A Riverfront Renaissance in Little Rock, Arkansas

 
 

Dan Dickson
Published December 11, 2017

Little Rock, Arkansas’ state capital and largest city, has been busy reinventing itself. The city has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last decade and is now a surprise and a delight to the many tourists pouring into the area. The local convention and visitors bureau believes that it now has a highly marketable product to offer the public.

“We’ve got a wonderful destination in Little Rock,” said Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “From a tourism perspective, our job is to increase the awareness of all the offerings our community has. We find that people who visit Little Rock have a great experience, and they share that through word of mouth. But those who have never been here really don’t have a real perception of our city.”

The CVB wants to change that. It will get one opportunity August 7-9, 2018, when more than 100 travel planners and industry representatives arrive in Little Rock for the 2018 Going On Faith Conference.

“We have a good reputation on the meetings side and have a lot to offer the religious market,” said Hall. “The tour operators will find that out when they come here next summer.”

Beginning at the River

Little Rock’s transformation is most visible in the makeover of the city’s waterfront district along the Arkansas River.

“River Market District is our main entertainment hub for the city,” Hall said. “There are many offerings during the day, with restaurants, museums, art galleries, unique shops and attractions for families and the community. Then, in the evening, it is our nightlife central, with a variety of hot local bars, pubs and live entertainment.”

This premier entertainment neighborhood is compact and can be easily reached on foot from several key downtown hotels. Or, if visitors prefer, they can hop on the two-and-a-half-mile River Rail Electric Streetcar line to explore a little farther out from the downtown core.

Called one of the best public parks for its size in the country, Little Rock’s 33-acre downtown Riverfront Park is a community jewel. The newest attraction is the expansion of the already-impressive sculpture garden along the river. The garden displays 66 art pieces created by 48 artists, both locally and nationally known. The total value of the artwork is about $4 million.

“That display is free and open to the public, which can also walk or ride bikes on the 17-mile trail in the park,” Hall said. There are bike and Segway rentals and tours.

The park stretches on both sides of the Arkansas River in Little Rock and North Little Rock and is easy to reach by several interesting pedestrian bridges. The bridges themselves are an attraction.

“From dusk through dawn, three of our downtown bridges are illuminated with thousands of color LEDs, for a dazzling light display on the river,” said Hall. Special occasions bring spectacular light shows to the bridges.

Major Venue Renovation

Little Rock is proud to present a major renovation of Statehouse Plaza, a historic gem in downtown. “We are celebrating the one-year anniversary of the reopening of the Robinson Center,” said Hall. “It is on the National Register of Historic Places and originally opened in 1939. It was closed for about two years for a major refurbishing and expansion.”

The center contains convention, performance and exhibition space. The crown jewel of it all is a 2,600-seat, world-class music hall and performance theater. The Arkansas Symphony performs there, and various Broadway musicals and plays are presented there. The Robinson Center expansion includes a new attached, glass-enclosed conference center that overlooks the Arkansas River.

All of it is directly connected to the DoubleTree Hotel, which has undergone a major renovation of its own in the last year or so. Other major hotels in the downtown core are the Little Rock Marriott, which has also been completely updated in recent years; the venerable Capital Hotel, a historic hotel with modern amenities; and a brand-new Aloft boutique hotel.

Presidential Library

Arkansas is the birth state of former President Bill Clinton. On the riverfront in Little Rock, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center is one of 13 presidential libraries scattered around the country. The shape of the building resembles a bridge, which symbolizes Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s as a “bridge to the 21st century.” Inside is a full-scale replica of Clinton’s Oval Office, a reconstruction of the Cabinet Room, a personal look at life in the White House and a 110-foot timeline presenting American and world history through Clinton’s eight years in office.

For a city to be the site of a presidential library is a rarity. Little Rock is proud of it. “And this library was one of the first in the U.S. to have a focus on tourism,” said the CVB’s Hall. “That’s why it is located downtown. It is an educational institution but also a museum with all the archives. They have rotating exhibits to keep everything fresh, and it also has great event space. As part of Riverfront Park, it has been a catalyst for our previous 12 years of renaissance, growth and revitalization here in Little Rock.”

Right next door to the Clinton Center is the remarkable world headquarters of Heifer International. Imagine making a relatively modest financial contribution that will help reduce poverty and hunger in a tiny village in some Third World country. Heifer distributes animals like water buffalo, cows, sheep, chickens, hogs and even bees to people in these villages so that locals can use them for sustainable agriculture. The recipients are then required to “pay forward” their gift by donating an animal offspring and passing along their animal husbandry and agricultural skills to another needy person or family where they live. Groups that visit the headquarters can learn all about the process. “Visitors can get a real hands-on experience there,” said Hall.

Cultural Attractions

In the fall of 1957, Little Rock’s all-white Central High School was integrated by nine brave African-American students who became known as the Little Rock Nine. But it wasn’t easy. President Dwight Eisenhower called in the National Guard to help the students enroll and to quell angry mobs that rallied in protest in the streets around the high school. The incident drew national attention and became a key moment in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Today, that street corner is known as the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. There’s a visitors center that graphically presents in sights and sounds the events that happened there. “The oral history inside the museum is really wonderful,” said Hall. The old school building is still operating as a high school today, but depending on the day and time, a group can tour the building with a guide.

Cultural activities abound in Little Rock. The state’s largest professional theater is the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, operating in the heart of downtown. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra plays a regular schedule and is also known for its special holiday concerts around the Fourth of July and Christmas. In West Little Rock, Wildwood Park for the Arts has an impressive venue in which to present entertainment. It is located in a botanical garden.

The Arkansas Arts Center is a good choice for a group tour. It offers an art museum with many outstanding national and international collections, art classes, arts education programs and a theater company that turns children’s literary works into stage productions. The museum’s gift shop is a popular stop for visitors.

Verizon Arena, in Little Rock’s sister city of North Little Rock, offers the area’s top musical and family entertainment. The arena seats about 18,000 guests. Some of the top acts that have performed there are the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Tim McGraw, George Strait and Faith Hill. Up-and-coming musical acts also perform there. Not far from the arena is Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers, a AA-level professional baseball team. The team plays 70 home games during spring and summer, and the park is great for a group outing.