Little Rock, a small, midsouthern capital city on the Arkansas River, had never been known for its architectural gems. Although the art deco-style Little Rock Central High School was named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” by the National Association of Architects when it opened in 1927, the protests and threatened violence surrounding the “Little Rock Nine” — the first nine black students to integrate the school in 1957 — placed a stain on Little Rock’s image that took decades to erase.

By the 1990s, however, the city’s downtown was slowly reinventing itself, from a tired, third-tier city whose businesses and residential districts had shifted to the western suburbs, to a more energetic and creative city center, with a scattering of mixed-used conversions of historic buildings and lots of good ideas for revitalization, but no big splash that would draw the nation’s attention. That changed in 2004 when the Polshek & Olcott-designed Clinton Presidential Center & Library opened downtown, followed in 2006 by the completion of the distinctive, environmentally friendly world headquarters of Heifer Project International, a development organization dedicated to fighting world hunger. These two architectural icons have spurred Little Rock’s downtown renaissance, acting as catalysts for increased residential development, new restaurants, expanded office space, a more vibrant River Market Entertainment District and the ongoing restoration of Little Rock’s historic 1876 Capital Hotel.

The city was named for a little rock bluff along the south bank of the Arkansas River that French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe noticed as he sailed up the river in 1722. He called it “La Petite Roche,” and built a small trading post nearby. Little Rock was incorporated in 1821. Arkansas joined the Confederacy in 1861 and, like cities in other Confederate states, Little Rock went through political and social turmoil from the post-Civil War era to the end of segregation in the 1960s.

Although the 1957 high school desegregation events were covered heavily by the world media, Little Rock mostly went about its business quietly and without fanfare. Pretty suburban neighborhoods, like The Heights, Hillcrest and the Cantrell Road district, filled in the hilly terrain west of town, and urban renewal almost decimated Little Rock’s center city.

But Little Rock has come back. You can see it in the smiles of visitors who pay just 50 cents to ride the new downtown trolley line, where bright yellow replica 1930s Birney’s trolley cars loop through downtown and across the Main Street Bridge to North Little Rock. You can feel the excitement on sultry nights, when residents gather under a tent in the River Market District and listen to the sweet sounds of jazz drifting over the slow-moving river. And you can feel the pride that Arkansans have for the city when movie actress and Little Rock native Mary Steenburgen espouses its southern charm in the national media.

During the past several years Moses and Tucker, a local real estate developer, has built the multistory Capital Commerce Center, the First Security Center, and 300 Third, a $45-million, 18-floor, multi-use project with 98 residential units, most of which were sold before construction was completed. The company’s next project, the $80 million, 500,000-square-foot River Market Place development, is scheduled for completion in 2009.


LODGING

COURTYARD LITTLE ROCK DOWNTOWN

Located in the middle of the lively River Market District, this hotel is within easy walking distance of the Clinton Center, the Statehouse Convention Center and downtown restaurants. All 120 guestrooms in this six-floor property offer free high-speed Internet access, large work areas and in-room mini-fridges. A heated indoor pool and a well-equipped fitness room keep visitors fit, and a great riverside jogging trail begins a few minutes from the hotel.$$$
C OURTYARD LITTLE ROCK DOWNTOWN
521 President Clinton Ave.
tel 501 975 9800
http://www.marriott.com

DOUBLETREE HOTEL

This is a good downtown hotel, located on the river next to the Peabody, with 287 guestrooms, including 16 deluxe suites. It’s convenient to all Little Rock attractions, including the Alltel Arena and the corporate offices of IBM, SBC, the Heifer Project, Ernst & Young, and more. City and state government offices are located across the street from the Doubletree. Room amenities include free WiFi. The Plaza Bar & Grill is a good place for a drink or dinner after work.$$$
DOUBLETREE HOTEL
424 W. Markham St.
tel 501 372 4371
http://www.doubletreelr.com

