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Low turnout forces Little Rock festival to reconsider future

June 5, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The director of Little Rock’s revived RiverFest says the latest iteration didn’t live up to crowd forecasts and that the company needs to regroup before it makes a decision on the event’s future.

“It was not what we expected,” event director Jack Daniels said recently of the three-day festival held May 25-27 along the Arkansas River. “We’re really grateful for the folks that did come out.”

Memphis-based Universal Fairs had hoped that as many as 10,000 people would turn out each day, but the crowd fell short of that projection, Daniels said.

“We were somewhat close to that but didn’t hit the mark,” he said, adding that official figures hadn’t been tallied.

Daniels said the future of RiverFest will be determined once Universal Fairs regroups.

“From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint ... I think for us to really continue to have (RiverFest), we need more engagement and involvement from the community,” Daniels said.

He attributed the lower turnout — to a degree — to having a shorter time frame to book musicians. Organizers announced the festival’s return in February after buying rights to the brand, giving them only a few months to secure acts for Memorial Day weekend, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported .

“Things like this usually require 12 months of people working it, working deals,” he said.

Still, Daniels said he was “extremely pleased” with Saturday May 26 night’s lineup of musical acts — including Young Thug, Highly Suspect, LANY and Kip Moore — and crowd turnout. He also pointed to a May 27 night performance from headliner Peter Frampton, who was added to the lineup in late April, as a high point of this year’s event.

“We presented a really good show,” Daniels said. “The patrons that came out really liked our new theme of RiverFest and how we approached (the event).”

New to RiverFest this year was the creation of a Ford Family Fun Zone as well as a reduction of the festival’s “footprint,” allowing for more commerce to flow through downtown Little Rock’s River Market District.

Gretchen Hall, president and CEO for the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the organization was “very pleased” with the festival’s new management and the adjustments made to help local businesses.

“I think (organizers) are committed to growing the new RiverFest brand, and we look forward to working with them again next year,” Hall said in statement.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said in a statement that while organizers dealt with a “very short amount of time to prepare,” he understood “the importance of not letting a year pass since the announcement that Riverfest would be closing.”

“As a first effort under new management, I think it was a success and gives plenty of room to grow relative to attendance,” Stodola said.

Daniels did not give a time estimate for when the company will make a decision on whether to continue the event. The firm is requesting input from the community in an effort to “provide the kind of show that Little Rock and surrounding areas are looking for,” he said.

Libby Doss Lloyd, communications manager for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the group hasn’t heard anything about Universal Fairs “contemplating a return.”

In 2017, the three-day 40th anniversary event — held during the first weekend in June — attracted 125,000 people, according to attendance estimates. The festival’s turnout reached 140,000 attendees in 2016.

After posting a $300,000 net loss, Riverfest Inc.’s board of directors voted in July to dissolve the nonprofit organization and appoint a committee to wind down operations of the initial festival.

Mark Lovell, CEO of Universal Fairs, bought the brand and its online presence in December. The new organizers planned to spend around $2 million operationally in the Little Rock area this year.

Slade Wright, a manager at Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in the River Market District, said business was down May 25 and May 26 compared with a typical weekend. Regular customers did not want to travel downtown to deal with crowds and limited parking, Wright said, and festivalgoers did not make up for the absent regulars.

“It used to be one of (our) busiest weekends,” Wright said of past RiverFest weekends.

Wright said business has been down at the restaurant and bar for at least the past two festival weekends and that it seemed like organizers were a bit rushed in planning for this year’s event. But Wright said he remained optimistic the event could come back strong with a year’s worth of planning.

At Kilwins down the street, store manager Chris Parker said the ice cream shop had less business compared with an average weekend and that the store cut employees from shifts because customer numbers were so low.

“Overall, I feel like business this weekend was a flop,” he said.

There was limited parking in the River Market District over the weekend, Parker said. He said a high number of vendors inside the event also took business away from local businesses in the River Market District.

Not all businesses downtown reported a slow weekend.

Stickyz Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack had good crowds, owner and operator Chris King said. He attributed the weekend success in part to good weather and the restaurant’s key location near one of the festival gates.

“We just had a lot of RiverFest traffic that came through,” King said.

Lt. Michael Ford, a Little Rock police spokesman, said that to his knowledge, the festival went off without any major violent incidents.

The Little Rock department’s vice unit arrested 18 people for underage drinking, and off-duty officers arrested two other people for public intoxication, Ford said. Last year, a Little Rock police unit reported 47 arrests for underage drinking.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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