If there’s one thing we know in October that we didn’t know in March, it’s that the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States would not only introduce new economic distress, but put a spotlight on existing woes. And the economic crisis isn’t just threatening those needs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy — hunger, shelter, clean water — it’s putting a devastating strain on arts and live performance. Ask any working musician, or ballet dancer, or concert promoter, and they’ll tell you: When the economy goes south, even when it dips more marginally than it has over the last eight months, live performance gets cut out of peoples’ calendars — and budgets. Add to that the obvious: that gathering audiences, even in small numbers, remains risky. So, while barbershops and churches and gyms and restaurants across the country are easing their doors open incrementally, theaters, nightclubs and performing arts centers remain mostly dark. Worse, many of them have been deprioritized or left out altogether when it comes to monetary relief packages. Unlike parts of the country where the virus peaked in spring and summer and is now waning, Arkansas continues to pop up on lists of U.S. coronavirus “hotspots” this fall. In an Oct. 18 report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Arkansas ranked second in the nation in new COVID-19 deaths per capita; only North Dakota reported a higher death rate that week. Within five days of that report, Arkansas would announce its highest daily increase ever in the number of new cases, reporting 1,337 new cases on Oct. 23.*
The first fiscal quarter of 2021 looks no rosier for performance venues, either. How will live music venues in Arkansas fare when the economic recession, a potential winter wave of COVID and the seasonal flu triangulate paths? We talked with a few of the people staring down those perils in venues along the Arkansas River waterfront: Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Gretchen Hall, Simmons Bank Arena General Manager Michael Marion and Four Quarter Bar owner Conan Robinson.
On the afternoon of March 13, touring Christian hip-hop artist Toby McKeehan, who performs as TobyMac (a DC Talk alum, for anyone who went to church camp in the ’90s), penned an announcement to his fans: “We are at this very moment completely set up at the Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock and regretfully but responsibly won’t be able to play tonight,” he said. “We encourage you to be safe, pray, and care for your families.” Earlier that day, McKeehan and the arena crew had watched as President Trump declared a national state of emergency at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s how the 2020 calendar began to crumble for Simmons Bank Arena (nee Verizon Arena, nee Alltel Arena), an 18,000-seat indoor stadium built in the late ’90s with the help of a one-year, 1-cent sales tax, a $20 million contribution from the state, $17 million in private money and $7 million from the now-defunct Alltel Corp. The arena’s known for the 25 or so blockbuster concerts it hosts every year with headliners like Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, Janet Jackson, Bruno Mars, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones, but it hosts about 120 nonconcert events every year, too: monster truck rallies, “Disney on Ice,” professional bull riding tournaments and community events, like the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Little Rock appearance in 2019.
Simmons Bank Arena General Manager Michael Marion, Director of Marketing Jana DeGeorge and the rest of the arena’s employees have been sweating the pandemic’s effects, quite literally; in efforts to reduce the building’s substantial electric bill this summer, Marion said, “We were only running the chillers from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., at 78 degrees, so we got a little toasty in here. We were all wearing shorts to work.” Nearly 200 part-timers — the ones who worked on a per-event basis — have been furloughed, and the arena has laid off four of its 25 full-time employees. Since big-name performing artists collect most of the money from concert ticket sales, the arena’s bottom line depends on “a lot of things that don’t quite have the sizzle of Elton John,” Marion said, such as renting the venue out to groups like the Homebuilders Association of Greater Little Rock, which hosts a consumer home show there every year.
Crucial, too, is the nearly $2 million the arena garners every year in food and beverage sales, a portion of which has historically been donated to nonprofit groups that contract an evening’s concession stands as a fundraiser. And, like the LRCVB’s properties across the river, the arena has fixed costs that don’t go away when the building sits empty.
Without that ancillary revenue, Marion said, he expects the arena’s total revenues will be about $3.45 million in 2020, down from approximately $10 million in 2019. Clouding the arena’s prospects, too, is the fact that it is ineligible for federal relief measures like the Payroll Protection Program funded through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act early in the pandemic, or for any of the $55 million made available in April through Arkansas’s Ready for Business grants. As targeted relief talks have continued this fall, the state announced in October that it would allocate $50 million in CARES Act money to assist nonprofits and businesses in the “personal care, tourism, travel, recreation, and hospitality industries,” and the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee approved another $150 million in targeted relief to cities and counties. But, the arena is not eligible for either allocation. “We’re in a tough position,” Marion said. “We don’t qualify for any of the state or federal benefits, because we’re partly governmental. So, even though we don’t receive anything from the taxpayers,” he said, they have received zero coronavirus relief dollars thus far. “And, by the way,” Marion said, “we pay a million in sales tax a year every year, ourselves. So that $20 million [the state] gave us 20 years ago, we’ve almost paid it back. I’m appreciative of everything they’ve done, but dang, we pay all this sales tax and we’re not eligible for anything.”
