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River Market updates are crucial for vendor owners, and for keeping people in Little Rock

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The River Market’s food court, Ottenheimer Hall, is overdue for a makeover. Regular maintenance has taken priority in recent years, but city leaders are pushing for new money to jazz the place up a bit. 

Since it opened in 1996, upgrades have been few and far between. Ottenheimer Hall got a new air conditioner several years ago, and nearby First Security Amphitheater got a new roof in 2013. 

Lately, city leaders have talked about using money from a proposed millage extension or a portion of the remaining $18.8 million in pandemic relief funds to further spruce up the aging facility.  But neither funding plan is yet approved.

At-large Director Antwan Phillips said a major upgrade to the River Market area would both attract visitors to Little Rock, and keep its residents here on the weekends, assuming the hours at Ottenheimer Hall would be extended as well.

Photo of the River Market food hall, Ottenheimer HallBrian Chilson
The lunch crowd varies throughout the seasons at Ottenheimer Hall, the River Market’s food hall.

Floating new ideas, Phillips said nightlife hours and alcohol permits could appeal to the younger crowd. He entertained the possibility of utilizing the roof of Ottenheimer Hall to include a daiquiri bar or burger joint. These improvements to the River Market area could also be an incentive for visiting concert performers, he said.

“Everyone doesn’t want to just go to work and go home every day,” Phillips said. “You have to offer something to them that’s more than that. A lot of us in Little Rock have resorted to the fact that [if] I want to see a show, I’m going to get in the car and I’m going to drive, because I can’t do it downtown.”

At-large Director Dean Kumpuris agreed with the need for major improvements, and suggested amplifying the existing structures.

“We need to find better, more, uses for the pavilions,” Kumpuris said. “If you’re coming down in the evening, how do we have live entertainment outside? How do we winterize it better?”

Kumpuris also said he would like to see a renovation of Ottenheimer Hall that includes a better connective element to the vast surrounding greenspace.

LRCVB made essential updates

The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau — which manages the River Market — prioritized necessary maintenance, said Diana Long, who served as the River Market director for the last decade. Although recently appointed a new position as director of community engagement, she still plans events for the River Market. The River Market director role will not be filled anytime soon.

“A visitor would look and go, ‘Wow, they haven’t done any updates to this place in a long time.’ But they’re all things that are essential to the operation of the facility that you would never see,” Long said. “Those have to come before aesthetics do.”

 

Photo of Middle Eastern Cuisine in Ottenheimer HallBrian Chilson
Middle Eastern Cuisine was one of the first restaurants to have a vendor booth in Ottenheimer Hall at its 1996 opening.

In 2019, the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau started looking for private funds to remodel Ottenheimer Hall, Senior Vice President Brian Oaks said. It didn’t go as they’d hoped. Most private interest came from developers who wanted to completely change the structure and build condos on the property instead.

New to Little Rock from Illinois, Oaks said the River Market was something that attracted him to the city, but “I think the current iteration of it is a little bit tired. It needs some fresh ideas and obviously needs some dollars to go into the project to make it happen.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and developers’ lack of interest stopped the 2019 private funding push. The LRCVB was forced to start over in 2022, but a request for proposal and invitation to bid have not yet been developed.

Without funds secured, Oaks said the two current vacancies among the 10 vendors in Ottenheimer Hall will purposefully remain empty.

“There’s just so little of a defined plan right now, especially coming out of COVID,” he said. “I think it would be doing someone a disservice to put them into one of those spaces not knowing exactly what it’s going to look like yet.”

Slow to bounce back

Ottenheimer Hall welcomed visitors back after a 14-month COVID-19 closure in May 2021, and patrons have been slow to return. David’s Burgers, spatially the largest vendor in the hall, had an extended absence from downtown due to a lack of staff, said Kala Stickland, marketing and sales director for the restaurant. 

Photo of David's Burgers EntranceBrian Chilson
David’s Burgers is spatially the largest vendor in Ottenheimer Hall. The company made its own updates to the space in 2016.

The restaurant returned in June 2022, nearly a full year after Ottenheimer Hall had its initial reopening.

“We’re really proud of that River Market location,” Strickland said. “It really showcases all that Little Rock has to offer. We missed having that atmosphere, so returning from COVID, we’re really excited to be back.”

Vendors are met with moderate summer lunch crowds, and a very busy Saturday farmers’ market, Long said.

The smell of fresh strawberries, peaches, flowers and tamales have welcomed thousands of visitors each week since the summer farmers’ market began on May 7, Long said. The number of regular vendors at the market matches pre-pandemic standards.

A range of 60 to 85 vendors have been present each week at the farmers’ market since the start of the 2022 season — each at about $35 a pop to rent, Long said.

Updates for long-time vendors

David’s Burgers renovated its space in Ottenheimer Hall when it moved in in 2016, but other vendors say they need upgrades, too.

Obaida Abdin, owner of Middle Eastern Cuisine — one of the first restaurants to open in Ottenheimer Hall — has complications with various electrical issues in her vendor space, she said. Her restaurant has not been updated for two decades, and she is faced with unpredictable cooking equipment.

Brian Chilson
Obaida Abdin, owner of Middle Eastern Cuisine stands outside her booth at Ottenheimer Hall.

“I’ve been thinking of getting rid of the place,” Abdin said. “But if I lost this, I lose my house.”

A business she started with her now ex-husband, the restaurant has relied solely on the River Market for its business; it has no other location. 

During the pandemic closure, “I barely, barely, barely survived,” she said. “I was paying the mortgage, and that’s it.”

Vendors were not asked to pay their $300 rent in Ottenheimer Hall during the closure. 

Still, Abdin struggled financially. Because of how little she worked before 2018 — when her ex-husband moved overseas to Jordan — she did not qualify for a full amount of social security. She said she also applied, but did not receive, economic relief grants. 

Abdin said she only received two months’ worth of the Arkansas Pandemic Unemployment Assistance before there was an error. When she tried to fix it, she received an apology letter, but no solution.

For several months, she relied on half of her ex-husband’s social security allotment — about $500 per month.

At age 69, Abdin has thought of closing altogether. Funding for updates to the River Market would keep her around, she said.

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