Little Rock: From Urban Blight to Urban Bling: River Market Draws Crowds (Tourism | Winner 20,000+)

As big pictures go, it hasn’t been that long since an eastward glance down what was the tail end of East Markham in downtown Little Rock revealed a road to nowhere.

Twenty years ago, the view looking east from the intersection where LaHarpe becomes Cumberland was not a picture the city printed on postcards. Abandoned buildings dotted a streetscape approaching the I-30 bridge that seemed ripe for tumbleweeds.

Today, a view from that same spot where four streets meet (LaHarpe to the north and west, Cumberland to the south, Markham to the west and now President Clinton to the east) reveals no blight, no tumbleweeds, but a thriving urban district the city is proud to feature on postcards.

The River Market District has transformed from urban blight to urban bling, thanks to the combined efforts of the city of Little Rock, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, private developers, business owners and volunteers. In 2010, the LRCVB took over management of the district’s Ottenheimer Market Hall, River Market Pavilions and Riverfest Amphitheater and enhanced several existing programs while adding options for residents and tourists.

These transformative efforts have earned Little Rock a 2012 Arkansas Business City of Distinction award for tourism development.

Launched in 1996, the $300 million riverfront redevelopment project that came to be known as the River Market District began as Ottenheimer Market Hall, which remains the district’s focal point. The pavilion and the amphitheater that sits just behind it on the banks of the Arkansas River have become an integral part of the CVB’s tourism efforts.

In the past two years, these venues have been bursting with activity designed to help solidify the growing sense of River Market community and attract even more visitors to the area.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau hired a director of River Market operations and partnered with the River Market Advisory Committee to bolster the menu of attractions for residents and tourists alike and accomplish the following goals:

  • Stabilize and reinforce Ottenheimer Market Hall as an incubator for restaurant startups
  • Provide tourists with a defined visitors center at the Shop the Rock souvenir store
  • Develop an annual programming calendar in conjunction with community groups
  • Drive tourists to the River Market by growing the area’s appeal, increasing tax revenue and enhancing the quality of life for area residents in the process.

Restaurants continue to keep the market hall bustling at lunchtime in the spirit of public markets such as Pike’s Place in Seattle and Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

The amphitheater continues to host numerous concerts and other events. Regular River Market programs added or enhanced by the bureau include:

  • The Farmers’ Market continues to run twice a week from spring through fall, and the CVB brought in family-friendly programming, its Dean the Bean mascot plus the Garden Gourmet Chef Series
  • The annual outdoor ice skating rink, Arvest on Ice at the River Market, that takes up the open-air pavilions from mid-November through mid-January
  • The annual Sculpture at the River Market show and sale highlights nationally recognized sculptors
  • Movies in the Park, a weekly movie screening held at the amphitheater
  • Yoga on the River, which is just what the name says
  • The Cruisin’ in the Rock summer car series that draws car enthusiasts from across the country
  • The new Arkansas Sounds Music Festival coordinated with the Central Arkansas Library System
  • And of course, the Farmers Market continues to run twice a week from spring through fall.

National attention was focused on the River Market last year by a visit from PBS and the Toyota Farm to Table Tour highlighting the connection between local chefs and local farmers.

Last year, Ottenheimer Market Hall alone served more than 503,300 visitors, and more than a quarter of a million people continue to attend LRCVB-supported Riverfest each year.

All of which represents significant improvement and a far cry from the days when the tumbleweeds seemingly outnumbered the people.