Columns » Max Brantley

Gone to cover

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Where have all the petty people gone? You know who I mean. The people who thought the word “lie-brary” was cute even after they’d written it for the thousandth time. The people who didn’t want to spend a cent of public money to land the library of the state’s most famous son and a magnificent surrounding park. The whiners weren’t much in evidence last week, when Little Rock basked in an event that proved the city’s $16 million investment a pittance. Oh, sure, the Democrat-Gazette used the library dedication as an opportunity to beat on the man himself some more. And there are undoubtedly other hardliners. Being as contrary and as rich as Gene Pfeifer means never having to say you’re sorry for your losing lawsuit. Hell, Nora Harris is STILL suing. But we saw many of the old carpers, including dedicated Republicans, in the crowd at the library and circulating through the River Market throngs on celebrity watch. Why not? It was history in the making, an extraordinary event. Yes, even more extraordinary than the famous Civil War reunion that the Confederate sympathizers over at the D-G hold in higher esteem. We didn’t have David O. Dodd’s ghost in town last week, but we did have four presidents. Plus, a fairly substantial permanent structure was left behind. My point: You can still hate Bill Clinton and praise his library. You can still quarrel about his take on Whitewater and affirm the impact of a world-class institution on the city and, most obviously, the surrounding neighborhood. In fact, I’d suggest it’s time to clear the city and state record of some lingering pettiness. The Arkansas Department of Economic Development should drop its appeal of a circuit judge’s decision that the library qualifies for a sales tax exemption on construction materials because it’s a headquarters operation. This same department is ready to turn hundreds of millions in taxpayer money over to private companies without public accountability. Why not give up on collecting $3.5 million in sales tax on a project that has produced hundreds of jobs and tens of thousands of visitors? The ADED also should support legislation allowing the library, and other nonprofits such as the coming Heifer International headquarters, to house limited retail operations. The Clinton library gift shop is off the grounds — in the River Market — on account of that restriction. It’s already a popular stop. But sales would be greater if the library could capture sales before visitors return to their cars. The nervous Nellies on the Little Rock Board of Directors should revisit their decision to shorten President Clinton Avenue to the distance between Cumberland and the library. The avenue should extend west to the train station, as originally planned. It was dumb and cowardly to accede to the loud minority of Clinton haters. There’s a practical reason to do this. It would clear up much confusion about fragmented Markham Street. The city should move forward boldly, even if city money is needed, to widen Sixth Street east of Interstate 30, improve streetscape and otherwise encourage redevelopment of the district to the south of the library. It’s a rare opportunity to further shift some of the dynamic of city development to the east side. (And it will hardly deter the continuing westward imperative.) Dare I say it? Let’s think about tomorrow.

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