PEABODY LITTLE ROCK

With 418 guestrooms, including 22 suites, a club level, free high-speed Internet access, a health club, the in-house Peabody Conference Center, the Capriccio Grill lobby restaurant and Mallards lounge, the Peabody is certainly the leading hotel in Little Rock, if not all of Arkansas. Guestrooms are large and functional, and the little white bathroom soaps shaped like ducks — resembling the real ones in the lobby that entertain guests — add a quirky charm to the property.$$$
PEABODY LITTLE ROCK
Three Statehouse Plaza
tel 501 906 4000
http://www.peabodylittlerock.com


DINING

CAPRICCIO GRILL ITALIAN STEAKHOUSE

The Peabody Hotel gets lots of business travelers, conventioneers, leisure travelers and locals passing through its spacious lobby, and most will probably have at least one meal at Capriccio, where marble tabletops, sofa-style seating and windows that overlook the busy public area of the hotel provide a great people-watching experience, not to mention the fine Italian and American cuisine coming out of the kitchen directed by Andre Poirot, the hotel’s executive chef. Try the linguine pescatore or the wild mushroom ravioli and you will think you are dining in Florence. $$$
CAPRICCIO GRILL ITALIAN STEAKHOUSE
Peabody Hotel, Three Statehouse Plaza
tel 501 399 8000
http://www.peabodylittlerock.com

COPPER GRILL & GROCERY
Taking up part of the lower level of one of Little Rock’s newest downtown mixed-use buildings, the Copper Grill is a popular after-work gathering spot and weekend destination. An eclectic dinner menu offers pistachio-encrusted tilapia and shiitake shrimp, while lunch entrees include catfish po’boys and excellent burgers. The adjacent upscale grocery offers excellent homemade take-away items. $$-$$$
COPPER GRILL & GROCERY
300 Third St.
tel 501 375 3333
http://www.coppergrillandgrocery.com

DOE’S EAT PLACE

A small downtown eatery in an old building with tin ceilings, Doe’s doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside the weekday lunch crowd is a microcosm of Little Rock — senators with jackets and ties, local farmers in jeans, ranchers with cowboy hats, lawyers, judges, defendants — everyone comes for the tamales, the broiled steaks or the fried catfish platter. Beer or sweet iced tea is served. The walls are covered with photos of old Little Rock and of President Clinton during his years as governor when he ate here, sitting in this gritty place with the plastic red and white checkered tablecloths and cracked linoleum floor.$$-$$$
DOE’S EAT PLACE
1023 W. Markham St.
tel 501 376 1195
http://www.doeseatplace.com


INFO TO GO

Located about eight miles from downtown, Little Rock National Airport (LIT) is one of the most convenient and accessible airports in the country. Rental vehicles are parked right outside the terminal, no more than a five-minute walk. Taxis wait outside the terminal as well, and the 10- to 15-mi nute ride downtown runs about $15. Although Central Arkansas Transit operates buses throughout the city, most visitors take taxis or use rental cars, as the city is easy to navigate and usually free of heavy traffic. The yellow trolley cars of the River Rail Streetcar system, replicas of the city’s historic 1930s trolleys, run through downtown and to North Little Rock and a ride costs just 50 cents for any distance traveled.


At Home with Mike Beebe
Governor of Arkansas

Global Traveler: During your several decades of experience in Arkansas politics, first as a state senator and later as Arkansas attorney general, you have had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time in Little Rock. What are some of the changes you have seen in the business climate of the city?

Mike Beebe: The City of Little Rock and the State of Arkansas have always provided a business-friendly climate; but in Little Rock, specifically, over the past 20 years, the most significant developments have involved the growth and rise to national prominence of home-grown companies such as Alltel, Acxiom, Dillard’s and Stephens, Inc. In my 25-year career as a public servant, we have focused diligently on education to create a workforce in Arkansas that can compete for today’s jobs, and those efforts have paid big dividends.

GT: You have outlined some efforts to attract new businesses to Arkansas and the Little Rock area since you were sworn in as governor in January 2007, including a partial exemption of sales taxes on energy consumption by manufacturers. Have any new firms moved into the Little Rock area specifically because of these incentives?

