Little Rock mayor cancels LITFest as new city festival falls apart days ahead of scheduled launch

‘Disappointed’ by divisive politics, says Scott

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. addresses the media during his weekly safety briefing on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. addresses the media during his weekly safety briefing on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. on Tuesday said LITFest, a new city festival scheduled for this weekend that was meant to feature music and panel discussions, has been canceled.

Scott's vision was "to unite the City with this unique event while supporting local, economic and cultural development of our City," he said in a statement. "While LITFest is now canceled for this weekend, it is my desire to see it move forward in the future."

Although Scott had promoted the idea of a new festival as early as March 2021, LITFest fell apart just days before it was supposed to debut.

The city made the decision earlier this year to partner with a public-affairs firm called Think Rubix in order to produce the festival.

The firm announced it had hired Scott's former chief of staff, Charles Blake, a week before Little Rock revealed the firm had been selected for LITFest.

On Monday, Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore informed Think Rubix that he was terminating the agreement for unspecified contract violations.

"As of October 3, 2022, no City funds have been deposited by Think Rubix, and a stop payment procedure has been initiated by the City of Little Rock for the check issued by the City in the amount of $30,000," Moore wrote in a letter addressed to Think Rubix Managing Principal Tristan Wilkerson. "No further payments will be forthcoming."

Under the agreement, Think Rubix was set to receive up to $45,000 from the city.

Because the contract was the subject of a competitive bid and the amount fell below $50,000, the agreement only needed Moore's approval and never went before the Little Rock Board of Directors. Moore signed the contract June 9.

Ahead of the festival's cancellation, new documents shed light on Blake's involvement with Think Rubix's bid. They also revealed prior discussions among officials about LITFest's financial architecture.

A cache of records obtained by local attorney Matthew Campbell, author of the "Blue Hog Report" blog, showed Blake participated in conversations at Think Rubix regarding the firm's bid, contradicting Little Rock's initial assertion that the former chief of staff was not involved.

And the records indicated officials such as Kendra Pruitt, Scott's current chief of staff, had discussed routing additional dollars from sponsors to a nonprofit group tied to Think Rubix, with the idea that the nonprofit -- called the Foundation for Social Impact -- would keep a percentage of the proceeds.

In a letter to city officials Friday, Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter referred to a videoconference meeting in which Pruitt expressed a desire to avoid the city board's review by using sponsorship money to fund LITFest. "The video creates serious legal concerns about this contract," Carpenter wrote.

The city manager canceled the agreement three days later.

City officials did not respond to specific questions Tuesday regarding money collected by the Foundation for Social Impact and Think Rubix, whether Little Rock would attempt to claw back money and if they believe Little Rock or any employees could face legal exposure as a result of LITFest's financial arrangements.

"Throughout this process, both Think Rubix and the City have acted legally and within the normal bounds of contracting and procurement," Scott said in his statement. "Think Rubix is a reputable company with a strong background in event planning and management, and, despite heavy scrutiny, it had been implementing plans for LITFest on behalf of the City since the contract took effect June 9."

The LITFest contract prepared by the city attorney's office "was not optimized for the scale and scope of this music festival," Scott said. "I'm disappointed that divisive politics negatively affected the vision and impact of this inaugural festival."

Shortly before Scott announced the festival's cancellation, Wilkerson deferred to the city in a statement issued on behalf of the public-affairs firm. "Think Rubix does not have the authority to cancel or postpone LITFest," he said.

The firm had received no compensation from Little Rock under the contract, Wilkerson said.

"Per industry standards, and as requested by the City of Little Rock, a fiscal sponsor was secured. Think Rubix has not received any compensation from sponsorship funds, and the fiscal sponsor did not retain any fees," he said. "We requested instructions from the city on where and to whom to direct the remaining sponsorship funds. A final accounting and project report is being prepared for the city following the terms of the agreement."

At one point, Think Rubix officials advised the city to have LITFest occur at a later date, Wilkerson noted.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Wilkerson declined to provide additional comments on the record with regard to Moore's termination of the contract and the amount of sponsorship funding that was collected.

However, Wilkerson confirmed the "fiscal sponsor" mentioned in his statement was the Foundation for Social Impact.

As of last week, the singer Ashanti was set to perform at the Robinson Center on Saturday as the LITFest headliner. Other events under the LITFest umbrella included a River Market block party and a gathering of performers and vendors on 9th Street.

After the mayor's announcement Tuesday, Libby Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, which manages the Robinson Center, said officials had not received any word about Ashanti's performance.

Two concerts that were scheduled for The Hall prior to LITFest and were later looped into the festival are still set to take place, according to Jeremy Hicks, communications director for the venue.

Lucero will perform Thursday followed by BoomBox on Friday.Panel discussions that were scheduled for The Hall on Saturday will not occur, Hicks said.

LITFest's presenting sponsor was Axon Enterprise, a company that produces the Taser as well as police body cameras and software.

In response to a request for comment via email Tuesday, Axon's press office said, "Given that the event has been canceled, Axon has withdrawn our sponsorship."

In his letter to city officials late last week, Carpenter noted that a video in which officials discuss LITFest "has also been provided to the prosecuting attorney's office as part of its continuing investigation of how the City handles AFOIA [Arkansas Freedom of Information Act] issues."

When asked about Carpenter's comment and LITFest in an email Tuesday, Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley of the 6th Judicial District wrote in an email, "We are currently evaluating several matters of concern regarding FOI and other things with the City of Little Rock."

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