In June, the North Little Rock city council unanimously approved the creation of the Argenta Outdoor Dining District. The entertainment district authorizes social-distance-friendly outdoor dining and, more significantly, open container carry-and-consume privileges of alcoholic beverages.
Stephanie Slagle, marketing director for the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the council was moved to act quickly on the measure given the devastating effects of COVID-19 on economic activity in the historic downtown area.
“On a typical day last year in downtown, you could go see a game at Dickey Stephens Park, you could go to a concert at Simmons Bank Arena, the theaters were open, the restaurants and bars were open and there was, usually, a lot of people,” she said. “Well, obviously, COVID hit and it closed down a lot of our venues. Even before the outdoor dining district passed, the restaurants had to get really creative about how they were doing things.”
The Argenta Outdoor Dining District is in effect every day of the week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., covering an area on Main Street from 8th Street to Broadway and 4th Street from Maple to Poplar. It also includes Argenta Plaza which the CVB retains the right to include or exclude due to private or special events.
The district is the latest created under Act 812, passed last year by the Arkansas legislature, which allowed for the creation of such areas to promote tourism. And while the public drinking aspect of the law has routinely come under criticism, proponents said Argenta’s primary motivation was pushing business, not booze.
“Our Argenta businesses have been hit especially hard, because the neighborhood thrives on an atmosphere of togetherness,” said Chris Kent, executive director of the Argenta Downtown Council via a press 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 outdoor dining district is, basically, an entertainment district,” Slagle added. “We didn’t want to focus so much on the ‘entertainment,’ New Orleans-style, side of it. We really want to promote the restaurants as much as we can, especially in the downtown area.”
“Originally, without COVID, we wanted outdoor dining to be an experience and a way for businesses to expand out into the street and the sidewalks. This is an immediate way to let them start spreading out their customers. They can put tables out on the sidewalks and people can eat outside.”
Slagle also noted creation of the new district brings with it a streamlined permitting process for future events at such time as organizers feel it is safe to do so.
“It’s all the little things that you don’t think about. Everybody now has to have hand sanitizer and masks. Do you do temperature checks? Do you limit the number of tickets? All the event organizers are trying to wrap their heads around it,” Slagle said. “What we’re trying to do [at the CVB] is not just attract new events, but work with organizers to make their events safe.”
Participating businesses in the entertainment district are identified by a sticker where, if that business serves alcohol, patrons can take their drink outside. Individuals are allowed to consume alcohol only within the boundaries of the district, which are also clearly marked. No outside alcoholic beverages are permitted to be brought into the district.
Additionally, customers are not allowed to take a drink from one business into another business that sells alcohol. Patrons can take their drink into a participating business that doesn’t sell alcohol, such as a barber shop or beauty salon. As of July 20, more than 20 businesses had signed on as AODD participating businesses.