Library Cad

Bill Clinton wants to build his library in Little Rock. Will Little Rock let him?

You’d think that a city would be thrilled to name one of its streets after the most famous person who ever walked (or, in this case, took a midnight “jog”) down it, but that’s not how it works in Little Rock, Ark. Late last month, sign-wavers and activists mobbed city hall while the city board considered whether to rename the street where the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library will be located “President Clinton Avenue.” Hecklers offered derisive amendments: “Impeachment Avenue” was proposed. But the city board eventually compromised, renaming just the few blocks of Markham Street around the library after the president–a plan the mayor said he came to embrace after asking himself, “What would Jesus do?”

After a bit of fussing from radio talk show hosts and newspaper columnists, the street-name dust-up blew over, but it’s one of the few controversies connected with the Clinton Presidential Library that has. Since Little Rock beat out Hope and Hot Springs for the library in November 1997, city policies from sales taxes to zoo funding have been tangled up in Clinton and the building that will be his legacy. As one local columnist noted, in Little Rock, even if they say it’s not about Clinton, it’s about Clinton.

Few Little Rockers dispute that a world-class library building will be a boon to a town where the finest example of modern architecture is the TCBY Tower, and the principal tourist attractions are quilt shows and a building that had a cameo in Gone With the Wind (not to mention the hotel rooms where Clinton propositioned women). But just as Little Rock residents are embarrassed by Central High, the discomfiting monument to desegregation and the town’s other claim to history, some are queasy about celebrating their not-so-favorite son.

After all, Little Rock had hardly won the library when the Lewinsky scandal broke and a vast new field of inquiry revealed itself to Little Rock wiseacres: What’s going to be in this lie-brary anyhow? A cigar and a dress? Oral histories?

But the library has provoked Little Rock not just because it’s a litmus test about Clinton. Even some Clinton fans have a bad taste in their mouths about the way the Little Rock board of directors arranged to pay for the 28-acre site. Private donors will fund the $80 million to $125 million library, but city officials agreed to deliver construction-ready land. And after recovering from the initial euphoria over winning the big prize, Mayor Jim Dailey and Co. realized they had to find $15 million to buy and clear the property.

For a city with a $100 million budget, that’s a jawbreaker, but officials had made a commitment. They hit upon the idea of issuing “parks revenue bonds,” which didn’t require voter approval, and pledging revenues from the city’s golf courses, parks, and zoo to pay them down. The problem: Parks revenue bonds can only fund parks. Is a library a park? That depends on your definition of the word “park.” The city called the library a “presidential park,” and that took care of it.

(The plan to take money from the Little Rock zoo is another saga. For reasons too Byzantine to explain, it’s the only unaccredited big zoo in the nation, and it could use a cash infusion. City officials are incredibly sensitive to the charge that they are buying Clinton land with money that should go to feeding the giraffes. When the city’s newly hired zoo director came to town for a meet-and-greet recently, reporters were warned in no uncertain terms that he was not to be asked about the library.)

Chamber of Commerce types welcomed this parks-bond trick, but other members of the populace were not so gratified, among them 66-year-old Nora Harris, a self-described “retired housewife.” Harris sued the city, claiming the library land deal is an illegal tax because the city will have to raid the general fund to make up for lost parks revenue. A Pulaski County Chancery Court judge ruled in the city’s favor in June, but Harris plans to appeal her case to the state Supreme Court. She has vowed to pursue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, or at least until she runs out of money.

Harris isn’t the only one taking the city to court. Local developer Eugene Pfeifer III, a vocal opponent of the library, owns a piece of property in the presidential park and promises to fight the city’s attempt to take his property by eminent domain.

A nd then there’s everyone else in the city. When the mayor proposed a one-cent sales tax to shore up Little Rock’s frayed budget, the city revolted. Opponents such as Harris and Pfeifer argued loudly that the city was forecasting a deficit because it is saddled with debt voters didn’t approve, to fund a library they didn’t request, for the president who didn’t inhale. City officials squealed at that contention–the sales tax plan didn’t mention the “presidential library,” and a deficit had been projected before the library land grab–but Mayor Dailey was questioned about it everywhere he went, and his answers didn’t impress. The tax was walloped by more than two-thirds of voters in a May referendum. Since then, the city has frozen hiring and chopped programs to stave off a budget emergency.

All this time, the land for the library has sat undisturbed, covered with tall weeds and empty buildings, its intended purpose marked only by a banner that has grown progressively more tattered. The mayor originally hoped groundbreaking would take place six months ago, but it hasn’t happened yet. Still, the library is beginning to seem less of an albatross. Earlier this month, Clinton finally picked the architects: James Stewart Polshek and Richard M. Olcott of the Polshek Partnership in New York, along with exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum.

One unanswered question is how much time Clinton will spend in his home state once his library is completed. Perhaps he’ll live in an upstairs apartment and huff around town in jogging shorts as he did when he was governor. The rumor of a Senate run seems dead, but a local satirical revue proposes that Clinton capitalize on his legendary press-the-flesh skill by working as a Wal-Mart greeter. Speaking of pressing the flesh, Clinton will undoubtedly put the library to good use. No one expects that Clinton will spend a lot of time in carrels poring over his papers, but even so, he has a good track record of making the most of the stacks. It was in the Yale Law Library, after all, that he first put the moves on Hillary Rodham.