at least survived.
The date of the announcement of Clinton’s selection of the site – and of Rutherford’s feeling overwhelmed – was Nov. 7, 1997.
The $165 million presidential center was dedicated in heavy rainfall on November 18, 2004.
And here it is November 2014, the 10th anniversary of what may well have replaced Central High for all of history as Little Rock’s signature place and defining symbol.
There will be a celebration. And there should be contemplation: What has the library meant to Little Rock? What lies ahead?
At the time of Clinton’s site selection, the nearby River Market was but a modest beginning – the new Main Library, opened that year in the renovated Fones building, and the River Market/farmers’ market pavilion itself, built with surplus bond money and private donations and anchored by Andina’s coffee shop.
The rest was an uncertain vision, mostly of Kumpuris and Jimmy Moses, real estate developer.
Moses had returned to Little Rock in the early 1970s, after four years of college and a degree in urban planning, to find that downtown Little Rock had pretty much died – from urban renewal and white flight, facilitated by the coming convenience of a new east-west commuter freeway, I-630.
In 1992 Moses, desperate to revive downtown, helped lead an effort for voter approval for a multi-purpose arena called the Diamond Center at the old Coachman’s Inn site, where a post office is now located. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, so distressing Moses that he says now he would have left Little Rock, maybe for Portland, one of his favorite cities, except he had so much debt he couldn’t.
Today the River Market bustles for blocks with nearly 2 billion dollars of private and public investment. The early idea of a retail shopping district hasn’t come to pass, because things seldom go exactly as planned. Instead, Clinton Avenue is a place of bars, restaurants and museums – and high-rise condominiums, lofts and upscale hotels, nearly all of them developed by Moses and his new partner, Rett Tucker, brought on in that fateful year, 1997.
Gene Pfeifer now says the library has been a wonderful boon for all of downtown, even on the north shore, and that everything has turned out for the best.
Did Clinton himself actively intend to fuel the River Market boom?
In a statement issued to Talk Business & Politics from his foundation, Clinton indicated he intended more than that.
“We built the center to serve as a bridge between the past and present, the individual and the community,” he said. “Everything from site selection, the design of the building itself, and the educational programs we offer reflects this vision. One of the most important things we wanted to do was create local bridges that would bring people together and encourage creative cooperation.”
“I think he wanted an urban experience,” Kumpuris says. “At the time he thought he might spend a week a month here, which hasn’t happened. And I think he liked the idea of strolling down to Andina’s for a cup of coffee.”
How much of the development, which has spread to the Argenta section of North Little Rock and Little Rock’s newly percolating Main Street, is owed to Clinton’s choice?
“You can’t quantify it,” Kumpuris says. “It’s like the Old Testament – one thing begets another.”
But some causes-and-effects are pretty clear.
Acxiom Corp. chose the River Market for its new headquarters, opening in 2003, almost solely because the Clinton Library had made the River Market an appealing place.
There were rumblings in the mid-1990s that the Heifer Project might leave Little Rock, perhaps to put its headquarters in Chicago. Those rumblings pretty much ended when Heifer got the chance to develop a state-of-the-art and energy-efficient new facility in the shadow of the new presidential library.
“What the Clinton Library did was validate what we were trying to do,” Moses says.
Jordan Johnson, spokesman for the Clinton Foundation in Little Rock, offers this observation: Little Rock now has a cultural and entertainment strip extending from the Clinton Library on the east to the Robinson Center, now undergoing remodeling. And the prominent New York City architect who designed the Clinton Library – James Polshek — is now designing the river-panoramic meeting facilities to rise on the northern side of the new Robinson Center.
No other city will be able to boast of a cultural and entertainment strip with Polshek designs as bookends, Johnson says.
The cultural, educational and policy enrichments have perhaps exceeded the strictly economic, mostly from three library adjuncts.
One: The Clinton School of Public Service is based in the renovated Choctaw Railroad passenger depot on the library grounds. Through affiliation with the University of Arkansas System, it offers graduate-level and service-required studies to specially selected national and international students. The enrollees also do studies at the nearby River Market’s Arkansas Studies Institute and Main Library. Rutherford, dean of the school, says the school considers the entire River Market its campus.
For the broader community, the Clinton School has brought hundreds of distinguished speakers – scholarly, popular and topical – to Little Rock. It has done so without paying lecture fees, only expenses for travel, lodging and dinner with students.
Rutherford became inspired to reach for a world-class speaker series when he visited Harvard. The Clinton School now averages nearly three lectures per week during non-holiday school terms.
In the finest tradition of higher academia and cultural enrichment, Rutherford has irked his friends on the left by bringing in Karl Rove and irked his friends in the rightward mainstream by bringing in Richard Dawson, probably the world’s leading atheist and evolutionist/biologist. Both lectures had to be moved to the Statehouse Convention Center to accommodate the crowd.
Bob Dole gave the first Clinton School lecture in September 2004. He was doing a favor for his friend David Pryor, the first dean of the Clinton School.
Two: That old vine-covered Rock Island Bridge is now lined with hanging baskets of yellow lantana and open to bikers, joggers and walkers. It provides the eastern end of a recreational loop and river trail extending a dozen miles west to the Big Dam Bridge and Two Rivers Bridge. Walk the bridge and you’re apt to confront a couple from, say, Michigan, on a cross-country trip, wondering about all the names etched into the bridge’s concrete walking path. They are the names of donors.
