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Arkansas will never be the same

Get ready. What's ahead could be amazing.



Remember 1957? The era it ushered in ended Tuesday. The opportunities lost as a result of Gov. Orval Faubus' defiance at Little Rock's Central High School are as beyond calculation as the benefits likely to become Arkansas's now that Gov. Bill Clinton is the president-elect. Now, as then, the effects will ripple out for decades. The biggest effect has already taken hold. People know where Arkansas is now. They have images to go with the name other than that of Central High School. The day when people talked about Arkansas as one of the country's "best-kept secrets" is over.

Reporters, those ultimate gadflies, have come here and will go back again around world, where they'll sit in bars and tell about how Little Rock's actually a fairly lovely city, really pretty and lots of good restaurants, you know.

New Yorkers now call and say they hear Arkansas is heaven; green, accessible, and friendly---everything they long for. Jokes about our shoes, or lack of them, are already a thing of the past. Almost overnight, the tone on long-distance lines from the East Coast has moved from condescension to gush.

People who couldn't have found Arkansas on a map a year ago now know that we raise a hell of a lot of chickens and that somewhere in the state there's a place called Hope" It's only a matter of time before pundits start reminiscing about the good ol' days, the days before Clinton won the election, when Arkansas was just a cozy little backwoods state where overalls outnumbered suits. But the genie will never go back in the bottle.

Barry Travis, director of the Little Rock Convention Center, has spent 21 years explaining to people where his city is. He's beginning to realize he'll never have to do it again. "Now," Travis notes, "the name of this city is a worldwide concept." Hot Springs may not be on its way to becoming "as well known as New York City," as Mayor Melinda Baran predicted the week before the election, but an increase in visitors has already begun.

People are coming, Baran said, because something drives Americans to "see what kind of communities spawn the highest levels of leadership. It's like, why do people like to see Madonna: Because she emanates the raw power of sexuality. The presidency's the same thing. It's like an aphrodisiac." It's also like money in the bank. Baran said the increase in visitors has translated directly into increased real estate sales. "Our lake sales," she said, "have gone off the map."

Everyone with national and international contacts has already tasted the sweetness of representing the same state as the president-to-be. You go to a convention and people look at your name and see you're from Arkansas, and immediately they have something to talk to you about,a local bookseller said. And that's what it's all about talking and making contacts."

Suddenly, Richard Davies, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, notes, everyone is interested. Now, when you say you're calling from Arkansas, doors open,Davies chuckled. People who used to pass you down to the third guy down the hall talk to you directly."

As awareness of some of the potential of a Clinton presidency for Arkansas dawns, excitement is spreading, especially among agencies that depend in part on federal money. "Everybody is thinking, gee-whiz, we might finally have someone we can at least talk to in the administration," Davies said. "You start thinking about those requests for federal dollars, and you know that, from a bureaucratic point of view, when one comes in from the home state of the president, you don't want to just toss it."

Grant writers are entertaining visions, probably realistic, of their requests moving, as one put it, from the bottom of the stack to the top in Washington. That added dollop of funders' attention could have a profound effect on institutions as diverse as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the National Center for Toxicological Research, arts and humanities projects, and agricultural research, to say nothing of projects still undreamed of.

"It's a very nice position to be a federal institution in a state that the president comes from," observed Dr. Eugene Towbin, chief of staff at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Little Rock. "When things could go either here or there, everything else being equal, they might come here. There's a lot of discretion exercised in Washington about where the money goes."

Sandy Dochen saw the phenomenon work in Austin. Now a vice president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, he remembers that IRS regional service center was located in the city on the heels of Lyndon Johnson's becoming president. "And that sort of things just for starters," Dochen said.

When the president comes home for a visit, your local news becomes international news. Reporters will come in to do stories on the president, and then a lot of them will wander off and also file a story or two on the Ozarks. So the attention stays fixed.

Then someday, there'll be a presidential library somewhere in the state. And for a while, Arkansas will be a gathering place for world leaders to meet and discuss policy issues." How that will affect Arkansas's economic bottom line is still a swirl in most crystal balls. But some see at least the outline of a dynamic pattern emerging.

"We'll be able to compete in an arena we never have before," Dave Harrington, director of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, predicted, "We'll be able to get in there and not be overlooked as we have been so much in the past. When it comes to R and D national contracts are awarded for science research Arkansas has, for all practical purposes, been overlooked. We've not even been remotely involved in the discussions."

That Arkansas has been so largely cutout of its per capita proportion of federal money for research has been a longtime complaint of Gov. Clintons. As Harrington points out, "If we can just start getting our fair share, as now at least appears possible, the infusion into that segment of the state's economy could be profound.

Similarly, Maurice Smith, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, hopes for a quick freeing up of money in a federal trust fund for highways money that's been appropriated but held up by the present administration. Arkansas's share of that fund comes to $80 million. "I would expect that we'll get that," Smith said. "The governor knows all about that. We're going to be talking about it."

The prospect of seeing the state's physical and academic infrastructure dramatically strengthened at the same time business interest here hits a once-in-a-lifetime high has some observers struggling not to get giddy.

"There's a mystique that evolves out of all this," downtown real estate owner Jimmy Moses said. "People look around and see that Arkansas is the home of the largest discount chain in the world. Dillard's is moving toward becoming the largest department store chain in the country. We have a major financial corporation in Stephens, and a telecommunications giant in Alltel. And we have this tremendous heritage in political leadership dating back to [Sen. J. William] Fulbright that is now being crowned with the presidency for a governor from this state.

"So I think people are beginning to wonder if there really isn't something in the water." Moses is optimistic by nature, but he also cautions that nothing's guaranteed. Opportunity favors the prepared, he notes, adding that, without care, the opportunity that appears headed this way could be blown.

"We can't be divisive," Moses said. We can't sit back and wait for things to come to us. We need to plan and work together if we're going to take advantage of this burst in activity."

But if that planning and concerted effort can be pulled off if, in fact, a renewed Arkansas can leave the legacy of '57 in the dust---then, Moses predicts, "our image as a small, poor, rural state without much clout is about to change. I think we can say the '90s belong to Arkansas."

This story originally appeared in print with the title, "Arkansas will never be the same. Get ready. What's ahead could be amazing." on November 5th, 1992.

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