The 2020 calendar remains largely tentative for Marion; 2021, too. Nickelodeon star JoJo Siwa is on the books for Aug. 17, 2021, and Maroon 5 for the following night, but whether big concerts can happen safely any sooner, or will get postponed even further, Marion said, “could all change tomorrow.” The arena is holding a date for a potential Razorbacks basketball game this December. If it happens, Marion says, the audience capacity will likely be reduced to around 4,500 seats, or 25 percent of the arena’s 18,000-seat capacity.
“It’s just the nature of where we are. We’re all waiting on the vaccine. That’s gonna be the kicker as far as getting back to normal. … I have no argument with any of the state regulations. I personally think the governor’s done a good job, and the arena certainly supports all the measures he’s taken, whether it’s requiring the mask, or the social distancing, or minimizing crowds.”
Meanwhile, Marion, DeGeorge and crew are starting small — and outdoors. They hosted a closed-to-the-public, live-streamed concert from country singer and Poyen (Grant County) native Justin Moore in April to benefit Arkansas food banks, and held Food Truck Fridays every week in October, opening up its VIP parking lot to local eateries for a few hours and selling the arena’s own concession stand offerings, too. “There’s some good amidst all of it,” Marion said, and when the virus’ threat subsides, “we’ll be so busy we won’t know what to do.”
Not far from Simmons Bank Arena sits Four Quarter Bar, in North Little Rock’s picturesque Argenta Arts District. Late Midtown Billiards maven Maggie Hinson helped her longtime bartender Conan Robinson establish Four Quarter in 2015, and Robinson has methodically revamped the place over the last half-decade, opening up skylights, booking everything from blues to bluegrass, and ushering in a late-night menu that quietly rivals our scene’s higher-end eateries. You could call it a dive, but you’d be only partly right; how many dives smoke their own local pork belly and serve slices of it atop bone broth ramen? (Four Quarter Veggie Hash: Love you. Miss you. Can’t wait to hang out again in person.)
When the state government began to lift coronavirus restrictions on Arkansas bars on May 26, Robinson kept Four Quarter’s doors closed. Opening at 33 percent capacity, he told Business Insider that month, was like “opening up to tread water and not to drown,” and he worried about the risk of exposing his employees to the virus. So he waited. Then, however, his employees’ unemployment checks stopped coming.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess we’re gonna have to open back up,” Robinson told the Times in late September. “And I hate it, because it doesn’t seem like things have gotten much better.” Four Quarter reopened Aug. 1, not because Arkansas’s coronavirus cases were subsiding (they weren’t), but because Robinson felt he had no other choice.
“Every day, it’s just a moral dilemma in my head,” he said. “Doing what’s right for my employees and my business, trying to stay afloat, but also trying to get this to stop.” Robinson’s put in plexiglass barriers between tables and installed an iWave air purifier in the building’s ventilation system. He’s posted signs letting people know how to order safely from the bar, and directing them to remove their masks only while seated. He’s booked zero indoor concerts. Because of Four Quarter’s shotgun layout, he’s operating at well below the 66 percent capacity restriction. Though restaurants are now allowed to operate at two-thirds capacity, “really, safely, I can only operate at one-third capacity right now,” Robinson said. Still, he said, “You do all that, and you’re still not sure it’s all going to work. It’s tough. I don’t wanna be part of the problem.”
Here’s the surprising thing, though: Four Quarter Bar is approaching pre-COVID levels of business, and Robinson has two more people on his payroll than he did when the pandemic began. His saving grace, he said, has been twofold. For one thing, North Little Rock approved the creation of an Argenta Outdoor Dining District in June, allowing patrons to carry alcoholic beverages outdoors within the confines of the district. “We close the streets off at 6 on Friday,” Robinson said, “and all the businesses down here are set up with 12 tents per business. It’s just an extension of our bar, is what it is. And that has helped phenomenally.” He and his fellow Argenta business owners — Brood and Barley, Flyway, Reno’s, Skinny J’s, Capeo and others — partner more closely than they did before the pandemic, Robinson said. They meet every Tuesday to debrief the prior weekend’s successes, and to cook up new events — chili cookoffs, cheese dip competitions — “just to get people down to do some things outside that feel normal again.”
