Since it opened in December 2004, a mere two-hour drive from Memphis, the Clinton Library in Little Rock has attracted some 470,000 visitors and netted an estimated $1 billion in economic development proceeds for that city's downtown area. So said Skip Rutherford, the library's director, in a speech to members of Memphis' downtown Rotary Club this week. That much was surprising in itself, but two other revelations by Rutherford were also eye-openers. Though people come from around the world to see the artifacts of the nation's 42nd president, the two chief areas from which tourists come are Memphis and Dallas, Rutherford said, pointing out the obvious -- that metropolitan areas have an affinity for similar urban centers nearby and that traffic between any two such areas is almost pre-ordained.
One other statement from the library chief was illuminating. Charged by Clinton with the task of developing his presidential library at the beginning of the former president's second term, Rutherford said he frequently came to Memphis for the sake of studying three attractions which had both historic and revenue-generating potential: Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, and Beale Street. It was with those three sites in mind that he began his work on development of the Clinton Library.
All of that was flattering to us in the Bluff City and to the proprietors and developers of the three facilities he mentioned, but the import of what Rutherford said was much more thorough-going. Noting that the role of New Orleans as an "anchor" for the lower Mid-South was due to be seriously hampered for some time to come, Rutherford suggested that it would fall to the two cities due north -- Memphis and Little Rock -- to pick up the tourist slack. "Both cities will have to step up a notch," as he put it.
In that spirit, Rutherford proposed that the civic officials and developmental officers and agencies of the two cities begin working together to figure out the best way of taking that step. Inasmuch as his audience included a number of Memphians who are directly charged with such thinking, we can consider Rutherford's talk on Monday to be the start of such a mutual endeavor.
Where we go from here remains to be seen, but it's nice to know that we have a potential urban partner. Coincidentally or not, this opportunity comes at what was already a crossroads time for downtown Memphis. Only this week the Riverfront Development Corporation gave up the ghost on the long-proposed Mud Island land bridge -- at least partly because the RDC's board realized the financial impracticality of the project (not to mention the likely environmental problems it might engender). Also this week the issue of what to do with The Pyramid came front and center again. Although the backers of an aquarium proposal seem to have declared themselves out of the running, various ideas are still under consideration.
It is high time that a decision gets made on what to do with The Pyramid if Memphis wants to hold up its end of what could be a thriving regional tourist axis.