North Little Rock’s Argenta Arts District uses pandemic to boost quality of life
July 26 - August 1, 2021
By Chloe McGehee
Just across the river from downtown Little Rock is the booming Argenta Arts district of North Little Rock. Much like Little Rock, Argenta became quiet in the year and a half that businesses were closed due to COVID-19, but the people of NLR were working behind the scenes the whole time.
Chris Kent, executive director of Argenta Downtown Council and Little Rock native, said Argenta is better off after the pandemic than it was before. That is all thanks to the council and the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce (NLRCC), as they worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to maintain downtown NLR and help local businesses stay afloat, he said.
“I would say a lot of what we did started with Flyway Brewery,” Kent said of the popular downtown North Little Rock pub. “Flyway was doing a curbside dining thing. They were the only place open, and we worked with them on setting up their outdoor dining. We provided tents, tables, chairs, and really had no idea how this would go, but it proved to be very successful.
“Then we tried to duplicate that same effort for the rest of the businesses between the Three and Five Hundred blocks of Main Street,” Kent continued. “We purchased more tents, more tables and chairs and then set up the outdoor dining every weekend for the restaurants to sell food and drinks outside.”
Although the council had never done anything like this before, they did have the advantage of an already established entertainment district where customers could buy drinks and walk around with them outside already. Even though this was not fully set up pre-pandemic, once restaurants shut down, the council prioritized putting it into place.
The local chamber also had its role to play in helping businesses recover from the pandemic. They provided a ‘Coronavirus Resource Guide’ to all their business, and then established financial and reopening resources. North Little Rock attorney and chamber member Jim Jackson remembered when the pandemic hit, and the chamber called him to check on his business.
“The first thing they did was they personally called each and every member and business and said ‘what can we do to help? Here is the paycheck protection plan, here are these different things that we can do,” Jackson said, a 2021 NLRCC board director. “I will always remember that call, and I will always remember how grateful I was to know that we had people outside of our organization who wanted us to succeed.”
Jackson is working with his wife Lisa Ferrell on the major Rockwater neighborhood development in the Argenta District. Both said the chamber was committed to helping the community recover from the pandemic, especially to improve the lifestyle of North Little Rock.
“The North Little Rock Chamber is a lot of small one or two person businesses that are very active,” said Jackson. “It really brings a vibrancy to the chamber when they hit the meetings because that’s the lifeblood of the chamber. I know everybody is trying to support each other by going out to eat more often for lunches and breakfasts and trying to support business within the community. It is just the absolute heart of what we are trying to do to make this community better and more livable.”
“The chamber continues to assist its members a great deal offering resources to those businesses that were impacted by the pandemic come back. There’s a lot of focus on getting small business to return,” Ferrell said. “[With everybody’s work], it really became like a festival every Friday and Saturday night. Everybody raved about it, I thought it was a huge success at least from a public relations point of view, and I hope it was a huge success for the restaurants. It was at least better than where they were.
“People love the Rockwater Argenta downtown lifestyle. People live in Rockwater and bike downtown to eat or go to the farmer’s market. It’s a small town feel in an urban setting,” Ferrell continued.
Kent said everyone did experience hardships during the COVID-19 outbreak with downtown Argenta being ‘nearly dead.’ Nearly a million people come to North Little Rock for events at Simmons Bank Arena and Dickey Stephens Park, all of which were canceled in 2020. This took major business away from downtown bars, stores and restaurants.
However, this did not stop the Argenta Downtown Council from improving their city.
“During the pandemic, one of the first things we did was we decided that we were going to double down on how pretty it was downtown, so that when it was time to reopen, we were better than we were before,” Kent said. “We were down here by ourselves for the most part, making everything look beautiful. So then, when people came back or drove through it, they felt like we didn’t fall off at all down here, our plants weren’t dead. It’s a small detail that other communities [did not prioritize and we did.]”
Furthermore, Argenta had a new restaurant open during the pandemic, Brood and Barley, something that was virtually unheard of in the past 16 months.
“We didn’t lose any businesses,” Kent said. “We actually gained business at that time and the businesses were able to stay open, stay afloat, make money and keep their people employed at the same time, so it was a big success.”
Ferrell and Jackson faced their own problems during the pandemic, but also used the empty time wisely to improve their new downtown development.
“Initially, like everywhere, it slowed, so there was a period of time where there was uncertainty, but we had weathered uncertainty in the past in 2008, so we knew how to weather it,” Ferrell said. “It also has slowed down supplies and stuff for construction. When you shut down factories and stuff for a year, goods aren’t produced. It may have slowed home construction down some, but I think it’s returning to normal.”
This ended up helping Rockwater in the end, as the couple was able to prioritize infrastructure and planning for the unknown but fast approaching housing boom. The development had 26 new lots available, which more than 50% of have now sold. They also established the Gardens at Rockwater.
“It kind of worked out well because during the pandemic we were putting in sewer lines, streets, water lines and all the infrastructure you couldn’t build,” Jackson said. “Then in March when we started to be able to sell [homes and lots], there was a lot of pent-up demand.”
The growth of Rockwater reflects the growth and success of the Argenta Arts District. With the establishment of the Plaza in Argenta and major experiences returning such as Travelers games, concerts and Main Street events, it is hard to see how the downtown North Little Rock community was affected by COVID-19 at all.
Kent, Ferrell and Jackson attribute a lot of this to the lifestyle and community of North Little Rock and the Argenta District. As Ferrell said, the people of Argenta are special and truly care about their neighborhood.
“One of our biggest assets as a community is that we’re a small town with a big downtown, so we get the luxury of having the downtown being connected to downtown Little Rock, but we also have the luxury of being able to walk into the mayor’s office and be able to have a conversation with him to pull the resources together to get things accomplished where in other communities it’s not so easy to get everybody on the same page because it’s the bureaucracy is too big,” Kent said.
“I also would say another thing that makes [NLR] unique is the neighborhood down here from Rockwater through the Argenta housing,” continued Kent. “It’s unique because we have a strong downtown core built right next to a real neighborhood. Plus, we have a lot of available land downtown, which most communities don’t have as much of. We have been able to do smart developments. We have been able to have a strong focus on the arts, like the Argenta Community Theater, the Innovation Hub, ACANSA arts festival, so I think having the access to all of those different organizations downtown makes it unique and special, and we’re expanding. We’re looking at even more moving forward.”
Jackson added he is looking forward to the new expansions.
“I’m looking forward to seeing more events here at the Plaza. Second, I think [Argenta] is going to keep getting better and better as more people come and more people get use of it,” said the local attorney. “To me it’s just the people that live and work down here [that make it special]. There’s so much going for this area; being near the bicycle trail and the river. Everybody treats this Main Street as part of their art and wants it to do well. It’s just the most vivid example of something is above and beyond what you ordinarily see.”
For Ferrell, it is really the people she sees in her community that make it shine.
“There’s a tremendous community of people dedicated to NLR and its downtown. I’m looking forward to more of the same type of people that already are here and the type of people that are attracted to downtown,” said Ferrell. “It is the folks that made it great, it’s just an awesome place to live, work and play. The quality of life you can’t find anywhere else in this state. It’s just an incredible quality of life.”