While North Little Rock’s Argenta District has long been known for its eclectic mix of art galleries, music venues and theaters, the neighborhood’s wide range of bars and restaurants have sometimes been a second thought. These businesses became top of mind, however, when the pandemic restrictions made it almost impossible for them to operate.
The spark of a solution came from a meeting with Flyway Brewing Company, which approached ADC for help when indoor dining was prohibited. The nonprofit loaned Flyway 12 tents, 12 tables, and 72 chairs to set up outdoor seating in the brewery’s parking lot. Known as “Tent City,” the new dining area was a hit, and soon the number of tables jumped to 18.
Other restaurants wanted to replicate the concept—but without a parking lot like Flyway’s, they were at a disadvantage. ADC stepped in to help, crafting a plan for a shared outdoor seating area, based on Arkansas legislation that allows a municipality to create an "entertainment district." In these districts, alcohol can be purchased in a permitted establishment, carried outside, and consumed within certain boundaries.
While the city had previously been uninterested in creating such a district, the ADC worked with the city attorney to propose legislation that would be more appealing. The new plan limited hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and positioned the district as a fun, safe place for friends and families to share a meal—not simply to drink outside. That pitch was enough to win over the city council, and ADC worked with the mayor to create an executive order closing two blocks of Main Street to vehicles from 6 p.m. Friday until midnight Saturday.
Argenta's outdoor dining district. Credit: Argenta Downtown Council
Under ADC’s guidance, a coalition of eight participating restaurants met every Tuesday to discuss previous weeks and plan for the upcoming weeks of operation. ADC also used a Main Street Arkansas Downtown Revitalization Grant to purchase more tents, tables, and chairs and solicited sponsors to help with some of the overhead costs, including signage, trash cans, barricades, hand sanitizer, and marketing.
Like Flyway’s “Tent City,” the outdoor dining district was a near-instant success. During the first week of operation, the ADC added 24 tents on Main Street. By the second week, another 36 tents were necessary—and at its peak, the outdoor dining district featured 108 tents, 108 tables, and 540 chairs. On weekend nights the restaurants even hired live music for each block.
“The Argenta Outdoor Dining District gave people hope during a tough time,” said ADC Executive Director Chris Kent. “The restaurants stayed open, hired more employees, and provided a space for the community to gather safely. It helped people come together and changed the perception of Argenta from an aggregate of restaurants to a dining destination.”
After sixteen weeks of operation, the outdoor dining area closed for the winter—but plans are already underway to reopen in spring. Given its success, city leaders want to keep the district going even after the pandemic recedes, and Argenta’s restaurants are inspired to continue regular meetings to ensure the neighborhood’s future as a culinary destination.
"One of the things I admire about the Argenta Downtown Council and the businesses in the district is their ability to work together for the greater good, and the Argenta Outdoor Dining District is a perfect example of that,” said Greg Phillips, director of Main Street Arkansas. "As Chris and I recently visited with restaurant and business owners along Main Street, they constantly credited Chris and the Argenta Downtown Council for their leadership in pulling people together and rolling up their sleeves to make things happen for their community."