CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Having a big time in Little Rock

The guy from the Little Rock convention and visitors bureau said it himself: “That first airline ticket to Little Rock is the toughest one.”

Maybe so, but I certainly wasn’t a member of the why-in-the-world-arewe-meeting-in-Little-Rock crowd. I was eager to check it out.

I must confess, however, the extent of my knowledge about the capital of Arkansas was limited before the meeting I attended there June 1-3.

I knew the city was home to many things Bill Clinton and to host paper Arkansas Business, a publication similar to IBJ, except that it covers the whole state instead of just the capital.

I also knew the far-northwestern town of Bentonville was home to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and that the previously thought-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker was sighted in a huge swamp in the state’s east-central region in 2004.

Even worse, before I looked at a map on the airplane ride down, I thought Arkansas was on the Gulf of Mexico. (OK, I know that’s dumb.)

So, anyway, now I’m impressed. During a meeting of the Alliance of Area Business Publications, I learned a lot more about Little Rock and its people, who lend credibility to the old saw about Southern hospitality.

Of course, my feelings of being warmly welcomed and appreciated might have been slightly influenced by the fact that IBJ won nine awards (five golds, three silvers and a bronze) at the annual Editorial and Design Awards banquet on the final night of the conference. (See story on page3.)

But I digress. With a metro-area population of more than 600,000, Little Rock is relatively small, but that was a huge part of its appeal. I guess that’s also why Arkansas Business extends its coverage statewide.

Our meeting was held in the Peabody Hotel, on the banks of the Arkansas River and in the heart of the entertainment and dining district. That made for some good times and some good meals. The hotel was awesome and the location was perfect.

Host Publisher Jeff Hankins filled our weekend with great receptions, lunches, personalities and speakers, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican.

I wrote about Huckabee earlier this year in a column about obesity and wellness. The Arkansas governor, who lost 110 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes in 2003, is now a crusader for good health in his home state. He’s also an engaging speaker who both enlightened and entertained us.

On the first night, Hankins hosted a group of a dozen publishers at the well-known local eatery Doe’s Eat Place, made famous by President Clinton’s propensity to hang and eat there with his cronies, including the likes of James Carville.

A bit of a dive, Doe’s has black-and-white linoleum floors, steel tables and vinyl seats, red-checkered tablecloths and autographed photos of politicians all over the walls. But it’s charming. It’s also home to super-size family-style dinners focusing primarily on steaks that come in two-pound minimums.

Of course, I couldn’t go to Little Rock without visiting the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which was less than a mile’s walk from our hotel. I’d never been to a presidential library, and it was well worth the visit.

No matter your feelings about the man himself, the library is impressive. The modern, steel-and-glass structure near the river houses exact replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room of Clinton’s presidency. More important, it’s full of time lines and memorabilia of Clinton’s two terms.

As one might expect, not much is made of the impeachment proceedings, and I don’t recall seeing Monica Lewinsky’s name anywhere. But, hey, what would you expect from a museum designed to honor a hometown favorite?

Unless Hankins invites me down again for some reason or I go back to find that woodpecker for myself, I probably won’t make it back to Little Rock. But, I’m glad I went. And, if you ever get invited, don’t grumble. Get up and go, and you’ll enjoy yourself.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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