By Brian Jewell
It may be one of the greatest urban turnarounds in recent history. Over the past decade, downtown Little Rock has gone from a blighted industrial area to a vibrant, lively city center.
Arkansas’ capital city has seen a lot of change in recent years, much of it spurred on by the construction and opening of the Clinton Presidential Center. The announcement of that project led to an unprecedented influx of capital for development of other sites in the area, turning downtown into the heart of the city for locals and visitors alike.
Today, the fruit of all of that hard work is paying off for tour groups, which can find an array of top-flight attractions both downtown and throughout the city. In addition to enjoying the Clinton Center and other popular downtown destinations, groups will discover a variety of historic sites and exploration opportunities in and around Little Rock.
A Dramatic Transformation
The transformation of Little Rock began with the announcement that the Clinton Presidential Center would be built downtown. In the years since the library opened in 2004, the hits have just kept coming.
“In the eight years since the Clinton Center opened, more than $2.25 billion worth of redevelopment and infrastructure has taken place,” said John Mayner, vice president of marketing and communications at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If you haven’t been to Little Rock in 10 years, you wouldn’t recognize the place.”
Much of the redevelopment has taken place downtown along the banks of the Arkansas River, creating an area known as the River Market District. Anchored by the Clinton Center on one end, the city’s convention center on the other, the River Market District gives group travelers plenty of ways to enjoy Little Rock’s charms.
There are several attractions in the area that groups can visit together, such as an amphitheater and the Heifer International complex. But the River Market District also makes an ideal place to turn groups loose for free time. Travelers will find a variety of innovative restaurants, bars and other entertainment establishments, as well as a first-rate farm market and numerous shops. An afternoon spent strolling this neighborhood at leisure will be one of your group’s best experiences in Little Rock.
A Presidential Legacy
No day in the River Market District would be complete without a visit to the Clinton Presidential Center, which is the first presidential library to be built specifically with tourists in mind. The galleries and museum exhibits at the museum make a fascinating stop for tourists of any political persuasion.
The museum gives visitors an overview of Clinton’s life and his political career, beginning with a film in which Clinton narrates the story of his childhood and early public service. From there, guests move into an area that re-creates Clinton’s Cabinet room, complete with replicas of the tables and chairs used there during daily discussions.
Next, visitors can peek into a complete, full-scale replica of the Oval Office that re-creates Clinton’s presidential workplace in exact detail. Docents identify paintings on the walls and explain Clinton’s reasoning for choosing each during his time in office.
From there, groups move into the two exhibits that make up the heart of the museum. One is a time line detailing each year of Clinton’s presidency, and another outlines the major issues and efforts of his presidency. The galleries on the second floor of the museum depict daily life inside the White House and include displays of gifts to the Clintons during their time in office.
A Helping Hand
Adjacent to the Clinton Center’s grounds is the world headquarters of Heifer International, a charitable organization that combats hunger and poverty around the world through gifts of livestock.
A visit to the complex starts at Heifer Village, which tells guests more about the organization’s mission.
“The Heifer Village is very hands-on for groups,” said Jane Malton-Mages, the convention and visitors bureau’s director of tourism sales. “They can see how it started with just a heifer and how it has totally transformed full villages. Docents take groups through and answer all of their questions about what they’re doing around the world.”
Groups can also tour the main headquarters building, which has been recognized as one of the leading “green” facilities in the area; the building attained a platinum certification from the LEED organization. Guides point out some of the resource-saving mechanisms and processes that enable the headquarters to use just 38 percent of the energy a normal building of its size would consume. The architects who designed the facility sourced all of its materials from within 500 miles of the site; they include steel recycled from nearby railroad cars and wall insulation made of soybeans from Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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