The Library Engine (Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note)

by Jeff Hankins  on Monday, Jun. 9, 2003 12:00 am  

Whatever your politics, it's time to square off with the fact that the William J. Clinton Presidential Library Center is transforming Little Rock.

Even diehard Republicans who own property downtown must live with the notion that Clinton, by choosing Little Rock and specifically a rundown area east of Interstate 30, lined their pocketbooks with increased property values.

While I objected to the way the Little Rock City Board handled funding to provide land for the library, I've always been clear that it's a coup for the city to be home to the facility.

Skip Rutherford, president of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library Foundation, can put a positive spin on just about anything. But at the recent University of Arkansas at Little Rock Economic Forecast Conference, he outlined a meaningful case for the impact of the $160 million, 150,000-SF facility.

First of all, you should mark your calendars for what could be the biggest media frenzy since Clinton's re-election night in 1996. Grand opening activities are set for Nov. 14-18, 2004, and presidential library dedications typically include former presidents and first ladies and tons of dignitaries.

International Interest

Rutherford describes Clinton as an international icon, and his library is already attracting interest from convention planners all over the world who otherwise wouldn't give Little Rock a thought. In fact, convention recruiters brought in a couple dozen meeting planners for the recent topping-out ceremony so they could shake Clinton's hand — apparently a big deal for them.

The Peabody Hotel — with facilities in Little Rock, Memphis and Orlando — is said to be promoting three-year packages. That's Clinton, Elvis and Mickey Mouse for convention draws. Imagine the marketing.

Tourism is a key element of the library's economic development role, and when Rutherford researched the 12 other presidential libraries, he found that wasn't a major factor. For example, John F. Kennedy's isn't convenient for tourists in Boston, and Jimmy Carter's is hard to find near Atlanta.

Before George H.W. Bush's library was built in College Station, Texas, about 40 tour buses a year would pass through. During the first four months the library was open, the city saw 450 tour buses. That's why Rutherford projects a third of the Clinton library's visitors will be via tour buses.

Those projections also help explain why Little Rock has seen 2,000 new or renovated hotel rooms downtown during the past three years.

The Clinton Presidential Library Center is properly credited with prompting all of the lodging activity, plus development of the Acxiom Corp. building, the new Heifer Project International headquarters, the Arkansas Capital Commerce Center, the First Security Center and several other projects.

Rutherford claims property values on Clinton Avenue have doubled since the Clinton Library location announcement.

Educational Impact?

It remains to be seen whether the Clinton Library can do for the University of Arkansas what other presidential libraries have done in the education arena. But I have to admit that having anything close to the caliber of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University or the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas is an exciting prospect.

The archives collection is the largest ever with some 80 million-90 million documents, 77,000 artifacts, 2.5 million photographs and 40 million e-mails. One of the more anticipated events will be seeing how library planners handle the delicacies of the impeachment proceedings.

Some friends have made clear to me that they will never visit the place. I don't think politics or beliefs should get in the way of history.

We should embrace the opportunities ahead. I know the same thing was being said when Clinton was elected to the presidency, and then many Arkansans were devastated by the negative impact his tenure ultimately had on the state.

But this library is the mother lode — the pork that we didn't see while he was in office. At long last, let's acknowledge and take advantage of the benefits of a president from Arkansas that have finally come our way.

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at jhankins@abpg.com.)

 

 

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