Last June about100 people stood in the hot sun in downtown North Little Rock outside of the tacky old Argenta Drug Co. building at 324 Main St. that was to be bought by the city so it would be turned into a modern building and attract more businesses coming to downtown.
The owner, David Chu, a young pharmacist graduate from the University of Arkansas Pharmaceutical College in Little Rock, had agreed to sell the building to the city and continue to rent and operate the drug store. The Argenta Community Development Corp. (ACDC) would buy the building for $250,000 and give him a 20-year lease at a ridiculously low price and pay $1.3 million to modernize the building and adjoining smaller buildings and restore four apartments that for many years had been above the drug store. Years ago the apartments’ windows had been boarded up and the apartments destroyed. In short, the old building is an eyesore in downtown North Little Rock.
This old building is sort of a monument in the city. Argenta Drug was opened in 1887 and has become the oldest continuously operating pharmacy west of the Mississippi River. Until the the late 1940s, North Little Rock kids like me had to go there to buy their school books. Behind the store were the offices of the only physicians in North Little Rock 70 years ago.
So the people gathered at the store cheered when speakers of the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the organization would give the ACDC $50,000 for its plan of restoration and that there would be a program about the project on the Garden Television cable channel throughout the country. The president of Tenenbaum Scrap Metal company in North Little Rock stepped forward and presented the ACDC a check for $50,000 to improve Main Street. A check of $70,000 was presented from NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit organization created by Congress. Mayor Pat Hays and former Mayor Casey Laman praised the forthcoming of the improvement of the old monument at Fourth and Main.
But only 29 days after the Main Street ceremony, pharmacist Chu and his wife decided that they didn’t want to sell the building and tore up the contract. He and his wife said they didn’t want the old building changed. The city lost all the gifts and the TV program.
The city didn’t take any action. I guess the mayor and his staff were too occupied with fixing up the submarine that Mayor Hays brought to town and preparing the ground for the building of the Arkansas Travelers baseball stadium that’s moving to downtown North Little Rock. Those empty stores on Main Street were more or less forgotten.
But on March 27 the city took action. The North Little Rock Historic District asked the city attorney to send a letter to Chu to tell him that he had 90 days to make repairs to the decrepit old building to make it safe. Many are hoping that he will change his mind and let the city do what it wanted him to do last year. So far there’s been no reply.
Many of the thousands of people who are coming to Little Rock to see the Clinton Library are riding the streetcars over the river to see North Little Rock. Unfortunately there’s not much to see except banks, a motel, city hall and a lot of empty buildings. I’m told that most of the empty buildings are owned by one company that hopes to sell all the empties at once. However, there are a few good restaurants on Main Street that are becoming very popular except on nights when there is some kind of activity in the Alltel Arena. The city hasn’t provided enough parking for the thousands of people who go to the arena, and Main Street and all the other streets in downtown North Little Rock are packed with cars.
The city officials have talked about building a parking deck close to the arena, but nothing has been done. When baseball starts next spring on the bank of the river, North Little Rock will have to have a parking deck.
Joe Klein, who has written about politics in Time, Newsweek and the New Yorker, spoke and sold his newest book, “Politics Lost,” at the Clinton Library last week. People could ask him questions.
Would Hillary Clinton be elected President? “She can but probably won’t,” Klein said, but, he added, “one of these days there will be a female president.”
What about President Bush? “He was more interested in spinning the war than in fighting it. Do you realize there are six times as many analysts working on China in the Defense Intelligence Agency as working on Iraq?”
I asked him why he liked President Clinton at first but later got critical of him. He said Clinton got too much like the Congress. “I defended him during the Lewinsky scandal. I wrote in the New Yorker that this will be an error remembered more for the ferocity of the prosecution than for the severity of the crime. ... He’s probably the best president I have experienced during my years covering politics.”
“Primary Colors,” Klein’s 1996 fiction book that also became a movie, was about a married president who was also interested in other women.