Airport Gets $67M Renovation; Bill, Hillary Clinton to Attend Friday's Formal Dedication

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 12:00 am  

On a brisk, sun-charged day last week, workmen on ladders were hoisting letters onto the giant sign telling visitors they’re entering the precincts of the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport.

The former president and the former secretary of state are scheduled to attend a May 3 event marking the completion of a $67 million renovation and formally dedicating the Little Rock National Airport’s new name.

It’s a name prompting smirks by some of the usual Arkansas-bashing suspects — the New York Daily News last week devoted 300 words to the jokes conflating the Bill & Hill name to Hillbilly Airport. But if airport officials are aware of the joshing, they’re not letting on.

Instead, for airport officials, the occasion presents an opportunity to showcase Phase 1 of the airport commission’s “Vision 2020” plan: a larger, lighter and brighter lobby, a sophisticated baggage-screening system and, of course, the international cachet of the Clinton connection.

Kay Kelley Arnold, chairman of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, noted that the ticket lobby was 40 years old. “We’ve nearly tripled the number of yearly enplaned passengers since the lobby opened in 1972,” she said. “The improved lobby is modern, larger and will set an architectural standard that will be used throughout future construction.”

(For more from Arnold, see this week's Exec Q&A.)

For the airport’s executive director, Ron Mathieu, the renovation helps the airport — the state’s “front door” — establish a sense of place and provides travelers with a better airport experience.

Both Mathieu and Arnold cited the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, as one to emulate. Mathieu went so far as to count monitors to ensure Little Rock’s airport surpassed Austin.

The welcome starts in the lobby with a giant mural photograph of a night-time Little Rock skyline on the east wall. And airport officials are working with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, the city of Little Rock and the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism to highlight photos of Arkansas attractions throughout the airport, complete with narratives describing them. In addition, a message of welcome from the mayor appears on the electronic sign leading travelers from the gates to baggage claim.

Said airport spokesman Shane Carter: “We really tried to capture the various geographic areas of the state and be able to show that experience to those who walk through.”

“It’s interesting because we didn’t really have all of this technology before and so we tended to act as just an airport, as just a transportation hub,” Mathieu said. “Well, now that we have all these mediums of communication for customers, it really has brought us much closer to CVB, chamber, city, state Parks & Tourism and so forth because we are, as we should be, an arm of the tourist and tourism activity in not only the city but the state as well.”

And, Carter added, the airport has completed the renovation without taking on any new debt. In fact, in February, the airport paid off about $6.9 million in bonds issued in 1999, years ahead of the scheduled payoff in 2019. The action saved the airport about $2.1 million in debt service, Mathieu said.



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