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A riverfront's rebirth; the redevelopment of East Markham Street began in earnest in September 1970.

A Riverfront's Rebirth

The Redevelopment Of East Markham Street Began In Earnest In September 1970

It was a Saturday -- Sept. 5, 1970, to be exact -- when officials of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Fifty For The Future gathered to announce an $8-million project that would begin in March 1971.

The major components:

* A $4.6-million hotel with 310 rooms and a banquet hall seating 800 to be owned by the Kin-Ark Corp. of Tulsa, Okla.

* A renovation of Robinson Auditorium, the crumbling WPA-era structure that had served the city for three decades.

* A 565-car underground parking facility.

* A landscaped plaza.

* A headquarters for the Arkansas Bar Association.

The capital city's business and civic leaders promised that Little Rock would have a complex that would draw conventioneers --and the money they spend.

William F. "Billy" Rector, president of Fifty For The Future, called the announcement the culmination of "12 years of work."

Later, the powerful businessman admitted the efforts had consisted of "one frustration after another."

What got the project off the ground was the type of public-private partnership that was relatively rare in those days. The city would own the land on which the hotel, to be known as the Camelot, would stand. Kin-Ark, in turn, would lease the air rights above that land from the city.

Most of Kin-Ark's holdings were in oil and in chemical storage facilities. But in 1970, the men who ran Kin-Ark were filled with dreams of becoming another Marriott, a "player" in the hotel industry.

Kin-Ark's entry into the hospitality business began in 1968 with the purchase of the Camelot Hotel at Tulsa.

The Little Rock hotel was to be the prototype for a chain of Camelots in Atlanta, Denver, Fort Worth and Houston.

During the 1960s, Fifty For The Future paid for a feasibility study to determine if a national chain such as Hilton would locate in Little Rock. For years, the lodging business in the capital city was dominated by one firm, Southwest Hotels Inc.

Now, the city's largest downtown hotels -- the Marion, the Grady Manning, the Lafayette, the Capital, the Albert Pike -- were closed or badly in need of repairs. The Sam Peck and the Coachman's Inn were in better shape, but they did not have enough rooms to handle large conventions.

Charles E. Rixse Jr., executive director of a tiny Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau in 1970, said the idea of a convention center had been little more than a dream in the 1960s. Then, the demise of the Marion and the construction of a convention center at Hot Springs gave Little Rock, in Rixse's words, "the impetus we needed."

Early in 1970, the city levied a 1 percent tax on the gross receipts of hotels, motels and restaurants. The tax later would be increased to 2 percent.

Bond Issue Authorized

Four days prior to Christmas in 1970, the Little Rock Board of Directors authorized a bond issue to finance construction of the three-level parking garage and the auditorium's renovation.

E. Jack Murphy, the city's finance director, said the garage would require a $2-million bond issue. The renovation of Robinson Auditorium would cost another $2 million, including $327,000 for electrical work and $348,000 for a new heating and cooling system. The bulk of the money would be used to build a connection to the Camelot.

Meanwhile, Kin-Ark officials were negotiating with five general contractors. They promised to begin work on the Camelot by March 1, 1971, and open the hotel no later than July 1973.

Miraculously for a project of its size, the work along Markham Street stayed close to schedule and close to budget.

On June 1, 1973, the Camelot opened, although the sounds of hammers and saws still could be heard by guests.

Four days later, the $2.1-million Little Rock Municipal Garage opened.

The months of September and October were proclaimed as Fall Fest, an event marking the reopening of the Robinson complex. The facility was known then as the Little Rock Convention Center and is known now as the Robinson Center.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony occurred Sept. 6, 1973. In the weeks that followed, there were concerts by Doc Severinsen and his orchestra, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer and Waylon Jennings.

The growth of Little Rock's convention business was steady during the 1970s. In 1971, there were 199 meetings in Pulaski County with 67,433 delegates spending $2.64 million. By 1972, the number was up to 344 meetings with 81,658 delegates spending $3.36 million.

Following completion of the convention center, the county had totals of:

* 1973 -- 429 events with 120,391 delegates spending $5.33 million.

* 1974 -- 562 events with 141,698 delegates spending $7.1 million.

* 1975 -- 643 events with 172,109 delegates spending $8.5 million.

* 1976 -- 616 events with 122,728 delegates spending $6.97 million.

* 1977 -- 604 events with 120,584 delegates spending $7.82 million.

* 1978 -- 689 events with 121,963 delegates spending $7.03 million.

* 1979 -- 622 events with 109,843 delegates spending $9.68 million.

* 1980 -- 627 events with 167,509 delegates spending $14.94 million.

