Little Rock banks on Clinton foibles

Growth: As construction on the former president's library nears, leaders see his woes as its main selling point -- and a key to the city's future.

April 05, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The nation may struggle to reconcile the prosperity of the Clinton years with the 42nd president's seamier side, but for Little Rock, they are inseparable.

Construction is set to begin here on the $110 million William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. Far from trying to cover up the unsavory moments of the Clinton administration, city leaders call them the library's main selling point and a key to the city's future.

"The controversy ... will make our library much more interesting, much more attractive," said Skip Rutherford, an advertising executive and professional Friend of Bill who has been Clinton's local point man on the library. "It's the dull libraries that you worry about."

Whether the nation's intense interest in Clinton will improve the city's reputation is unclear.

This is a place accustomed to national embarrassment. Before Clinton, about the only thing people knew about Little Rock was that angry mobs (and the National Guard) stopped nine black students from integrating Central High School in 1957. Arkansas was the inspiration for the Li'l Abner cartoons and the state with the congressman who got caught driving drunk with a stripper.

After eight years of a Clinton presidency, Little Rock is now the place where politicians got involved in shady land deals, law firm billing records conveniently disappeared and the governor allegedly propositioned a state worker in a hotel room.

But local leaders, who fought hard to win the library, point to signs that it has been good for business in Little Rock's improving River Market District.

The River Market's array of shops, bars and restaurants had resuscitated the once-dead downtown, but the prospect of tourist trade, a public policy center and researchers combing through millions of documents at the library has drastically increased the pace of construction.

After the Clinton library announcement, Acxiom, a telecommunications company, unveiled plans to build a $50 million office tower nearby. Soon after, the Heifer Project, an international relief organization, said it would build a $30 million headquarters next door. And the talk of the town is a new building with high-end offices and condominiums in which actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen just bought two units.

"The Clinton library investment is pushing the edge of development downtown," said Jimmy Moses, a prominent Little Rock developer. "Our comfort level grows geometrically with that kind of investment."

But, as with all things Clinton, the library hasn't been without its share of controversy.

The library made national headlines when one of its major donors turned out to be Denise Rich, whose former husband, fugitive financier Marc Rich, became the beneficiary of a Clinton pardon. But locally, it has been the stuff of scandal from the beginning.

The deal for the land

As part of the deal to get the library, Little Rock had to provide the land. This is standard practice for presidential libraries, but Little Rock didn't own the land and didn't have the $11 million on hand it needed to buy it.

So, in the spring of 1998, the city board of directors authorized revenue bonds, to be paid back from park revenue, and prepared to condemn the dilapidated warehouses on the library site under a law allowing a city to take property for parks and other public purposes.

The move sparked two lawsuits by residents. One claimed that the bond issue was illegal and should have been subject to a public vote. The other said the condemnations were illegal because a presidential library didn't qualify as a park.

The litigants maintained that their suits were a matter of principle, not politics. But an undercurrent of squeamishness about Clinton permeated the debate.

Initially, proponents suggested paying for the land by adding to the hotel and restaurant tax, but the city board, under pressure from the community, balked at raising taxes.

While library backers looked for other means of funding, reports of an affair between the president and a White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky, were steadily gaining credibility. Library boosters on the city board said they explained their decision to issue revenue bonds (instead of general obligation bonds, which would have been subject to a vote) as a matter of expediency. But they were also terrified that voters would reject the deal.

"History caught up with us," said Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a city director (the equivalent of a city councilman) who worked to land the library. "The politics in Washington and what was going on up there made it a little hard to think you're going to succeed in referring something to the voters when you're talking about impeaching someone."

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