NEW MARRIOTT: Sales manager Jeff McClure at Courtyard by Marriott.
Heifer International’s new headquarters may be the largest and most visible project to follow on the heels of the Clinton library, but it’s certainly not the only one. Three new hotels have opened within walking distance of the library, all banking on the buzz and vibe of rebirth the library has created on the eastern edge of downtown.
A presidential-themed Holiday Inn on Sixth Street was first to open its doors, on Valentine’s Day 2003. Spearheaded by developer Larry Carpenter, the $10 million renovation stripped the former Sheraton down to the concrete before putting it back together as a mid-priced property with, of course, four presidential suites to cap it off.
Carpenter said he decided to come to Little Rock before the location of the library was finalized. He met with Skip Rutherford and city officials and became convinced it was a good move, he said.
So far, he said, his faith has been rewarded. The hotel’s occupancy rate has run about 65 percent, which Carpenter said compares well to other downtown properties.
Display cases in the lobby showcase memorabilia Carpenter has amassed from every presidential administration from Ronald Reagan forward, collections of official White House Christmas ornaments (one from the Reagan years is shaped like a cowboy boot) and commemorative ceramic Easter eggs from the annual White House Easter egg roll.
And then there’s Camp David, the hotel restaurant, decorated along the hunting-lodge lines of its namesake. It helped that Carpenter and his young sons are accomplished fishermen — the walls are covered with their trophies.
It’s a purposefully bipartisan decor, Carpenter said.
“Republican or Democrat, they both have to sleep,” he said.
Across Interstate 30 stands the new Comfort Inn and Suites, another renovation project, which opened in September 2003. The property was formerly the less-than-nice Master’s Inn, and although the hotel has been completely redone, manager Joel Smith said it’s been hard to shake the Master’s reputation.
“It takes a lot of patience and hard work, but we’re finding it can be done,” he said. Occupancy rates have improved every month, hitting 70 percent in October, he said.
Smith said the Clinton library was a factor in Fort Smith-based Leisure Hospitality’s decision to buy the property, but he doesn’t see it as the dominant source of business after the initial opening wave. Comfort Inns traditionally attract more tourists than business travel, but this property includes some amenities unusual for the brand, Smith said, including meeting space, a lobby bar, and several conference room/sleeping room combinations that would be ideal for corporate retreats.
The third new hotel in the area is the only ground-up project of the three: The Courtyard by Marriott opened in late October in the first six floors of the First Security building, just a few blocks west of the library on President Clinton Avenue in the River Market district.
Like the other two hotels, this Courtyard is a bit of a departure from its brand, sales director Jeff McClure said. For one thing, it shares a building with offices and condos. Its decor is also edgier, with cobalt blue walls in the lobby area, undulating-wood-beam grids hanging from the ceiling above the bar and breakfast area, and framed black-and-white historic pictures of Little Rock decorating the walls in both common areas and rooms.
“For a downtown urban market, we kind of got to tweak it like we wanted it,” McClure said.
He said the hotel’s owners haven’t really pinned down a target occupancy rate because they’re in an unfamiliar market and aren’t entirely sure what to expect. All hotels are expected to be full next week.