As of Sept. 30, Robinson had booked 15 or 16 outdoor shows across the street from the bar, bringing the likes of percussionist Mike Dillon and Northwest Arkansas-based string band Arkansauce to the steps of the Laman Library. “They’re playing in front of this really cool building, with these pillars,” Robinson said, “and they’re at least 100 feet away from anyone, and the sound just kinda carries down through the street. It’s pretty awesome.”
The other secret weapon at Robinson’s disposal: the food. Four Quarter is selling about four times as much food as it did during pre-pandemic times, Robinson said, and he’s had to hire food runners to serve the outdoor dining district visitors on the weekends. “We’ve turned into a ‘sit down and enjoy some drinks,’ instead of a ‘get done eating and come out here to drink and socialize,’ and I think taking that turn in my business model is what’s keeping us afloat right now.”
The people he doesn’t see as much: the service industry workers who used to come in after their shifts and have a drink at the bar — people who, Robinson says, are among the most COVID-cautious, and are heading home after their shifts instead. “Our crowd’s changed a lot,” he said. “I’m missing a lot of my regulars.”
The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau manages the Statehouse Convention Center, Robinson Center, multiple downtown parking facilities and the River Market, including Ottenheimer Hall, First Security Amphitheater and the open-air pavilions in Riverfront Park. Like other CVBs around the country, Little Rock’s is funded primarily by hotel and restaurant taxes. In 2019, tax receipts accounted for 74 percent of LRCVB’s $20.1 million in revenue, and events at Robinson Center and the Statehouse Convention Center accounted for another 15 percent.
As late as March 3, 2020, the Bureau’s press releases sounded sunny; LRCVB’s governing body, the Advertising & Promotion Commission, was preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and the touring Broadway productions of “Wicked” in January had packed audiences into Robinson Center. Food and lodging tax revenue for 2019 was up 4.19 percent from 2018, and revenues from the River Market Entertainment District, established in August 2019, continued to bode well for the CVB’s bottom line, with the new district allowing people to take their alcoholic beverages outdoors bringing in new customers. But the LRCVB’s health depends on hotel beds being occupied and restaurants being full, neither of which is happening right now. When the tourism industry in Arkansas began to take a nosedive in mid-March and event cancellations flooded in, Hall and her team began cutting variable costs, suspending nightly cleaning services wherever they could. It wasn’t enough. In April, the bureau furloughed 65 full-time employees and 100 part-time workers. Eventually, facing an anticipated annual revenue loss of around $6.5 million and fixed maintenance costs, the LRCVB laid off 39 people in September — 35 full-time workers and four part-time — losing nearly a third of its staff. “We couldn’t justify keeping them on furlough because of the financial situation, and knowing that we probably won’t return to 2019 business levels until 2022 and beyond,” Hall said.
Like Simmons Bank Arena, the LRCVB’s classification as a governmental entity means it has been ineligible for either federal or state relief. Stacy Hurst, who directs the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, led the development of the $50 million allocation program for Arkansas’s hospitality industry, and worked with Hall and the LRCVB to develop its parameters. The LRCVB, too, was involved in “numerous conversations” about the details of the $150 million allocated for cities and counties, Hall said.
But neither allocation funded the LRCVB. The hope is for leftovers: “Many feel that every city and county will not be able to utilize their full allocation,” Hall said. On Oct. 20, the Little Rock Board of Directors asked the state for $3 million for the CVB from the federal relief program’s yet-unallocated funds.
Meanwhile, Little Rock’s restaurants, Hall said, are rebounding much more quickly than its hotels; a report provided to the LRCVB showed that downtown hotel occupancy plummeted by 85 percent in April 2020 over April 2019. It’s improved incrementally each month — down 54 percent in August, down 46 percent in September — and is down about 47 percent for the year. “We’re hopeful that we’ll get through the rest of this year,” Hall said, “but ’21’s a different story. We know based on our research and our own bookings that the recovery for tourism here, and for us, will take multiple years. To really come back to pre-COVID levels, we’re looking at, probably, two years, and it’s gonna be tight, especially if we aren’t able to receive any support from the federal or state level.”
Hall says she’s been excited to hear from many of her former employees — the ones LRCVB laid off in September — who have since found employment elsewhere. And, she said, “We still have another 18 members on full or partial furlough, and we’re hoping to bring them back full-time by the first of the year.”
*This article has been updated to reflect a new record in daily coronavirus cases, announced just after the Arkansas Times went to press.