Clinton's 'boyhood home' scuffles with 'birthplace'

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

August 28, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

HOT SPRINGS -- Earlier this month, when the Arkansas town of Hope erected a billboard along Interstate 30 declaring itself Bill Clinton's "birthplace," this city 80 miles northeast answered with a 40-foot banner across Central Avenue proclaiming itself his "boyhood home."

The sudden burst of pride in the Democratic presidential candidate has less to do with honoring a hometown boy than with cashing in on his newfound celebrity.

Truth is, neither community did much public bragging about their governor -- who was born in Hope and moved at age 7 to Hot Springs -- until he received the nomination last month. But then tour operators and tourists began to call and visit, asking what they could see of his roots.

Caught by surprise, civic leaders and merchants in both towns ** are rushing to print maps identifying big and small landmarks of Mr. Clinton's life, from the houses he lived in to the place he bought his shoes to the service station where teen-age Bill gassed up his big-finned Buick.

Naturally, merchants are hoping that tourists stay in their hotels, eat at their restaurants and buy products from what has become an overnight industry: Clinton souvenirs.

Naturally, there is competition between the towns, not only for tourist dollars but for the spotlight. Some in Hope believe the issue was decided when, in his speech accepting the nomination, Mr. Clinton said, "I still believe in a place called Hope."

"Hope has received so much attention because of the national Democratic convention," said Janine Allen, assistant to the vice president of the Hope Chamber of Commerce. "So in a sense that handed tourists to us."

Whoa there, say Hot Springs boosters. If tourists go anywhere, ++ it's logical that they'd come to their city. After all, Hope is but a small burg of 10,000, one-third the size of Hot Springs, and its only other claim to fame is the annual Watermelon Festival.

Hot Springs "is literally a world-famous resort," boasts Marla Crider-DeLille, sales director for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, referring to the spas, parks and lakes that draw visitors. "Tourism is the No. 1 industry here."

Hot Springs can also lay claim to having as a resident Mr. Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley.

While Ms. Crider-DeLille prefers to play down the rivalry, saying "the press is making more out of this than it's been," the folks in Hope suspect Hot Springs is upset about a smaller rival trying to get a share of the glory and gold.

"They're really bent out of shape about this," says John Miller, managing editor of the Hope Star.

Both Hope and Hot Springs are beginning to make some money from Clinton-inspired tourism. Hot Springs officials say two busloads of senior citizens from out of state will tour Clinton sites in late September and early October.

Though initially unprepared, city officials quickly met with the governor's friends and with his mother to develop a tour brochure that is being printed now. Humorous and anecdotal, the brochure includes information on John's Esso service center on West Grand Street, now Leo's Exxon, where the young Clinton brought his car.

It will note that when his feet grew from size 12 to size 13 and the store where he bought shoes demanded an extra dollar, the frugal youth switched to Arky House, a discount store that still exists.

The brochure also will inform visitors that one night when he was performing in a Hot Springs High School production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," and a girl kissed him on stage, his younger half-brother, Roger, brought down the house by standing up and shouting, "Stop kissing my brother!"

The possibility of Mr. Clinton's election has people hoping that today's stream of tourists will become a river of prosperity.

In Hope, Mr. Miller already has conferred with people in Plains, Ga., the even smaller town where the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, lived. Nearly 12 years after Mr. Carter left office, Plains is still receiving 74,000 visitors annually, Mr. Miller says.

He has learned that the crush of visitors to Plains was so bad that the town had to bring in portable toilets and residents were forced to shop in another town to avoid the crowds.

But it wasn't all bad.

"It's like they told us in Plains," Mr. Miller said. "There's nothing you can do about it except sit back and enjoy it and watch the money roll in."

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