Another Expansion

At the end of the decade, it was time for another expansion.

Again, Little Rock's leaders developed a public-private partnership. In the years since plans for the Camelot had been announced, Kin-Ark had decided not to expand its hotel chain. In fact, the Tulsa corporation turned the facility over to a company named U.S. Hotel Properties, only to take it back when the new owners failed to live up to promises to renovate the Camelot.

By 1984, Mayor J.W. "Buddy" Benafield would charge that the condition of the Camelot was costing the city money. He said the hotel was having an adverse effect on attempts to book events into Robinson.

The bottom line: The city could not count on Kin-Ark as a partner in a new project.

In 1978, Batesville developer Doyle Rogers approached Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson, chairman of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission, with the idea of establishing a partnership with the city.

Plans moved rapidly from there.

"We thought Little Rock should come back to the river where it began," Vinson would later say. "We were determined to make the part of Little Rock that borders the river more beautiful than it was before."

The Little Rock Board of Directors approved a $27,375,000 bond issue for another convention center in 1980. On Feb. 17 of that year, thousands of spectators and a statewide television audience watched on a cold Sunday morning as the Marion and Manning hotels were imploded.

The board's action was challenged in court, but on July 13, 1981, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that floating the bond issue without an election was not unconstitutional.

Thanks to the bond issue and Rogers' involvement, Little Rock saw construction of a $70-million complex that included:

* The 462-room Excelsior Hotel owned by Rogers and operated by Trusthouse Forte Ltd. of Great Britain.

* The 62,000-SF Statehouse Convention Center operated by the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

* The University Conference Center, consisting of three auditoriums and several smaller meeting rooms, operated by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The center since has been renamed the Statehouse Conference Center and control has been transferred to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

City officials promised the new complex, just down the road from the one dedicated in 1973, would complement the 21,000-SF Robinson Center and its 2,641-seat music hall.

A Lavish Celebration

The complex was dedicated Nov. 18-21, 1982. The celebration featured Hollywood-style searchlights, exotic food and lavish ice sculptures. There reportedly was not a surplus piece of formal wear in town.

Soon, Little Rock was attracting larger gatherings than ever before. In 1984, for example, the annual meeting of the National Cotton Council attracted 1,500 delegates. In February of that year, more than 5,000 Wal-Mart management personnel came to town for the company's annual management conference. Previously, the meeting had been held at Osage Beach, Mo. Rogers, through his friendship with Sam Walton, was instrumental in landing the event for Little Rock.

By February 1986, there were 9,000 Wal-Mart employees coming to town -- 3,000 at a time for three days each.

In its first three years of operation, the Statehouse Convention Center attracted 651 events and 446,000 people. The five-year totals were more than 1,000 events and 680,000 people, including 234 conventions drawing 220,000 delegates who spent an estimated $60.3 million.

The project was not without its problems, however.

For one thing, the Excelsior Hotel was unable to turn a profit. It wasn't that Little Rock was unable to attract conventions, as the numbers show. Convention business exceeded expectations.

The problem for Rogers was that during the building boom of the 1980s, about 1,600 hotel rooms were added in central Arkansas, far more than the market could handle.

In an interview on the hotel's fifth anniversary, Rogers conceded that his project was "two to three years behind where we thought we would be" despite annual gross sales of $10 million.

Rogers terminated his contract with Trusthouse Forte in 1985. The British management corporation had hoped to establish a national chain of Excelsior Hotels with the Little Rock Excelsior as the flagship.

For the city's business leaders, it was deja vu. Just like Kin-Ark, Trusthouse Forte's plans fell through, leaving the Little Rock hotel without the benefit of a national reservation system, without a national advertising campaign and without an identity among the all-important corporate travelers.

Excelsior In The Red

At a Nov. 18, 1987, meeting, the Advertising and Promotion Commission received a report from its accountant confirming that the Excelsior had never made a profit and thus did not owe the city money.

Rogers' contract with the city required the hotel to pay a share of any profits. Starting with the fiscal year ending Nov. 1, 1987, the hotel was to pay the city 1.5 percent of its gross sales revenues or 17.5 percent of its net operating profits, whichever was greater.

City officials said the payment was to be made regardless of whether there was a profit. Rogers claimed otherwise.

In November 1988, Gerald Marshall, president of Savers Savings Association of Little Rock, informed Rogers he was in default on an $18-million construction loan.

Saxon Capital Corp., a New York-based real estate firm, later negotiated the sale of the Excelsior from Rogers to the Japan Green Stamp Co. The plaza in front of the hotel was named the Doyle Rogers Plaza in honor of its founder on March 8, 1990.

