On Friday, the River Market area in downtown Little Rock will officially become an entertainment district, allowing patrons of legal drinking age and older to enjoy alcoholic beverages in public — so long as they’re wearing a branded wristband and drinking their booze from official cups emblazoned with the district’s logo.
The Little Rock Board of Directors passed two ordinances in July approving the launch of the district. One ordinance authorized the creation of entertainment districts in Little Rock, and the second allowed for the designation of the River Market as a “permanent” entertainment district. The first ordinance also permits the creation of “temporary” entertainment districts, which can only exist for five days and must be applied for at least 30 days in advance.
Adults will be able to drink beer, wine and mixed drinks in the 300-600 blocks of President Clinton Avenue, the 100 block of North Rock Street, and the 100 block of St. Vincent Plaza. The area also encompasses the River Market pavilions and Ottenheimer Market Hall. The boundaries of the entertainment district will be marked by branded light pole banners and sidewalk decals.
Beginning on Aug. 23, folks can carry alcohol throughout the district on Fridays from 5 p.m. to midnight, on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to midnight, and on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The district has also designated special hours for a few holidays: On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; and on Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day and Christmas Eve, all from 8 a.m. to midnight.
Participating establishments include Buenos Aires Grill & Café’, Club 27, Cache, The bar in the Courtyard Marriott hotel, Damgoode Pies, Ernie Biggs, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Flying Saucer, Stickyz Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack, The Rev Room, Sonny Williams Steak Room, Willy D’s and Nexus Coffee. All establishments will offer wristbands, cups and to-go drinks.
In addition to outdoor areas in the entertainment district, visitors can also carry their drinks into several establishments that aren’t permitted to sell alcohol, including the Galleries at Library Square, Bobby Roberts Library of Arkansas History, The Barn, UA Little Rock Downtown, Kilwins, Freckled Frog and Four Square.
Olivia Klak, general manager of Flying Saucer, said the restaurant is “very excited” about the launch of the entertainment district and has scheduled extra staff over the weekend “in anticipation of the big crowd.” Klak added that it will offer different food and drink specials every day of the weekend, including a deal on Saturday where patrons can get a Lagunitas IPA for $3.50, a Porch Swing martini for $5, a glass of Lago Rosé wine for $6, or an order of chicken quesadillas for $9.99.
Daniel Bryant, who owns participating establishments Ernie Biggs and Gus’s as well as Big Whiskey’s, said the Downtown Little Rock Partnership has ordered the branded cups and wristbands, which then have to be purchased by the individual participating bars, restaurants and venues.
Bryant said that though Ernie Biggs and Gus’s will not be offering drink or food specials for the entertainment district launch, he’s hoping that the concerts scheduled by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership during the first two weekends of the district will provide additional incentives for people to spend time in the River Market district. On Saturday, Aug. 24, local rock band DeFrance will be performing at the corner of River Market Avenue and President Clinton Avenue from 7 to 10 p.m. During the following weekend, R&B and jazz ensemble Off The Cuff will perform at the same intersection from 7 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31.
Bryant also said he hopes the entertainment district will help attract more visitors from out of state and make Little Rock a more appealing destination for conferences.
“[It] lets the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau tout the entertainment district … so we can work up to competing with Memphis and Dallas, and Tulsa and Oklahoma City,” Bryant said. “It’s just another thing that they can point to, because my understanding is that when those conventions come in, they say, ‘OK, after we’ve had our meetings all day, what do you guys have to do in the evening for our people?’ Well, there’s this entertainment district.”
Bryant said that window service — which allows patrons to order food or drinks from a walk-up window — is “not something that we’re encouraging out of the gate” for participating establishments.
“One of the ways that we were able to garner support for this, broad-based, was to tell people that we were not looking to turn this into Beale Street or Bourbon Street,” Bryant said. “We feel like if you start selling straight onto the street, you might have someone rent a 300 square foot window space and just sell daiquiris onto the street, and that’s not what we’re looking for. It’s not what we sold to legislators, it’s not what we sold to the city, and I don’t think that’s what anyone is looking for here. We’re just looking for a responsible addition.”
“The keyword is ‘complimentary,’ as opposed to ‘main focus,’ ” Bryant added.
Critics have used Bourbon and Beale streets as an argument against the entertainment district, saying that having such a designated area encourages the kind of public drinking that occurs on those famous avenues, according to Bryant.
“We’ve wrestled a little bit with … a small minority that didn’t support this,” Bryant said. “The [law] they use against it is [for] public drinking, and we feel that that’s an inaccurate way of describing what’s going on, because if you’ve ever been to a patio or a professional sports game or a restaurant, they’re drinking in public. Those are public spaces. And this is no different. … There’s no more likelihood of underage drinking or over serving or anything like that because of what we’re doing. We’re simply allowing adults to move around a little bit more freely in a small space.”
Bryant said he’ll be joined by Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the LRCVB, and Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, as well as several other business owners in donning the signature neon yellow vests of the city’s ambassadors. The ambassador program stations employees in different areas of downtown Little Rock to help patrons with directions, walk people to their cars, report maintenance issues and assist the Little Rock Police Department with surveillance. Bryant said the business owners and organization heads will be there to help answer questions and educate visitors “to support [the entertainment district] and make sure it rolls out with no issues.”
Additional ambassadors will be scheduled, and their shifts extended by an hour, to help during the launch of the entertainment district.