Magazine September 2019 Tourism

Growth Mode: Hospitality Industry Is Good Business For Little Rock

Hospitality

by Mark Carter |  Photography by Jamison Mosley

The Paint Factory is a new mixed-use space in Little Rock’s emerging East Village.

Just as natives do in almost any city, Little Rock residents sometimes take their hometown for granted. But Gretchen Hall says the city has a lot to offer. Of course, she’s president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau; it’s her job to say such things.

But Hall, who grew up in Sheridan and graduated from Little Rock’s Mount Saint Mary Academy, is a believer in Little Rock and its ability to deliver hospitality. And the numbers back her up. The city’s tourism/hospitality tax collections are up 4.4 percent to $4.8 million in 2019, the most in the state by far, and facility usage is up at Robinson Center and the Statehouse Convention Center.

And there are more hospitality jobs in central Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Hospitality Association. The Little Rock metro (including North Little Rock, Conway, Benton and Bryant) averaged 34,530 industry jobs in the first four months of 2019, up 3.1 percent from 2018.

Many of those jobs, of course, are centered downtown. The River Market remains a draw; the newly developed East Village is evolving into its own wining-and-dining destination, and the new entertainment district promises to attract more visitors downtown.

“Our research says that people don’t have a negative perception of Little Rock. If they haven’t been here, they don’t have a perception. Once they visit, we’re a pleasant surprise. Visitors say our people are friendly, we have a lot to offer and we’re affordable. It’s pretty easy to sell once we get ‘em here.”

“2019 has been a tremendous year so far,” Hall says.

Indeed, hospitality business has been good. More broad than simple tourism and entailing leisure services to locals, tourists and business travelers, the hospitality industry in Little Rock has been in growth mode for a decade, Hall says.

Tax collections for hotels and restaurants — the backbone of hospitality — are up 4.2 percent year-to-date, hotels 4.3 percent and restaurants 4.1. The city now has 950 hospitality tax permittees, lodging accounting for 80 of them.

Nikki Parnell, senior vice president for finance and administration at LRCVB, notes another sign of growth: “It is important to note that we’re seeing significant growth in collections from facilitating platforms like Bitesquad and Airbnb, especially in the prepared food category.”

The first six months of 2019 saw significant growth for caterers and food trucks, she says. Hotel business is up across its three subcategories: full service (think Capital Hotel); limited service (Hampton Inn); and facilitating (Airbnb). But the city’s 50 limited-service properties are leading that growth.

Hall believes in the tried-and-true philosophy of underselling and overdelivering, and she says Little Rock consistently overdelivers. Like Razorback coaches who cite an easy sales job once they get a recruit on campus, bureau research reveals something similar may be true for the capital city. It’s just about getting them to your destination. 

“Our research says that people don’t have a negative perception of Little Rock,” she says. “If they haven’t been here, they don’t have a perception. Once they visit, we’re a pleasant surprise. Visitors say our people are friendly, we have a lot to offer and we’re affordable. It’s pretty easy to sell once we get ‘em here.”

The city markets and promotes all its distinct neighborhoods, Hall says, but in a healthy city, it begins downtown. “When downtown is thriving, there is a ripple effect.”

And downtown now boasts an entertainment district where restaurant and bar patrons can walk the streets carrying open containers of alcohol under certain conditions. Since the Arkansas state legislature passed a law this past spring enabling cities in already wet counties to create these districts, cities have moseyed up to the proverbial bar. Mountain Home, of all cities, was first to dive in. El Dorado, where tourism tax dollars are up 38 percent, and Little Rock officially are on board and districts are being discussed in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Hot Springs, North Little Rock and Texarkana.

Little Rock’s entertainment district encompasses the heart of the River Market — the pavilions area and the three-block stretch of Clinton Avenue from Cumberland to the overpass. The city was all in once the state gave its blessing.

“We helped advocate for that on the state level,” Hall says. “We’d been working on it for quite some time. We’re trying to do it right, and we’re well on our way.”

The new law now makes it easier to establish temporary areas around events, such as has been the case in Little Rock with Riverfest. And Hall says the law sets a parameter to allow more areas of town to fall under the district.

