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Big changes in Little Rock
The capital city of Arkansas is undergoing a rejuvenation in its downtown with updated attractions and a renewed spirit

Published: Mar/Apr 2003
By Margaret Dornaus

The River Market District has been rejuvenated (top). The Capital hotel has been renovated in recent years (bottom right). /Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photos.
You don’t have to be a seasoned explorer to find out what’s new in Arkansas’s capital city, Little Rock. But, like Bernard de la Harpe, the 18th-century French explorer who named Little Rock, you do need to point yourself in the right direction: to the city’s newly rejuvenated downtown.

Not long ago, Little Rock’s river-rimmed downtown at night could have been described as a deserted isle. That has changed. Office workers who once fled the area at the stroke of five are finding many reasons for lingering after hours. An impressive revitalization is underway, giving residents and visitors more to enjoy in this capital city.

Plans are rollin’ on the river

Until recent efforts to revitalize Little Rock’s downtown, the biggest happening along the riverfront was Riverfest–a Memorial Day weekend music extravaganza that attracts thousands to the Riverfront Park Amphitheater. More than $350 million will be spent to revive the once waterlogged district, and downtown Little Rock is enjoying a well-celebrated renaissance. The riverfront has become a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly district that’s as grand as the promenade deck of a riverboat paddle-wheeler.

Innovative city planning–as well as an influx of interest spawned by the scheduled 2004 opening of Bill Clinton’s 28-acre riverfront presidential library complex, which will include an academic center as well as a museum–has transformed the area into an energetic center for visitors and residents. Interactive museums, upscale boutiques and hotels, trendy nightclubs and restaurants fill the urban landscape once blighted by abandoned buildings and boarded-up riverfront warehouses. More improvements are, quite literally, just around the river’s bend.

At the center of this rebirth is an eight-block area renamed the River Market District. This compact space flanked by President Clinton Avenue (formerly East Markham Street) includes specialty shops, pubs and restaurants. Attractions include the Museum of Discovery, where guests can conduct scientific experiments or create a robot. The crown jewel of the development is Ottenheimer Market Hall, a 11,550-square-foot, sun-lit space housing gourmet food and specialty vendors selling everything from espresso to barbecue to baba ghanoush, a Vietnamese eggplant dish. Here, from early spring to late fall, local farmers proffer a variety of fresh wares (tomatoes, butter beans, goat cheese) under colorful, canopied stalls that delineate the market’s adjacent outdoor pavilions.

On the far side of the Arkansas River in North Little Rock, the $80 million Alltel Arena is a state-of-the-art, 11-story center for performing artists, as well as the home of Little Rock’s East Coast Hockey League team (the Arkansas RiverBlades). The arena’s imposing riverfront placement currently links the two distinct urban areas. The planned addition of a pedestrian path bridging the river–part of a 14-mile Millennium Trail project spanning 7,000 acres of city, county, state and federal park land–will bind the communities together even more closely.

Little Rock-based Heifer International–a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting world hunger and poverty–plans to relocate its global headquarters to a 30-acre site adjacent to the library by 2005. The complex will include the first global village (an authentic representation of five of the world’s most impoverished areas, designed to provide visitors with a simulated learning experience) placed in an urban setting.

Around the river bend

Other area attractions–such as the city’s six-story-high IMAX Theater at the Aerospace Education Center and the Arkansas Arts Center with its world-class collection of drawings–already lie just south of the riverfront district. Recent expansions to such downtown landmarks add even more substance to the newly revitalized district.

Don’t miss the Historic Arkansas Museum (formerly known as the Territorial Restoration), a collection of early 19th-century buildings, where living historians re-enact frontier life on the river. Nearby, the Old State House Museum is where Arkansas legislators first convened in 1836, and Clinton delivered his election night victory speeches in 1992 and ’96.

Located next door to the Old State House is a 60,000-square-foot convention center where trade shows and fairs exhibit throughout the year. Directly across the street is one of Little Rock’s grandest old hotels, The Capital (a AAA Four-Diamond property), renovated in recent years to reveal the glamour and grace President Ulysses S. Grant experienced when he was a guest there. Ashley’s at the Capital offers up AAA-Four Diamond recognized service. Other recent downtown hotel renovations and remodels include openings of The Peabody, with its lobby bar and fountain splashing with the hotel’s signature ducks. The hotel has attained AAA’s Four Diamond rating. A $2 million facelift has transformed the old City Center Hotel into a new Radisson, offering 261 rooms and 7,000 square feet of meeting space. New lofts and condominiums, located in converted river market warehouse space, have helped secure downtown’s re-emergence as both a commercial and residential area.

Heading west along the river is the city’s historic Union Station, where the Children’s Museum of Arkansas features interactive exhibits. And just south of the station is the Capitol, built from 1899-1915 on the site of the old state penitentiary. Constructed mostly of native limestone, the domed Capitol features a 160-foot-high rotunda hung with three enormous chandeliers.

Southwest of the Capitol is the site of Little Rock’s infamous 1957 struggle over desegregation, Central High School: a fully operational school and historic landmark. Across the street, the Central High Museum and Visitor’s Center (housed in a former Mobil station) recounts the story of the Little Rock Crisis. A fitting companion landmark, the Daisy Bates House, is currently being restored as a museum with an anticipated opening of summer/fall, 2003. It is the former home of the Civil Rights activist who, as president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, served as a mentor for the nine black students who broke through Central High’s color barrier.

Another house with an historical connection is the governor’s mansion. In the nearby MacArthur Park district–named for Gen. Douglas MacArthur–the Decorative Arts Museum occupies an 1840 Greek Revival house. For more history on Arkansas’s most famous general, visit his birthplace, now the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, which highlights the state’s military heritage from its Territorial roots to the present.

Still don’t know what to see? Then head for the city’s visitor information center, which is in a renovated 1842 antebellum home–one of a handful remaining in Little Rock–known as Curran Hall. The guides there will steer you in the right direction as you continue to explore “la petite roche” that’s grown into the big city of Little Rock.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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