NLR outdoor dining district aids economy

The entertainment district in North Little Rock has helped stimulate economic activity downtown during the covid-19 pandemic, but officials still have big plans for the area.

The North Little Rock City Council unanimously approved in June an ordinance to establish an entertainment district downtown as quickly as possible in an effort to boost the local economy amid the covid-19 pandemic.

The Argenta outdoor dining district ordinance allows restaurants, bars and breweries within the entertainment district to sell alcoholic beverages that may be taken out of the establishment and consumed within the district’s boundaries between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

Boundaries of the district include Main Street and portions of Poplar Street, East Fifth Street and West Fourth Street. No outside beverages are allowed in the area.

Mayor Joe Smith said opening the outdoor district can be considered a win-win situation for everybody.

“I just think the patrons are loving the concept where they can enjoy the outdoors safely and browse from one area to the other,” he said. “It has turned into a place to be.”

Bob Major, president and chief executive officer of the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in an email that the entertainment district has accomplished what it was created to do. It has stimulated the economy, allowed restaurants to seat more patrons with social distancing and contributed positively to the “Argenta vibe.”

“In general, everyone has been great about following the guidelines and they appreciate having a safe, outdoor space to dine,” Major said. “People throughout central Arkansas are discovering Argenta, and the vibe of our outdoor dining is exciting for everyone involved.”

The Argenta Downtown Council and the city of North Little Rock began in August the next phase of the Argenta Outdoor Dining District by closing Main Street to allow for outdoor dining on Fridays and Saturdays.

“It has surpassed everyone’s expectations,” Major said. “It has grown from 10 tents and two restaurants, to 80 tents and 10 restaurants participating.”

From Friday evening around 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. Saturday, Main Street is blocked for two blocks from Broadway to Fifth Street.

Chris Kent, executive director of the Argenta Downtown Council, said the idea for the Main Street closure came from the tent city created by Flyway Brewing at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Flyway couldn’t make money on only around 30% capacity, so we worked with them on tent city,” he said. “It was such a success that we pitched the city on closing the street and trying it with all the restaurants.

“It has exceeded our expectations.”

Kent said the decision to close Main Street on the weekends has been a lifesaver for some restaurants.

“Some of the restaurants were right on the edge,” he said. “Now some of these restaurants have had record-breaking days for sales. It has given them life and kept their doors open. We haven’t lost any restaurants at this point.”

Major said the main benefit is how downtown restaurants have begun working closer together to ensure their customers have a fun, safe experience in Argenta. It’s also putting people back to work.

“The restaurants have added almost 20 new employees to the workforce in North Little Rock,” he said.

Kent said restaurants are working on some fun ideas for the immediate future around outdoor culinary events.

He said every week his organization gets together with restaurants to talk about ideas.

“We want to expand our music offerings as well,” he said. “Right now we are doing music on the library steps on Fridays and Saturdays, but we are looking at having some music going at the same time on the 400th block around Flyway and Brood and Barley. We are also looking at a foodie-type of event. Something like a mini-food competition in October.”

Kent said he wants the outdoor dining experience to continue post-pandemic, but also has put limitations on it to prevent downtown North Little Rock from becoming a party area.

“One thing that we did was to make sure we stop at 10 p.m. to avoid becoming Beale or Bourbon Street,” he said. “This is not a crazy party place. It’s a nice place to hang out and have a few drinks and some food with friends.”

Major said he expects outdoor dining to continue well into the fall and return early in the spring.

Additional restaurants may choose to participate, he said, which could expand the footprint of outdoor dining.

“We look forward to the day when we can safely hold events, festivals and concerts again, because Argenta is the perfect location.”

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