The visitors who'll come to town in November for the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center may have a new place to stay, a space unlike anything else for several hundred miles. It will be Little Rock's first hostel, and perhaps the only hostel in America that will a) double as a firefighting museum and b) share its park grounds with two museums.
The 30-bed non-profit Firehouse Hostel and Museum, to be housed in the former Fire Station No. 2 south of the Arkansas Arts Center in MacArthur Park, is the dream of longtime backpackers Col. John and Linda Fordyce. They created a board to plan the all-ages hostel in 1997, and now, with the filing of their non-profit papers, are getting ready to raise money for firehouse renovation.
The couple discovered youth hostels several years ago on a four-month backpacking trip in Europe and "fell in love with them," Linda Fordyce said. They've stayed in more than 30 since then, and she believes there's no better way to know a country than "meeting its people." Fordyce and her husband, a Merrill Lynch broker who at 73 is planning a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in September this fall, prefer hostels to any other accommodation.
Linda Fordyce thinks Little Rock has a lot to offer travelers, and plans to install an American hostel tradition - a bulletin board that informs visitors of opportunities to volunteer at community events. She will also encourage tourism vendors, like float trip businesses, to advertise at the hostel. At $15 per person per night, the hostel will be affordable for young travelers, and the international credo of spreading goodwill and understanding should fit well with the goals of visitors attracted to Little Rock by the presidential library and Heifer International's new headquarters. It will also fill a hostel-staying gap that stretches to Knoxville, Tenn., on the east, St. Louis on the north, Tucumcari, N.M., on the west and Austin on the south.
The city parks department is an enthusiastic partner in the plan. The Little Rock Fire Department is hot on the idea, too, and has loaned a 1933 American LaFrance firetruck and another truck from 1955, as well as a brass firepole, antique tools and equipment, ledgers and other memorabilia from as far back as the 1870s, for the museum. (Retired Capt. Johnny Reep serves on the hostel board and will chair the museum committee.) Hostel visitors will one day get to dine in an engine bay, phase two of the renovation plan, and the hostel eventually will offer fire safety programs to school children.
But first, the board will renovate the firehouse to put 30 beds upstairs and install showers upstairs and down. There will be private family rooms that will cost a couple of extra dollars a night. Fordyce hopes that much will be ready by the Nov. 18 opening date of the presidential library.
The engine bay will be added next, facing the pond, for an expanded dining hall and the kitchen. Eventually, the hostel board plans to build an annex with more beds. In all, it's a $1 million project.
Parks Director Bryan Day has been so inspired by the project as to suggest Mongolian yurts for hostel overflow; his assistant Mark Webre envisions summer concerts at the pavilion on the park's fishing pond right outside. It would create new traffic for the Arts Center and the Little Rock Museum of Military History.
The hostel will affiliate with Hosteling International, which has 110 member locations in the U.S. and 4,000 worldwide. The board hopes to attract other hostelers to come work at Little Rock.
But first things first - fund-raising. Fordyce, 63, a retired social worker who teaches part time, is now writing grants. The Don Reynolds Center for Small Business at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has helped her write a small business plan.
Her first idea: A capital campaign that would include fund-raising birthday bunking parties at the building, which is now used for parks department meetings.