MB: The manufacturers’ exemption is just one component of a larger effort to strengthen our economic-development tools. The Quick-Action Closing Fund is another new tool that has provided immediate results, because it allows us to respond, on short notice, to companies that are considering a move to Arkansas.

This fund played a major role in our efforts to bring two new businesses to Little Rock this year. One is Welspun Industries, the Indian conglomerate, which has chosen Little Rock for a $100 million, tubular steel pipe manufacturing facility, and the other is LM Glasfiber, the Danish wind-turbine blade manufacturer that recently broke ground on a new $150 million plant. This year also has yielded expansions in Little Rock’s burgeoning aerospace industry. Both Dassault Falcon and Hawker Beechcraft have announced major expansions in 2007.

All of these developments were the result of a strong collaborative effort between my administration, the City of Little Rock and local business leaders to search for new business partners from around the country and around the world.

GT: Little Rock National Airport is one of the most easily accessible airports in the country, but a new airport terminal seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. What role does your office play in planning the financial, logistical and design aspects for a new airport terminal?

MB: Little Rock’s airport has grown and improved steadily in the past 15 years, as a transportation center and as an engine of economic development and job growth. The Little Rock Airport Commission is an independent body appointed by the mayor, which oversees all aspects of airport business. They have done a good job over the years of anticipating the growth we’ve seen in Central Arkansas and ensuring that the airport is an asset for the region.

GT: If a business traveler to Little Rock asked you for some recommendations for spending leisure time in the city, what would be your top three suggestions?

MB: It’s extremely difficult to choose three; and before I reveal my suggestions, I have to say that first-time visitors to our state are always amazed by the beauty and diversity of nature in Arkansas, so anyone who travels to Little Rock should spend some time outdoors, enjoying the Natural State’s greatest attraction. I would suggest that they take a stroll around the River Market District. Begin at the Clinton Presidential Center with a tour, and be sure to visit Heifer Project International headquarters as well, to learn more about the amazing work they are doing all ove r the world. You can ride a trolley from the Clinton Center to the heart of the River Market District to do some shopping, enjoy a great meal or hear some live music. Try to catch a Travelers’ minor league baseball game at Dickey-Stephens Park. The stadium opened for the 2007 season, and it’s the perfect blend of modern convenience and baseball nostalgia. It’s a jewel along the lines of [Cleveland’s] Jacobs Field or [Baltimore’s] Camden Yards.

And, if time allows, walk or run the Arkansas River Trail and cross the Big Dam Bridge. The Arkansas River Trail is a 14-mile loop that stretches from the downtown area west to Pinnacle Mountain State Park. The most amazing feature is the Big Dam Bridge, which connects Little Rock’s Murray Park with North Little Rock’s Burns Park. The bridge, all 4,226 feet of it, runs across the top of the Murray Lock and Dam over the Arkansas River, and it’s the largest pedestrian/bicycle bridge in the world designed and built for that purpose.


DIVERSIONS

Most visitors make their first stop at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park (1200 President Clinton Ave., tel 501 374 4242), Little Rock’s most visited attraction. After looking through the artifacts of his presidency, you can have lunch at Café 42, a lovely space on the lower level.

The Arkansas Arts Center (501 E. 9th St., tel 501 372 4000), the River Market District (400 President Clinton Ave., tel 501 375 2552) and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre (601 Main St., tel 501 378 0405) offer great cultural exhibitions, entertainment and theater, all close to the downtown area.

The new Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (Daisy Bates Drive, tel 501 374 1957) is an interesting museum across the street from the high school, with photographs, videos and audio presentations relating to the 1957 Little Rock Nine integration events.

Before leaving the city, take the trolley across the river to North Little Rock — once called Argenta — where the Argenta Drugstore claims to be the oldest continuously operating pharmacy west of the Mississippi. The view of Little Rock’s skyline from this side of the river is always impressive, and always changing.