While the Excelsior Hotel was experiencing financial problems, the Statehouse Convention Center was being used as an occasional political football.

In January 1984, Webb Hubbell, a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, proposed selling the Statehouse Convention Center as a means of financing construction of a 12,000-15,000-seat downtown sports arena. Hubbell said selling the convention center would free up the 2 percent hotel and restaurant tax and allow a bond issue to finance the arena. The tax had produced $2.6 million in 1983.

Hubbell noted that large hotels often owned their own convention facilities, including exhibit halls. Because of his financial problems with the Excelsior, Rogers expressed no interest in buying the convention center. Hubbell's idea thus died a quick death.

Debt Service

All the while, the Advertising and Promotion Commission was working to keep up with the debt service on the Statehouse Convention Center. The deficit for 1983, the first full year of operation, was slightly more than $1 million, about $240,000 less than anticipated.

Monthly payments on the convention center's 30-year bonded indebtedness were $239,000. In the Statehouse's first three years of operation, the commission also borrowed $877,000 from the city's general fund.

Numerous financial maneuvers were employed in the early 1980s. For instance, the bond issue for the convention center included $450,000 "seed money" for a parking deck. City officials decided in December 1983 to use $300,000 of that money for bolstering the Advertising and Promotion Commission's 1984 budget.

The parking deck at the corner of Markham and Louisiana was built to service the Excelsior Hotel and the Rogers Building (now the Stephens Building), which opened in 1985. The Statehouse Convention Center still doesn't have its own parking deck.

A special election was held July 15, 1986, to refinance the bond issue used to build the Statehouse Convention Center. Only 2.46 percent of Little Rock's 94,153 registered voters turned out as the refinancing proposal passed 2,021-293.

Interest rates were lower than when the bonds were sold. The 1980 bonds were issued at a rate of about 9.6 percent. City officials said at the time of the special election they could obtain a new rate of less than 8 percent.

The successful election allowed the city to save $2.6 million -- an immediate $500,0000 and $88,000 per year for the remainder of the 30-year bond issue -- by issuing $30.7 million in new bonds.

The Advertising and Promotion Commission paid the $33,000 in election costs. E&F Hutton & Co. and T.J. Raney & Sons Inc. underwrote the bond issue.

The commission also was forced to deal with the deterioration of the Robinson Center. Commissioners approved $300,000 in improvements to the Robinson Center Music Hall in March 1987.

Two months later, Travis said it would take more than $1 million to bring the entire complex back to where it was in 1973. Vinson called leakage problems at the auditorium and the underground parking garage "horrendous."

A $39.1-million citywide capital improvements plan approved by Little Rock voters on Oct. 13, 1987, included $1.5 million for Robinson Center improvements and $1.2 million for parking garage improvements. The Robinson Center Music Hall was restored to reflect the period when it was built, 1938-39.

The Advertising and Promotion Commission -- and the Convention & Visitors Bureau it oversees -- had paid off its loans from the city by the end of 1987. It was in the black, receiving about $3.3 million per year from the 2 percent tax and another $1.3 million per year in state turnback funds.

The city's actions during the 1970s and 1980s spurred other developments along Markham.

The Capital Hotel was restored and a world-class restaurant, Ashley's, was included. The old Continental Trailways Building was transformed into the Technology Center. Two other old buildings on the street were converted into office complexes, the Heritage East and Heritage West buildings. The Heritage East Building contained its own upscale restaurant, the Cafe St. Moritz.

Travis said at the end of 1987 that the developments had "exceeded what I thought they could do. People come here thinking Little Rock is a nice Southern city. But they are not expecting this icing on the cake."

A year later, Barry Travis already was campaigning for an expansion of the Statehouse Convention Center.

"If you want four days in October or four days in March or April, the odds are they are not there," he said. "Now is the time to expand. We already have the hotel rooms we need."

Three years later, the campaign continues.

PHOTO : GOING DOWN: Crowds gather on the Main Street Bridge on the morning of Feb. 17, 1980, to witness the implosion of the Marion and Manning hotels. The dynamite was placed to make room for the Excelsior Hotel and the Statehouse Convention Center.

PHOTO : THE GRAND HOTEL: For years, the Marion Hotel was Little Rock's grand hotel, a gathering place for the state's top politicians and businessmen. When deals were cut in Little Rock, they often were cut in the Marion at The Gar Hole. The Excelsior Hotel and the Statehouse Convention Center now stand where the Marion once stood.

Rex Nelson Arkansas Business Staff
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Project 2000, part 5; a renewal of the Little Rock riverfront development is undertaken
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:From the outhouse to the Statehouse.
Next Article:Drillers look for gas in the West, oil in the South.

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