The pedestrian bridge drops south-bound users into the Clinton Presidential Park, an area of modern landscaping that the Clinton Foundation, hoping to make more accessible to the public, has opened the last four years for the Riverfest celebration in late May. Rainfall during the first Riverfront activities caused damage to the grass. “It grew back,” Jordan Johnson says.
Between the park and river lies the Bill Clark Wetlands, bridged by a walkway over natural fauna and flora.
Three: The Clinton Foundation has launched charitable and public policy initiatives that have brought millions of dollars to the state. They include a climate initiative making loans for energy improvements; a health initiative offering, among other projects, aid to disabled disadvantage Arkansas youth to improve their educational and career opportunities and lift them from Medicaid or Social Security disability; and the City Year Little Rock program for youth voluntarism that has provided nearly 700,000 hours of service in the community by nearly 300 City Year members.
Meanwhile, early critiques that Little Rock was relying too heavily on the library as a tourism destination – that presidential libraries don’t typically serve that purpose – seem to have been belied.
Owing to Clinton’s uncommon post-presidential visibility and popularity, and probably to the facility’s visibility to cross-country traffic, more than 3 million people have visited the library in a decade.
Only the Clinton library and the LBJ one in Austin have sustained their visitation numbers year to year. Generally, attendance at presidential libraries starts high and declines.
Beyond that, the presidential center has become a major local gathering place, hosting over the decade 3,779 events and special exhibits drawing 1.5 million attendees.
No other presidential library matches those public event numbers.
Compilations from the state Parks and Tourism Department show that, in 2003, Pulaski County had $1.073 billion in travel-related expenditures, and had $1.6 billion a decade later.
Now to the future:
Moses says much depends on the continued development of Main Street with the new Technology Park and in the South Main district.
He also says the city nears an end of the era by which the River Market can be jump-started or artificially stimulated or shoved along by public policy and public investment. It needs now to stand on its own, most importantly, he believes, by landing a private employer or two to bring working folks into the district every day.
Moses also longs for the University of Arkansas to occupy a building downtown and bring in students for classes. And he has this dream – and, remember, he’s had impractical dreams before that came to some measure of fruition – that a major retail department store will come downtown.
Kumpuris says the market district needs lower-cost apartment living. And he stresses that those jobs advocated by Moses need to be private sector jobs, not state government ones. That’s because, he says, state government allows only a half-hour for lunch. The city made a mistake by allowing state offices on Main Street in buildings connected by skywalks, he says. State employees come to a cocoon, stay in it for eight hours and go home. A downtown needs shoes on the pavement, Kumpuris says.
Moses also says the River Market’s leading advocates – himself, Kumpuris, Tucker, library head Bobby Roberts – are getting on in years and that a new generation of champions needs to emerge.
But Moses says it occurred to him on a recent Sunday bike trip over the bridge and into the presidential park that “one thing is here forever.” And that is the presidential center. “That’s the real gift,” he says.
Kumpuris says the long-term prominence may well come from the Clinton School. He predicts that someday one of those students will parlay a service project into a Nobel Prize.
Moses uses the word “renaissance” for what has happened in downtown Little Rock. Kumpuris says he agrees, but says many cities have experienced a downtown renaissance of sorts in recent years. He says Little Rock’s has simply been different because of the Clinton Library.
Moses says Little Rock is not yet a “great city,” like Nashville or Austin, but “kind of a growing-up city, maybe a lanky adolescent.”
What he and others mean by a “great city” is one with a strong and diverse economy, a vibrant young creative class, high-tech entrepreneurship, a culturally rich quality of life and an absence of stifling racial problems and a serious crime rate.
So Little Rock is not there.
Owing to a crime rate that ranks high nationally and a largely resegregated public school system that sometimes seems to take one step up and two steps back, Little Rock still hovers somewhat precariously, as-yet undefined, between a burgeoning great city and a stymied, troubled city.
It pushes ambitiously toward Nashville and Austin. At the same time, it tries hard not to be, say, Memphis, a town beset by crime and racial problems though it, too, has revived sections of its downtown. And it actually boasts the home not of Clinton, but the real and original Elvis.
So there’s more to a great city than a vibrant downtown district and a famous favorite son and an iconic destination.
As for a new generation, it seems likely that not even Bill Clinton can live forever.
His only child, Chelsea, spent formative years in Little Rock, attended its public schools and seems still to have a fondness for the place. In fact, she strolled unnoticed through Riverfest in May, mainly to observe the use of the presidential park for activities.
Rutherford says Chelsea recently retweeted with a compliment his tweet announcing the October speakers at the Clinton School.
Now we behold the generation after Chelsea – an infant Clinton granddaughter by the name of Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.
Someday she presumably will head the Clinton Foundation. Perhaps her mother will bring her to Riverfest in a few years – to see the city her granddaddy is trying to help build on his old stomping ground.
Then there’s the matter of the infant’s grandmother, perhaps yet to become president herself. Someday she might either consolidate her eventual foundation and library with her husband’s or build her own elsewhere.
But we’re getting a tad ahead of ourselves.
For the final word, here is Clinton himself in the written statement issued by his foundation: “I am deeply proud that the center has been an active part of the Little Rock community for the past decade, and I know our best years are yet to come.”