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The Clinton Presidential Center is crowded with visitors as I walk through the building on a Friday afternoon. I'm here to see the White House Collection of American Crafts, which was commissioned by Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993. The collection includes 73 works of metal, ceramic, fiber, glass and wood from artists across the country. Hillary Clinton came to Little Rock for the opening of the exhibition in September. It runs through March of next year.

The items were displayed in the formal public rooms at the White House during Bill Clinton's first year as president. They're now part of the archives in Little Rock. The photos that have been hung behind them give a sense of where they were in the White House.

"When we say crafts, it can mean something else in Arkansas," I'm told by one person at the exhibit. "We have to explain to people that we're not talking about jams and brooms."

That comment makes me smile. This isn't War Eagle. It also gets me to thinking about the incredible array of public institutions in downtown Little Rock and the opportunities they offer those of us who live in the area. Just four days earlier, I had been on the grounds to hear noted Southern historian Raymond Arsenault speak about his book on tennis icon Arthur Ashe. It was part of the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service. The lectures are free, there are multiple events each month and the quality of the speakers is along the lines of what I had come to expect when I lived in Washington, D.C. I've always considered this lecture series to be one of the best parts of living in central Arkansas.

Within walking distance of this venue, the state operates three outstanding museums where I find myself on a regular basis for lectures, concerts and other events--the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Old State House and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.

In the River Market District, young people will find plenty to occupy their time at the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Central Arkansas Nature Center and the Museum of Discovery. There's also the marvelous main campus of the Central Arkansas Library System. Heifer International's headquarters provides plenty for visitors to see. There's one of the most beautiful state capitols in America and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Throw in the recently renovated Robinson Center and the quality of the shows it now features, the parks along the Arkansas River, the bridges for pedestrians and cyclists that cross the river and the lights on the bridges at night.

Over at MacArthur Park, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History has reopened following a renovation and the adjacent Arkansas Arts Center is about to embark on a $70 million expansion.

The leaders of most places the size of Little Rock would give anything to have such an assortment of amenities within a few miles of each other. That leads me to ask this question: Why isn't the private sector taking advantage of what the public and nonprofit sectors have done? While downtown Little Rock has added hotels, restaurants, apartments and condominiums, it hasn't seen the types of private-sector investments that one witnesses in nearby cities such as Nashville, Oklahoma City and Memphis.

The two tallest buildings on Main Street are empty and deteriorating. The bank towers along Capitol Avenue are aging and tired looking from the outside. Capitol Avenue itself is crumbling. If you drive too fast between the Simmons Bank Tower and the Regions Bank building, you'll have to pay to have your vehicle aligned.

You can drive on Interstate 40 through downtown Oklahoma City, Memphis and Nashville and see the construction cranes. Where are the cranes in downtown Little Rock? Yes, even the old river city two hours to the east is experiencing a huge influx of private-sector money downtown.

"As Southern cities like Charlotte, Austin and Nashville continue their record-setting pace of development and expansion, many have overlooked the building boom taking place in Memphis," Patrick Sisson writes for Curbed. "Best known for its rich music history and its pivotal role in the civil rights movement, the riverfront city has seen a real estate rebirth. More than $13 billion in revitalization projects has reshaped Memphis' downtown over the past four years and, according to Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Advisors, tourism grew 13 percent between 2012 and 2017. The city's Main Street trolley line relaunched in April.

"Earlier this summer, New York-based real estate firm Townhouse Management announced plans to rehabilitate an abandoned 37-story high-rise, 100 North Main, as part of a deal that would bring 500 luxury residential units, a Loews Hotel and roughly $1 billion of commercial and residential development to a sleepy stretch of downtown. Along with the $225 million One Beale project--a multi-use hotel, retail and office project on the riverfront--it promises to reshape downtown. While a project featuring significant investment from an out-of-town firm (100 North Main) has grabbed headlines, in many ways the high-rise rehab plan is indicative of the deliberate development transforming Memphis. It's also just the latest big-name project adding to the magnetism of this mid-size city. ... Other signature developments recently completed or in the works -- Crosstown Commons, an abandoned 1.5 million-square-foot Sears distribution facility turned 'vertical village,' the $55 million re-imagining of an Amtrak station, the redevelopment of the Tennessee Brewery building, which includes 700 apartments; and the conversion of an old Wonder Bread factory into residences--have focused on adaptive reuse."

Granted, Memphis is far larger than Little Rock. But there are lessons here for Arkansas' largest city. The public and nonprofit sectors have always carried too much of the load in Little Rock. It's time to unleash the private sector downtown. That should be part of the job description for the man Little Rock voters select as their mayor later this month. This is far too important to leave to economic developers.

Beginning in January, the new mayor must hit the road while taking on the role of salesman. He can promote the amenities discussed at the start of this column. In the process, he hopefully can attract the private outside investment the city so desperately needs.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 11/04/2018

Print Headline: Attracting private dollars

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  • drs01
    November 4, 2018 at 4:25 p.m.

    Rex - were it not for state government buildings, developer project using tax advantages grants, city projects like the Tech Park ($22 Million), Robinson re-make, and the city park gift to the Clintons, what would downtown really be? Private investment is based on financial facts, not "build it and they will come" field of dreams analysis. Maybe smart money knows something other than the passion you and local chamber have for downtown revitalization. I hope the new mayor recognizes that we are a city with 7 wards, not one; that we don't need to give the chamber or downtown partnership $450,000 each year to promote one small section of our city.

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