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With many areas revitalized, Little Rock, Ark., is ready to welcome new visitors

River Market, Main Street among areas that have been going through a renaissance in Little Rock, Ark.
BY PETER WRIGHT Modified: July 19, 2013 at 12:30 am •  Published: July 21, 2013

There's one spot on the grounds of the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock where visitors are surrounded by 19th-century buildings with actors explaining the local history of slavery in first person.

From that same point, towering over an ivy-covered fence is a gleaming, new condominium.

From the state Capitol east along the southern bank of the Arkansas River to the Clinton National Library, downtown Little Rock is framed by politics and history. In the last decade, however, things sped up, and locals are touting a renaissance in the core of their city.

“If people haven't been here in the past 10 years, they have no idea. They wouldn't recognize it anymore,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of Downtown Little Rock Partnership.

River Market

A streetcar runs down the middle of President Clinton Avenue, stopping just a few blocks from the Clinton Library before turning north to complete its route, circling part of the River Market district.

River Market was the first area to undergo a transformation, Priest said. Its centerpiece is Ottenheimer Market Hall, a bustling indoor collection of independent booths with different international foods and outdoor pavilions for a farmers' market.

The hall is surrounded by a host of bars and restaurants that go well with beer. A few specialty stores are mixed in, and most of the city's condos are within walking distance.

Out the back door of the hall is an urban park couched on the riverbank with an amphitheater and a collection of public art. A multiuse trail runs along both sides of the river, with two imposing rail bridges converted for pedestrians downtown and a two more crossings about seven miles upstream.

The convention center with an attached hotel sits on one end of the district — with the Clinton Library at the other. Priest said shortly after the market hall and a branch of the local library system had moved into the then-mostly vacant neighborhood, rumors began spreading about presidential plans.

“People started opening some restaurants and some retail. Things just started to take off,” she said.

James “Skip” Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, had a prime view of the changes when he coordinated the planning and construction of the presidential library. Between 1997 and 2001 he led a “public-private partnership” between the library and the city.

“It was a labor of love because it really set in motion the transformation of downtown Little Rock,” Rutherford said.

As plans for the library came together, he worked with developers to attract hotels with different pricing levels downtown, and he met with city planners as they designed the riverfront park. From the beginning, the library was part of a vision for a new and newly visited neighborhood.

“I just say Chicago has its magnificent mile, and we have our magnificent six blocks,” he said.

The library itself is a massive, aluminum-plated structure that juts toward the river like the end of a bridge. Inside, exhibits rotate, but there is a permanent, painstakingly detailed recreation of the Oval Office from Clinton's two terms.

Next door, the international headquarters for Heifer International features an exhibit about the nonprofit.

The Clinton School, which is located on the same grounds, hosts a lecture series that is always open to the public and any travelers who are looking for something to do, Rutherford said. The day before, he was interviewed the speaker was Sanjay Gupta.

Not everything along the river is new. The Old State House Museum offers a free trip through the history of Arkansas in, as the name suggests, the state's original legislative chambers. Bill Clinton's tennis shoes from 1992 and a collection of inaugural dresses from state first ladies are on display there. The current capitol is further up the street.

Main Street

South from the convention center and bordering Little Rock's business district is one of the biggest redevelopment projects in town.

Although it only has about half the population of Oklahoma City, which still makes it the biggest city in the state, Little Rock went through the same suburbanization. As people moved out, Main Street's rows of old-style department stores were shuttered and nothing took their place.

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