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Clinton Presidential Center marks 20th anniversary of its groundbreaking

Former President Bill Clinton along with officials from the Clinton Foundation and local leaders break ground on his presidential library on Dec. 5, 2001.
Clinton Foundation
Former President Bill Clinton along with officials from the Clinton Foundation and local leaders break ground on his presidential library on Dec. 5, 2001.

The Clinton Presidential Center reopened its doors to in-person visitors on November 1. U.S. borders reopened to international travel last month, though travelers from some countries have been barred again recently out of precaution against the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Sunday will mark 20 years since former President Bill Clinton, along with local leaders and associates, used shovels to dig into dirt along the Arkansas River for a ceremonial groundbreaking for his presidential library. It would open three years later and become one of the top tourist destinations in the state.

Choosing a location for a presidential library is a competitive process and it was hoped Clinton’s library, which was built on the grounds of a former railroad complex, would attract visitors and new businesses to the area, spurring growth in Arkansas’s capital city.

That location and a site in North Little Rock where Dickey-Stephens Park was eventually built were the top two finalists. But Skip Rutherford, the former president of the Clinton Foundation and later dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, said in a 2015 interview that there were concerns the site on the north side of the Arkansas River was susceptible to flooding.

Along with the construction of a new presidential library, a $4 million grant from the Sturges Trust funded the renovation of a century-old railroad passenger station on the property to become the home for the Clinton Foundation and the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service.

The 1899 Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad passenger station is today home to the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Foundation.
David Monteith
The 1899 Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad passenger station is today home to the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Foundation.

During the ceremony on Dec. 5, 2001, Mr. Clinton spoke for a half-hour, thanking the many people who had been instrumental in his political career. The library would hold the archives of his presidency and he joked about his poor handwriting on documents that would eventually be unsealed. He also spoke about his vision for the center.

“The mission of this library and foundation indeed will be largely devoted to the future. The spirit behind the whole project is not only to help people understand what was going on in America over the eight years I served as president, but mostly to help them understand what kind of country we are becoming, what our opportunities and responsibilities at home and abroad are, and what kinds of choices we should make,” Clinton said.

A little less than three years later on Nov. 18, 2004, the former president returned for the grand opening of the Clinton Presidential Center. A heavy downpour of rain that day didn’t dampen the excitement as Clinton was joined by former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

As rain came down, U2’s Bono and the Edge came out to perform a brief set, which they opened with a cover of the Beatles song “Rain,” adding the line, “We got four presidents out of bed.”

Former President George H.W. Bush, who lost his bid for a second term to Clinton in 1992, spoke of his opponent’s political skills.

“Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times,” said the elder Mr. Bush. “Trust me, I learned this the hard way. Here in Arkansas, you might say he grew to become the Sam Walton of national retail politics.”

According to Rutherford, the grand opening was the second biggest event in Little Rock’s history in terms of the number of visitors from outside the area attending. The largest, he said, was a 1911 50th anniversary reunion of the United Confederate Veterans.

It was hoped renovation of a nearby railroad bridge over the Arkansas River, which had been saved from being torn down in the mid-1990s by the efforts of then-Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays, and Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines, would be completed in time for the grand opening of the library. but higher than expected costs meant it would take several more years of fundraising, finally opening as a pedestrian and cycling bridge by Clinton during a ceremony in 2011.

Rock Island Clinton Presidential Park Bridge Bill Clinton
Michael Hibblen
Former President Bill Clinton speaks during a dedication ceremony on Sept. 30, 2011 to mark the long-awaited completion of work to renovate a former Rock Island Railroad bridge into a span that will complete the Arkansas River Trail.

In the 17 years since the library’s grand opening, it has become one of the most visited tourist sites in the area, according to Clinton Presidential Center spokesman Ben Thielemeier.

“I don’t know if we expected that we would become the number one tourist destination in Little Rock, and perhaps the state, but since November 2004, over those 17 years, more than 4.9 million people have visited the Clinton Center,” Thielemeier said.

The center draws visitors for many purposes. A trove of research documents and artifacts from the Clinton presidency are on permanent display. A number of national and world leaders have given public talks in the facility’s large ballroom and meeting space. It also has the only full-size model Oval Office in any presidential library.

The library has also featured a wide range of historical and artistic exhibits over the years. Most exhibitions have been on pause since the COVID-19 pandemic began and the site has been closed to in-person visitors until recently. Thielemeier said an exhibit originally set to open in September 2020 has been delayed until March 2022.

Ann Kamps, manager of volunteer and visitor services, has been with the Clinton Presidential Center since before it opened. She says the library is one of the primary reasons some visitors come to Little Rock.

“It’s not like we’re Dallas or New York or Los Angeles or Boston. We are Little Rock, Arkansas. People come here expressly to come to the Presidential Center.”

Kamps says the days former President Clinton visits the library are still the biggest highlights for visitors and volunteers. He maintains an apartment above the library.

According to records from the center, which allows visitors to voluntarily identify where they’re from, at least 2 to 2.5%, or over 100,000 visitors, have come from abroad since 2004.

“One of the first groups that I can remember touring was the Elvis Presley fan club from Paris,” Kamps said.

Libby Lloyd, communications director for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the Clinton Presidential Center and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site are the two biggest draws for the region. She’s hopeful they can revive tourism that has dropped since the onset of the pandemic.

“President Clinton still draws a lot of interest with international visitors, of course. So, we do look forward to, now that their doors are reopened and now that our borders’ doors are reopened, we’re hoping that will continue to drive international visitation, as it has in the past,” Lloyd said.

The Clinton Presidential Center reopened it's doors to in-person visitors on Nov. 1.
David Monteith
The Clinton Presidential Center reopened it's doors to in-person visitors on Nov. 1.

Travis Napper, director of Arkansas Tourism with the state’s Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism said, the number of tourists visiting from abroad had increased more than 13% between 2014 and 2019.

“The prediction is that it would take until at least 2024 for Arkansas to get back to the same range as our 2019 visitation and spending because of the pandemic disruptions. However, our domestic visitation numbers have been strong for the past 6 months, so we are excited about the impacts of the incremental growth of the overseas international market now that the border has been opened,” Napper said in an email.

David Monteith worked as a reporter for KUAR News between 2015 and July 2022.
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