Downtown Little Rock ready for boon times after pandemic pivot
July 26 - August 1, 2021
By Chloe McGehee
At the end of 2019, downtown Little Rock was a bustling sector of business, tourism and local growth. While the pandemic lowered occupancy and harmed local businesses, the downtown district is looking ahead to future endeavors where industry can continue the growth pattern it was in pre-pandemic.
For the first ten weeks of 2020, everything was on track to be a banner year for Little Rock travel and tourism. The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau (LRCVB) hosted a returning show of Broadway’s “Wicked,” and launched a refreshed and reimagined “Big on Little Rock” campaign. This campaign was short-lived but received enthusiasm and praise in the pre-pandemic time. Not only that, but downtown Little Rock saw a record increase in year-over-year tourism tax collections in January and February.
“Then, of course, came COVID-19,” Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the LRCVB said.
Downtown Little Rock had nearly 42,000 employees working there each day. With the pandemic, businesses were forced to shut their doors and many employees had to move or work from home. Downtown became quiet, a stark change from the normal busy atmosphere.
LRCVB-managed facilities such as the Statehouse Convention Center and the Robinson Center had to close, and were virtually empty for the remainder of 2020. Furthermore, the tourism industry was hit hard. The LRCVB ended 2020 with the advertising and promotion tax receipts down almost 20%, with the lodging sector hit the hardest, down 47% compared to 2019 totals.
Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, said the city’s downtown landscape was impacted much like every other metropolitan area. When the pandemic hit, he said, people stayed home and the buildings were empty for the most part.
“The conventions, productions and concerts came to a halt, and that lack of activity had an adverse impact on the restaurants downtown. We saw many businesses successfully adapt to new business models to accommodate the new normal, and those businesses were able to continue operating,” said Holmstrom. “Sadly, some were not able to pivot and make it work and are no longer here. Learning how to “pivot” became the name of the game for businesses during the pandemic.”
Before the pandemic, downtown Little Rock was also experiencing more growth and occupancy than in years before. No one knows this better than Brent Birch, executive director of the Little Rock Technology Park. Before the pandemic, the Technology Park was at full capacity and in the midst of plans to build a new center for more businesses and research. When two of the larger tenants outgrew the space and others opted to work from home, the LR Tech Park experienced unprecedented vacancy.
“Downtown became very, very quiet in the late spring of 2020,” Birch said. “Some startups were forced to scale back expenses with the economic downturn and office space was a common cut. But many of our tenants hung onto their offices despite infrequent use of the actual space.”
Businesses did try to remain operational during the times of the pandemic, each in different ways. Some altered hours or did online work.
“The LR Tech Park remained operational for tenants the entire pandemic with all programming done virtually,” Birch said. “We did not allow non-tenant/public access until late spring of 2021 when vaccination levels started to climb and mandates were lifted.”
The convention center also had to work to remain operational during uncertain times.
“In a year of extreme challenges, we pivoted, collaborated, and came together to explore new opportunities to sustain growth,” Hall said. “We managed hundreds of event cancellations and postponements. Both the sales and operations teams were able to retain a significant amount of group business by moving them to future years. Although we did have 297 group cancellations and 51 postponements, our resilient sales staff rose to the occasion in the face of adversity by successfully securing 148 groups, servicing 71 groups, distributing 223 leads for future business, and safely hosting 17 site visits.”
Furthermore, the LRCVB did not give up on helping downtown grow as much as possible, even in a pandemic. They worked on facilities, applied for accreditations and focused on strengthening plans for the future.
“Though our buildings were virtually empty, they were far from abandoned,” Hall said. “The LRCVB operations teams completed many preventative maintenance projects, even with reduced capital funds and skeleton crews. Additionally, [the convention bureau] achieved Arkansas’s very first Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) accreditation for the Statehouse Convention Center. These performance-based credentials and stringent protocols have added an additional layer of confidence with our clients. Our facilities look great, and we are safely welcoming business back.”
Future so bright …
Now that vaccine-inspired activities are picking up, a sense of normalcy is returning to the downtown district. Events such as Between the Rocks and the Main Street Food Festival are back on. Beloved businesses such as Loblolly have expanded their hours again, or even reopened fully like Little Rock’s Farmers Market and Ottenheimer Hall.
The city can also look forward to seeing unique events at MacArthur Park or the Bernice Garden again. LRCVB attractions have re-opened their doors with exciting new exhibits. Hotels and restaurants are buzzing with activity. The LRCVB is hopeful based on early summer activity, and are expecting a great turnout for the remainder of the year in terms of events and visitation.
The Little Rock Technology Park is one specific business planning to regain the momentum from pre-pandemic. They plan to add a new coffee shop to replace Blue Sail of Conway. This shop, The Paranoid Android, will be opening July 19, and will coincide with the reopening of the Technology Park to the general public. The Paranoid Android will be the third shop operated by the Cleopatra Coffee Co., which also owns 2Twenty1 and Cleo’s Corner inside the Arkansas Department of Commerce.
“We have some new marketing plans in place to let technology-focused entrepreneurs and companies [thrive],” Birch said. “[We have] partnered with one of our tenants, Mimus Marketing, to produce some promotional and informational video clips, and the LR Tech Park board is beginning some strategic planning sessions as to what makes the most sense for the future.”
Downtown Little Rock is on track to make a full recovery from the pandemic, with even more events in store then before 2020. One plus is that downtown has no shortage of outdoor amenities which has helped Little Rock stay afloat during the pandemic, and will help recover some of the lost momentum from before 2020.
“Those are the areas where people felt most comfortable last year, and that trend seems to be continuing this year as well,” Hall said. “Even in a year like 2020, we welcomed the state’s most advanced mountain biking trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, and most recently at River Mountain Park. We’ve also added public art and murals throughout the city. The combination of these new improvements that draw leisure visitors and the return of live events that have already begun, will certainly help Little Rock achieve full economic recovery sooner than national predictions.”
Holmstrom added that the downtown partnership has greatly missed being able to host events over the past year and a half but has used that time to dream up new plans for once people are able to gather safely again. This year, he said, the partnership is putting most of its resources into Little Rock’s 10th Annual Main Street Food Truck Festival, now set for Oct. 2.
Today, the downtown area is already seeing employees come back to the office buildings, and restaurants are experiencing some of their best monthly sales in over a year. Looking forward, the downtown Little Rock promoter said “the future of downtown is bright.”
“Looking a couple years down the road, we will have the Arts Center completed and reopened, East Village is seeing continued growth and redevelopment, and Main Street is continuing to grow as a connector from the River Market to SoMa, which has an ever-expanding collection of retail and dining options,” said Holmstrom. “We at the Downtown Little Rock Partnership are continuing to work on new public art projects, events and festivals as well as activating new spaces for public enjoyment.”
Birch also has high hopes for the future of downtown Little Rock.
“The ability to keep entrepreneurs and good ideas in Little Rock are crucial for our future economy,” Birch said. “That kind of activity will also point us in the right direction for future phases beyond if the local tech industry keeps progressing as expected. If the city and major downtown stakeholders remain committed to carrying forward the pre-pandemic momentum, I definitely believe downtown Little Rock will bounce back. There were so many good things happening here before COVID-19 that need to be reinvigorated and will.”