Venue and Image Upgrades Part of Little Rock Tourism Master Plan

Venue and Image Upgrades Part of Little Rock Tourism Master Plan

For Little Rock to become a more appealing tourism destination, it needs to address a hard truth — many of its own residents don't have the highest opinion of the place.

Tourism industry stakeholders see a "lack of community pride across the city," and part of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau's 10-year master plan should include a "concerted effort to instill and lift community pride." That's according to Chicago-based JLL Tourism & Destinations, an advisory firm that LRCVB hired to chart the industry's future in Little Rock.

"It is recommended that a community campaign and, potentially, a community branding effort, be undertaken in the near future to support this effort," the firm said in a 60-page report.

The report was developed over the past year by surveying more than 200 industry stakeholders and community leaders, along with research that measured Little Rock against comparable markets. 

More: Click here to read the full report.

Other recommendations include:

  • Renovations and a possible expansion of the Statehouse Convention Center
  • Reinvestment in public spaces along the riverfront, including expanded pedestrian and bike trails
  • A reinvention of Ottenheimer Market Hall as the anchor destination for the River Market
  • Expanded data use to refine targeted marketing campaigns
  • Greater focus on equity, diversity and inclusion in marketing efforts

"Much of the work outlined here will be internal to the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau," Gina Gemberling, CEO of LRCVB, said, "and true success will only come with the cooperation and buy-in of partners across the tourism industry and throughout Little Rock ... Only by working together can we unlock the true, transformative power of the tourism industry in our community."

The report identified higher utilization of the Statehouse Convention Center as a top priority. An analysis found that in the three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, utilization of the facility was about 45% in total, the report says. LRCVB aims to increase utilization to 60% over the next five years, an "aggressive goal" that would still be below the national benchmark of 70%. To meet that goal, the report recommends improvements in booking processes and room night commitments from partner hotels.

The report also calls for a study on the renovation and possible expansion of the center, pointing to trends for indoor-outdoor space that suggest the center could better leverage its riverfront location. 

For Ottenheimer Market Hall, the report proposes a "reimagining and reactivating." It says LRCVB should explore alternative operating models in partnership with local brands and regional and national entrepreneurs. Changes could include live music, extended hours and days of operation, a destination dining experience, and the ability for guests to purchase adult beverages. Alcohol sales at the venue would complement those in the River Market Entertainment District, where open carry and consumption is allowed.

Ottenheimer Market Hall in the River Market

Ottenheimer Market Hall (LRCVB)

The report also suggested that Little Rock revisit the idea of building an indoor sports complex and give it serious consideration. In 2015, a feasibility study conducted by LRCVB recommended a facility including 8-10 basketball courts, 16-20 volleyball courts, and seating for up to 4,000 spectators. 

Beyond upgrades to event spaces, stakeholders said there's a need to develop an "overall vibe within the city's downtown core." Discussions frequently turned to the desire for an "iconic" landmark akin to Chicago’s bean sculpture or Los Angeles' Hollywood sign.

"There is immense local desire to unite behind some as yet unidentified local object, be it a new art installation or architectural work as a sense of community pride and identity," the report says. "The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau should always be a part of the efforts to develop such places or landmarks, advocating for the visitors’ perspective on the matter."

An opportunity to create such a landmark is coming soon. About 20 acres of land downtown will be available for redevelopment after the completion of the 30 Crossing project, a rare chance to transform a highly visible area of the city into a signature attraction. Architects from the state's top firms have already proposed creative uses for the space that incorporate pedestrian connectivity, greenspace programming and support for adjacent economic activity.

An aerial photo illustration showing changes to Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock. The area in green could become a park.

An aerial photo illustration showing changes to Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock. The area in green will be open space. (ARDOT)

The report focuses mainly on downtown, the heart of the city's tourism industry, where many businesses are still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Crime has been a major complaint among business owners, but the report says that the perception of crime is worse than reality.

"While there is a need to address the actual issues of crime and safety, allowing the negativity to continue in headlines only bolsters perception issues," the report says. "Stakeholders felt strongly that Little Rock has too much to offer to be brought down by crime statistics that do not penetrate the tourism districts."

Aside from those issues, downtown's recovery has been complicated by the departure of office workers, many of whom now work in hybrid and remote work roles. Companies have adjusted by moving to buildings elsewhere in the city that better suit their needs, reducing foot traffic that downtown businesses depend on to survive.

A prime example is Bank of America, which left its namesake skyscraper last year to consolidate operations at an office park on the city's west side. Other businesses that have left or plan to leave downtown include KATV, which moved out of its historic but crumbling building on Main Street, and First Security Bancorp, which is taking about 150 employees to a recently-purchased corporate campus in west Little Rock.

Despite those setbacks, there are several projects expected to breathe new life into downtown. The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is scheduled to reopen in April after a years-long, $155 million renovation and redesign project. Lyon College is planning to open the state's first veterinary and dentistry schools at the Heifer International campus, potentially bringing hundreds of students downtown and raising demand for housing and entertainment. And the former Bank of America building and the 30-story Regions Tower both have new owners who have pledged millions of dollars in renovations and upgrades.

The redesigned Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts

The redesigned Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (Scott Carroll)

The report echoes a sentiment shared by many civic leaders in the wake of the pandemic: a thriving downtown Little Rock is important not only for the tourism industry, but for the broader economic health of the city.

"The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that the health of Little Rock’s tourism and hospitality industries are intrinsically linked to the city’s greater prosperity," the report says, "and it is the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau’s goal that, through this completion of this Tourism Master Plan, it will emerge as an even stronger strategic partner in the advocacy, growth, and vision for these industries in Little Rock for decades to come."

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