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North Little Rock’s new entertainment district is all about allowing restaurant patrons to hang out and relax outside — but not party hard — in the Argenta neighborhood.
It’s the latest city to take advantage of Act 812, which authorizes the creation of entertainment districts and was approved by legislators in 2019. These districts allow possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages outside of bars and restaurants, as long as the open possession occurs within a defined area.
“We didn’t want it to be just another place where people could just go get drinks and party in the street,” said Chris Kent, executive director of the Argenta Downtown Council. “The mayor, the city, even a lot of the restaurants, weren’t looking for some kind of New Orleans atmosphere in Argenta. We’re a little more of a mature area.”
The purpose of the district, he said, is to create “economic opportunities for the businesses” and “a safe place for people to enjoy themselves.”
Community leaders want the district to encourage more outdoor dining, and they’ve named it the “Argenta Outdoor Dining District.” The Argenta Downtown Council is working to set up outdoor spaces for diners to enjoy as area restaurants and bars reopen as the state lifts COVID-19 restrictions. They think outdoor dining will better facilitate social distancing.
Kent said businesses in the district had been supportive of the effort and included in the process since the beginning. The idea for the district has been in the works for about a year, but the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic added urgency, he said.
So, two months shy of the one-year anniversary of its across-the-river counterpart’s entertainment district opening, the North Little Rock City Council last week unanimously approved an ordinance to establish the district.
The city, the Argenta Downtown Council and the North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau worked together to get the ordinance passed quickly because of current economic conditions.
“Our Argenta businesses have been hit especially hard, because the neighborhood thrives on an atmosphere of togetherness,” Kent said in a news release. “The live performances and events that are part of the Argenta experience have, for good reason, been put on hold. This outdoor dining district allows us to recapture some of that spirit, but in safe ways.”
The Argenta Outdoor Dining District will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
Hours for the River Market Entertainment District in Little Rock are 5 p.m.-midnight on Friday, 8 a.m.-midnight on Saturday and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on Sunday.
Kent said the Argenta district’s hours are in tune with the operating hours of restaurants and bars in the district and that they reinforce the type of atmosphere community leaders want to cultivate.
The district is Main Street from Eighth Street to Broadway Street, Fourth Street from Maple Street to Poplar Street, and Argenta Plaza. The NLRCVB would have the option to include or exclude Argenta Plaza during private or special events held there.
The district’s boundaries will be marked on sidewalks. The Argenta district also encompasses a larger area than the four-block River Market district.
Kent said community leaders produced probably 40 maps, some encompassing an even larger area, but they ultimately decided that the district as drawn was both manageable and practical.
Businesses in the district include Flyway Brewing, Cregeen’s Irish Pub, Four Quarter Bar, Mugs Cafe, Skinny J’s, Reno’s Argenta Cafe, Crush Wine Bar and First Orion’s recently opened headquarters. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub is also in the district.
“First Orion chose to headquarter in Argenta in hopes that we could help expedite the development of the area as a whole, and we’re excited to see these changes happening,” Chief People Officer Libbi Whitehurst told Arkansas Business in an email. “Our company is committed to helping local businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, and the opportunity to continue supporting the area’s restaurants and breweries in a new way is more than welcome.”
She also said the area was already an “easy sell” to prospective talent and the district adds to its appeal.
The company encourages a healthy work-life balance. It hosts weekly “Beer:30” get-togethers for all employees.
“Given the popularity of our company-branded t-shirts, it’s likely you’ll see a couple in the entertainment district in the future,” Whitehurst added.
“We’re thrilled. We’re excited about it. It’s awesome. We think it’ll make the neighborhood a destination in a way that it wasn’t before,” Jess McMullen of Flyway Brewing told Arkansas Business.
Flyway already knows that outdoor dining works for it. The Argenta Downtown Council helped the brewery open an outdoor dining space in its parking lot while its tap room was closed. That space has been dubbed “tent city.” The council donated tents and helped market it.
McMullen said, now that the district has been established, the brewery will offer to-go beers and encourage its customers to walk around Argenta and visit neighboring establishments.
“The camaraderie it’s going to bring to the local restaurant and bar industry is fantastic and, I think, will make it a destination for events as well as people just coming out and hanging out,” he said. “We’re looking at all sorts of options. It’s a chill neighborhood down here. I wouldn’t compare it directly with the River [Market] District across the river. They have a great neighborhood, too.”
One event that could attract visitors to the district is Argenta’s monthly art walk.
Kent, with the council, envisioned patrons strolling out of a restaurant with a glass of wine and walking into numerous galleries, the THEA Foundation and Argenta Community Theater.
He said people would be able to buy their alcoholic beverages from one place and bring them into a place that doesn’t sell alcoholic beverages, but they wouldn’t be able to bring a drink they bought from one bar into a different bar.
Kyle Owen with Cregeen’s Irish Pub said he’s also excited about the change. The pub already has outdoor seating, and he said it would start offering plastic cups so patrons don’t walk off with its glassware.
Owen added that Argenta “has always been a nice little secret and a great little place for the locals around here, and now we’re trying to open up and share that secret with the rest of the state.”