Little Rock saw no real organized opposition to the law, and Jerry Cox of the Family Council believes that’s because there wasn’t time to effectively mount any. Cox, president of the Little Rock advocacy group, says city councils including Little Rock’s were planning in advance to act once the law was passed — by slim margins on the local and state levels, he notes — and people who might be opposed to the districts “just weren’t ready.”

“We may see a little more opposition in the coming months as people have time to think about it,” he says.

Cox concedes the city could see some economic boon associated with the district. But he believes its creation also could lead to increases in public drunkenness, drunk driving, underage drinking and disorderly conduct. Plus, he thinks it could have a long-term negative impact on both city taxpayers and the atmosphere of the emerging downtown residential community.

 “I don’t think it’s going to kill the River Market,” he says. “But economics always has to be balanced with quality of life.”

Cox believes an entertainment district is in the cards for Pine Bluff, soon-to-be home of Saracen Casino and Resort, and notes movement afoot in Conway to make Faulkner County wet so as to accommodate a district there.

As for the long-term impact on Little Rock, Cox looks to cities of similar size and demographics such as Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama. Montgomery experienced some problems with crime and disorderly conduct soon after it launched an entertainment district and was forced to dial back closing times at bars, he notes.

Little Rock’s district will be open on weekends until midnight Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday and on certain holidays. While acknowledging it will represent a work in progress, Little Rock officials are counting on the district to improve quality of life.

“It’s part of providing entertainment,” Hall says. “We’re trying to be careful and not establish this as a major street party with drinking. We’ll build up, embrace it. We see it as just another amenity to promote downtown.”

Mayor Frank Scott supported the district’s creation, and believes it to be “one more tool in our tool box as Little Rock becomes the catalyst for the new South.”

“We’re excited to have the entertainment district in Little Rock,” he says. “It will add to our quality of life and place. We really see an opportunity to leverage the entertainment district to recruit conventions and attract visitors.”

Scott said the city spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons, and he has no concerns moving forward. A Little Rock Police Department substation already exists in the River Market, and the district’s relatively small footprint is manageable, he says.

A River Market that more closely resembles similar districts in bigger cities will attract potential future residents — for example, millennials in the ever-emerging tech industry — and help alleviate local brain drain by keeping the city’s best and brightest at home, he believes.

“Young people will make decisions on where to live based on how they feel about a city,” he says.

The jury’s out on an open-container River Market, but a legitimate “big city” vibe is being planted nonetheless from the River Market and emerging East Village to the South Main district (SoMa). City officials believe this ongoing transformation can only benefit both residents and visitors. Hall and others in central Arkansas want to tie that vibe to Argenta, North Little Rock’s downtown corridor a stone’s throw away across the Arkansas River.

“Part of our big vision is to knit Argenta and the River Market together,” she says. “Connecting Argenta to SoMa including the River Market is very doable with the evolution of bike lanes and scooters. All these things create a walkable, pedestrian, non-vehicular downtown.”

Hall even envisions an enlarged entertainment district crossing the river. Public drinking notwithstanding, further connecting the two riverfronts with the SoMa corridor makes sense, she says.

“This gives us a lot to offer a visitor as downtown sprawls with all these neighborhoods with such distinct personalities,” she says. “East Village is developing its own identity. It’s been carved out as its own neighborhood, its own component to downtown. We love seeing that growth.”

Hall notes challenges ahead surrounding the “next big things” for downtown which will impact the hospitality industry: the renovated Arkansas Arts Center in McArthur Park, the Interstate 30 expansion through downtown and as always for any city, long-term parking.

“The new arts center will be a game changer,” she says. “And how will we navigate through the I-30 construction?”

Little Rock residents are managing the I-430 expansion; Hall is confident they’ll do the same for I-30. “We are way ahead of a lot of destinations. Other cities have visited us to see how Little Rock does it.” 

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JERRY COX

“I don’t think it’s going to kill the River Market,” he says. “But economics always has to be balanced with quality of life.”

 

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