Entertainment » Jim Harris

Paradise, not parking



With apologies to Joni Mitchell, don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? Now with Iriana’s out of the way, they can pave that little-less-than-paradise of the old Trailways building and put in a parking lot for the Capital Hotel. (Iriana’s, meanwhile, will live again in our building, Heritage West, further down East Markham).

It’s Warren Stephens’ land, and he can put in an exclusive Putt-Putt course in if he wants. And, since the Stephenses have been to Little Rock what the Basses are to Fort Worth, Texas, in improving quality of life and health of the city, we figure they’ve already given great thought, and will continue to do so, to what eventually to do at the corner of Main and Markham streets — besides for now offering fancy parking for hotel guests.

City leaders say that down the road the space could have more use. While there appears to be intent by Stephens and city leaders to improve a few blighted blocks down Main Street, we can’t help but notice that, right now, the action is on Markham/President Clinton Avenue.

Just last weekend, from the Peabody Hotel to the Museum Center, the place was alive throughout the day and night. A lot of it had to do with local proms going on, but Sonny Williams Steak Room was filled, and the piano bars were packed and people moved in large numbers in and out of the other restaurants and bars.

A couple of weeks back, we visited Charleston, S.C. Now, we’re not suggesting Little Rock even attempt to emulate Charleston; you can’t invent a history you don’t have. But Little Rock does have a past of its own that makes it attractive. No, we don’t have a bay and nearby ocean, nor do we have fresh seafood brought in to the dock (we do have fresh seafood flown in to our nicest restaurants, however, and our top restaurants would fit quite nicely in Charleston).

But, while Charleston had all its Revolutionary and Civil War history to serve as a tourist attraction, as well as its building laws that maintained its historic structures, it was a city looking at midtown blight just a generation ago.

The city and its monied people got together, however, to create Charleston Place, which incorporated a great old hotel with some of the trendy boutique shops where conventioneers and visitors tend to browse and spend their dollars. Charleston residents credit Charleston Place with the revitalization of the city that has made it a major destination again. As a friend says, Charleston “is New Orleans without the funk.”

Also, we learned that Charleston has its must-have Palmetto micro-brew; but we’ve got award-winning Diamond Bear.

We’ve got people who, for the past decade, have begun moving Little Rock and Argenta in the right direction. The bustling River Market is proof of that now, though in its early years we saw some shops and bars give it a go, only to close.

Now, the river has brought two cities together around an arena, an expanded convention center, the Clinton Presidential Center, a soon-to-come ballpark, a submarine and soon-to-come maritime museum, the planned nature center, the trolley, the clubs and restaurants, and top hotels. So, what’s to come at Main and Markham, after a parking lot? If we were to use Charleston as an example, the revamped Capital Hotel could be incorporated into a Capital Place, with small top-of-the-line shops within a short stroll of everything.

Then, it would continue to spread southward, to a theater restored as a meeting place or entertainment venue, perhaps a location for music geared toward crowds of 1,000 people or so. And, nearby, maybe the Arkansas Repertory Theatre would find a new, bigger home. The pedestrian bridge could become a reality across the Arkansas River.

Little Rock’s own little paradise doesn’t have to be a dream; it can be reality.

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