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Arkansas: "Billgrimage" Has Clinton's Hope Birthplace Back in the Black

David Hammer

Associated Press

May 27, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Associated Press, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Associated Press.]

LITTLE ROCK (AP) -- The summer travel season is here, the Clinton Presidential Library is drawing more than 1,500 visitors a day, and 115 miles away in Hope, the director of Bill Clinton's birthplace museum is seeing a new tourism phenomenon: "Billgrimage."

"People are coming from the library saying they're making a Billgrimage to Arkansas; it's so cute," giggles Crystal Altenbaumer.

She has a right to delight in this new word: These pilgrims to all-things-Clinton are helping to resurrect the Clinton Birthplace's suffering bottom line.

Internal Revenue Service documents show donations to the nonprofit Clinton Birthplace Foundation were down slightly in the year leading up to the Nov. 18, 2004, opening of the $165 million library and museum in Little Rock. But even while Clinton supporters focused their donations on the big project, the library buzz helped boost tourism in Hope and the birthplace experienced its first annual operating surplus in eight years.

Two years ago, Altenbaumer predicted a tourism tidal wave for the white foursquare house where Clinton lived as a child with his mother and his grandparents, Eldridge and Edith Cassidy, until he was 4.

For the period ending June 30, 2004, income outpaced expenses by $806 - a huge improvement from the $50,934 deficit recorded in 2003. And Altenbaumer said numbers since the library opened have only improved.

"Tourism has picked up tremendously, and our big season is always when schools are out," she said. "This past week we've seen a lot of that pick up, and it always gets better after Memorial Day."

The 2004 numbers for the nonprofit that built the library are not available because the Clinton Presidential Foundation has received a filing extension from the IRS.

Gary Johnson, who runs the city-owned Hope Visitor Center & Museum down the road, said each month for the past year, visitation has increased between 25 and 60 percent from the same month a year earlier.

"I'd say three-quarters of them are coming in from or have already been to the library," said Johnson, whose mother, Elaine, chairs the Birthplace Foundation. "I've actually had people come in here complaining that there were too many people at the library. But I knew it would only help us."

Through the first half of May, more than 1,000 people have come through the Hope Visitor Center & Museum's restored train station, while only 800 were there for the whole month last year. Even in February, typically the worst month of the year for tourism, the visitor center saw a 58 percent increase in tourism, from 439 in 2004 to 685 in 2005, Johnson said.

Altenbaumer said the birthplace museum brings in many, but not all of those who stop at the visitor center. Many, she said, simply drive by the house and slow down, but don't have time to see the memorabilia, the house's 1946 decor, rotating photograph exhibits on loan from the library archive and the ever-expanding gift shop.

But gift-shop revenues are also on the rise, thanks to plentiful donations from Elaine Johnson and items from the Clinton Museum Store in Little Rock, Altenbaumer said.