Clinton hometown Hope-ing for tourism boost

AP News
Posted: Apr 15, 2011 6:00 PM
Clinton hometown Hope-ing for tourism boost

The "place called Hope" that a misty-eyed Bill Clinton used to sell his vision for America during his first presidential run is hoping the public's interest in its most famous son can lift its sagging fortunes.

The former president returns to Hope on Saturday for a ceremony marking his boyhood home's listing on the National Park Service's registry of historic sites. The home, the first of two in Hope that he lived in, was turned into a museum in 1997, but civic leaders and business owners are optimistic that the prestigious listing will send needed tourism their way.

The quaint community Clinton described while accepting his party's 1992 presidential nomination is gone, if it ever really existed. The town's name today belies the serious problems Hope faces, including a downtown pocked with shuttered storefronts and crumbling buildings, and a poor, undereducated population that's barely grown in 60 years.

During his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic Party convention, The Man From Hope, as he was billed, spoke of developing early notions of fairness and equality while living with his mother and grandparents in their two-story home on South Hervey Street, which the Clinton Birthplace Foundation has restored to its 1940s and 1950s appearance, replete with period wallpaper and artifacts that give it a time capsule feel.

"When I think about opportunity for all Americans, I think about my grandfather. He ran a country store in our little town of Hope. There was no food stamps back then, so when his customers, whether they were white or black who worked hard and did the best they could, came in with no money, well, he gave them food anyway. He just made a note of it. So did I," Clinton told the assembly.

He used the word "hope" 10 times in the speech, expressing his hope for the future and for continued abortion rights, among other things, and ending with what would become a campaign catchphrase: "I still believe in a place called Hope."

Such belief isn't shared by all of Hope's residents, who have seen the city grow from 8,600 people in 1950 to about 10,000 today. About one-third of the working-class city's residents are living below the poverty line, just 10 percent of residents have graduated college, and the city's median household income is $33,661, far behind the state average of $47,758 and just over half the national average, according to census figures.

Unlike many county seats in Arkansas, Hope lacks a central square, which typically serve as a community's commercial center. Its downtown is fragmented, making it a less desirable place to shop.

Civic leaders and business owners are hoping the Clinton museum, about three blocks from Hope's downtown district, will be the type of attraction that a community can grow around. They need only look to the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, 100 miles to the northeast, for an example of such a success.

Fifteen years ago, the eastern side of downtown Little Rock looked a lot like Hope does today, with dilapidated warehouses and empty storefronts. But the library brought tourists, money and momentum to the neighborhood, helping transform it into one of the city's trendiest areas and a nightlife destination.

Hope's hopefuls know they won't see the same growth, but they believe the National Park Service listing will bring more tourists to their city.

"I do think that the national park site designation is going to surprise some folks in how much of an impact it makes," said Mark Keith, the director of the Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce.

It is a sentiment shared by Ricardo Espinoza, who owns Vilma's Taqueria restaurant and retail store with his wife, Vilma. He said museum visitors already come in to eat or buy pottery, sombreros or the other items he sells, and he expects that to increase because of the museum's listing.

Louise Martin, who owns Elm Street Antiques and Collectibles nearby, said she doesn't market to tourists, but they still find her shop.

"We see pretty regular people coming through and they ... go to the home where he (Clinton) was raised and (another Clinton home) on 13th Street," she said, referring to the home Clinton and his mother lived in after she married Roger Clinton, who was father to the future president's brother of the same name.

Both the Clinton homes in Hope are owned by the Clinton Birthplace Foundation, but the 13th Street home is not open to the public. Displays can be viewed through the front windows.