Long before a country-music singer took the Verizon Arena stage Friday night, many of his fans explored downtown Little Rock's new entertainment district with their libations of choice in hand.
A new measure allows bar and restaurant patrons in the River Market Entertainment District to put on wristbands and carry branded cups to the sidewalk in a four-block strip of President Clinton Avenue.
"It's just another way to drive tourism and economic development in the River Market," Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, said Friday while holding a gin and lemonade. "It's attractive to businesses, conventions, special events. It's just a good thing."
Little Rock is the third city in Arkansas and one of many major metropolitan areas across the nation to implement such legislation, joining New Orleans, Memphis, Las Vegas and others.
As the afternoon turned dark, more people began to stream up and down the sidewalks around street performers, two mounted patrol officers and outdoor vendors. Almost every corner had a different style of music playing on speakers as wristband-wearing, cup-holding patrons passed by.
"People are doing what they're supposed to, that's really all we can ask," police Lt. Cody Miller said around 8 p.m. "We're just here really in an educational way right now. We're not going to stand at the exits and arrest anyone who goes past it. We're trying to point people in the right direction and help them understand the rules."
The Little Rock city board approved the entertainment district on July 23 and set regulations for the alcohol-friendly area last week.
The district allows open containers 5 p.m. to midnight on Fridays; 8 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays; 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve/New Year's Day; and 8 a.m. to midnight on Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, July 4 and Christmas Eve.
Imbibing patrons who wish to take their drinks onto the street will pay an extra dollar on top of the cost of the cocktail, wine or beer in exchange for a reusable, plant-based to-go cup and a wristband. State law forbids drinks from one establishment being taken into another bar or restaurant, but the streets are fair game.
Customers only have to pay for a cup once if they empty and reuse the container at other restaurants or bars. The participating establishments include: Buenos Aires Grill and Cafe, Club 27, Cache Restaurant, Courtyard Marriott's bar, Damgoode Pies, Ernie Biggs, Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, Flying Saucer, Stickyz, Rev Room, Sonny Williams' Steak Room, Willy D's and Nexus Coffee.
Several locations that do not sell alcohol will accept patrons who have the to-go cups, including The Barn Mercantile, Bobby Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, The Freckled Frog, The Galleries at Library Square, Kilwins, UA Little Rock Downtown, and 4Square Cafe.
Dax and DeLana Chance said they normally spend their weekends in Hillcrest but wanted to explore the entertainment district on its opening night.
"We actually only came downtown tonight to see what it was going to be like," Dax Chance said. "We really hope it takes off. I'd love to see something like this in Hillcrest."
Chance said he hoped that the city would set up more outdoor attractions in the district, like beer stalls along the sidewalks or vendors in the pavilion.
The idea for open-container districts is far from new, said Rutherford, who began advocating for Little Rock to create such an area in 2005. Though that effort failed, a bill from Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, allowing the creation of entertainment districts passed earlier this year.
Two Arkansas cities -- Mountain Home and El Dorado -- beat Little Rock to the punch, a fact Rutherford said he was reminded of Friday evening.
"When I went to get my drink, I met a man from Mountain Home and he looks at me and says, 'We beat you,'" Rutherford said, laughing. "I thought that was so funny, but he's right."
Several downtown business leaders, like the Museum of Discovery's chief executive, Kelley Bass, and Daniel Bryant -- who owns Big Whiskey's, Gus's and Ernie Biggs -- decided they wanted to be among the first to buy and carry a beer into the district.
"I think it's a step forward for this being an attractive place to come," Bass said. "I think it'll be great for the River Market."
Also out in the crowd were volunteer ambassadors of the entertainment district in bright yellow vests. Downtown Little Rock Partnership Executive Director Gabe Holmstrom said the volunteers, too, were out helping people stay within the confines of the district and making sure people understood the rules.
"We'll be out here for the next few weekends, and you know there will be concerts tonight and next weekend," Holmstrom said. "We just want to be sure everyone is understanding. We've been talking about this for weeks and even today the businesses have been asking questions about it."
Samantha "Namaste" Hughes, who has been selling jewelry in the River Market District for five years now, said the crowds felt different Friday night. Hughes set up her table of rings, necklaces, essential oils and other wares around 5 p.m. and by 8 p.m. said she could see an increase in foot traffic.
Hughes said she's lived in several large cities in her life, but she likes the "hometown but bigger" feel of Little Rock.
"Normally, we get this kind of traffic around holidays, but this is even better," she said. "I think we're really capitalizing on the real estate we have here and the River Market is getting a chance to really shine."
Chad Dooley (left) and Kelsie Beaulieu, both of Maumelle, sip their drinks Friday on opening night at Little Rock’s new entertainment district.
A Section on 08/24/2019