Thursday, February 10, 2005

Fewer visitors than expected have dropped by the much-ballyhooed, $165 million Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., since its November gala opening, but one VIP has been trying to make up for that: President Clinton himself.

“I understand he’s here regularly,” says Todd Scholl, director of marketing for Little Rock’s Peabody Hotel.

And what does the former president do?

“That’s a good question,” says Mr. Scholl.

The former president recently showed up unannounced at a private reception at the library and has become so ubiquitous that a guest at another event this week approached Skip Rutherford, president of the William J. Clinton Foundation, and asked, “Is Bill here tonight?”

Mr. Clinton has been entertaining old friends in the museum’s two-bedroom penthouse apartment, overlooking the Arkansas River. The apartment is also known as the “Executive Suite,” and Mr. Clinton plans to spend an average of one week each month there. He used to bunk at his mother-in-law’s condo before getting the new pad that his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, has not visited since November.

“It’s awesome,” says David Leopoulos, a boyhood friend of Mr. Clinton’s. “Stereo, big-screen TV, lots of technology. It’s really neat.”

The penthouse, which is just beyond Mr. Clinton’s private office — ironically, oval-shaped, is “all glass. And it’s very modern. Ethnic art. And the view is incredible. It’s like floating in air,” says Mr. Leopoulos, 58, who refers to Mr. Clinton as “the Big Kahuna.”

Whether it’s nostalgia for his days in the White House, Mr. Clinton told Mr. Rutherford that “he wants to spend several hours just by himself” roaming the library, which houses the largest collection of presidential papers and artifacts in the United States.

“He will spend time greeting guests at the library. He enjoys that,” says Mr. Rutherford. “I think it’s a thrill for any president to go through your library.”

Mr. Leopoulos says Mr. Clinton “loved” his old job. “If he could be president again tomorrow, he would be.”

No doubt one of Mr. Clinton’s favorite exhibits is the exact replica of the Oval Office, meticulously cloned by Little Rock interior designer Kaki Hockersmith. Miss Hockersmith, who decorated the real Oval Office for Mr. Clinton, even grew the ivy on the fireplace from a cutting of the plant in the actual White House.

The fake Oval Office is where Mr. Clinton recently taped a television commercial with former President George Bush to raise money for tsunami relief. Another personal favorite, Mr. Rutherford says, is the exhibit of “Head of State” gifts.

And if Mr. Clinton gets a hunger for the munchies, he can pop down to “Cafe 42” for a few of Hillary’s famous chocolate-chip cookies.

Mr. Clinton, who plans to overnight at the penthouse whenever he has a speaking engagement in town, invited Mr. Leopoulos and his wife, as well as his first high-school date, Mauria Aspell, and her husband over the other night for a game of hearts.

“It was a hoot,” Mr. Leopoulos says.

He took them for a personal tour of the glass-and-steel modern building, dubbed by detractors as the world’s largest “semi-wide trailer.”

In fact, one problem the library did not anticipate is the number of RV’s pulling into the parking lot. “We do not have hookups,” Mr. Rutherford says. The library Web site now includes information on nearby trailer parks.

Although the library originally said it had drawn more than 100,000 visitors in the first six weeks of its opening, the National Archives and Records Administration, which operates the library, told U.S. News & World Report that only 42,045 visitors actually paid the $7 to enter. The rest of the visitors were VIPs, journalists and other nonpaying guests.

Although Clinton supporters predicted that 50,000 persons would attend the star-studded Nov. 18 dedication, where actors Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt mingled with the locals, the true number was closer to 20,000, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

By comparison, Mr. Bush’s presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M in College Station — which also has a presidential apartment — drew 67,677 paying visitors in a comparable period in 1997, between Nov. 5 and Dec. 31.

In 1991, the Ronald Reagan library at Simi Valley, Calif., drew 69,152 paying visitors between its Nov. 4 dedication and Dec. 31.

The weather was dreadful for the opening — a steady downpour, and winter, though usually mild in Arkansas, is not usually the high tourist season. Over Thanksgiving weekend, 21,525 visitors toured the Clinton presidential library at no charge.

Meanwhile, the library is not paid for.

“We’re close,” says Mr. Rutherford, who confirmed that the library is still trying to raise funds for the “operational phase” of the project.

City officials and library organizers predicted that the Clinton library would bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists and conventioneers, who would boost the economy annually by millions of dollars. Those predictions now seem optimistic.

“There definitely was hype about what it could bring to the city,” says the Peabody Hotel’s Mr. Scholl.

A large percentage of library visitors are schoolchildren and seniors — not your average tourist with disposable incomes — and the location of the library, right off two interstate highways (30 and 40), makes it easy for visitors to do a drive-by visit rather than staying in Little Rock.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a bust” for local business, says Aaron Novotny, a waiter at Brave New Restaurant, “but I haven’t seen any significant difference.”

Mary Beth Ringgold, who owns two popular Little Rock restaurants, Cajun’s Wharf and Capers, says the effect of the Clinton library “may not be as dramatic as people wanted it to be. I think their attitude was, get the schoolkids and seniors. Get the masses there.”

But some establishments near the library say they are doing steady business.

“I don’t know what’s going on in other parts of town, but we’re doing really well,” says Ben Biesenthal, owner of pizza restaurant Gusano’s. “We get foot traffic from the hotels to the library.”

At Doe’s Eat Place, Mr. Clinton’s favorite steakhouse, a mile or so west of the library, the effect has been marginal. “I’d say 10 percent increase. About what we thought,” says manager Debra Wadley.

At the Marriott Courtyard Hotel, a hog call away from the library, “it really hasn’t been too busy,” says front desk manager Nikki Wallerd. “And the lines aren’t too long at the library.”

So will the reality match the hype? Some locals say it’s too soon to tell. Typically, presidential libraries draw their biggest crowds in the first months after opening. The true impact, they say, will be creating jobs, not just selling hotel rooms.

“We actually did signs and banners for the grand opening. And that was a big job,” says Randi Evans, spokesman for Ad Craft of Arkansas Inc. in Little Rock. “Since then, we haven’t done anything for the Clinton library.”

Unlike Mr. Clinton, Miss Evans doesn’t see herself spending much time at the museum. In fact, she hasn’t even set foot in it. “It’s still going to be there for me,” she said the other day. “I don’t have to rush over.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Leopoulos is helping “the Big Kahuna” unpack his books. “It’s his place,” he says. “And it’s really cool.”

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