words: Dwain Hebda
Images: courtesy AR Dept. of Parks & Tourism and North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau
Take in a typical weekend in North Little Rock, just pick one at random, and see why Mayor Joe Smith beams with pride over what’s going on there. Day or night, the downtown Argenta District shines like silver. Sleek new housing developments are full, bars and restaurants teem with patrons and special events at nearby Verizon Arena or Dickey Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers, jam the neighborhood with fans and concert goers.
And that barely scratches the surface of what’s to come.
Mayor Smith, fourth-generation North Little Rock proud, has been at the controls driving this activity for years. Equal parts P.T. Barnum and Don Quixote, he’s dreamed big, impossibly big, $100-million-and-counting big, for his hometown. Most incredibly of all, he’s helped bring much of this development to a part of the city that not long ago wasn’t long on amenities.
“A city’s downtown is its front porch and if you’re going to have a vibrant city you’d better have a vibrant downtown. This is where the heartbeat is,” he says. “Because it’s our front porch, it shows what kind of ideas we have and what our city wants to be, because that’s where everybody looks first.”
That’s easy to say now, with heavy machinery moving dirt for gleaming new office buildings, hotels and upscale apartments; when music and laughter pours out of the Argenta Theater, crowds flock to the Argenta Farmer’s Market and the area’s best craft beer flows at Flyway Brewing or Diamond Bear Brewery’s Arkansas Ale House. But it wasn’t always this way.
As recently as twenty years ago, the mayor’s plan might have been difficult to envision. While Little Rock, its neighbor to the south, mushroomed growth and development with the River Market district and the rebirth of downtown, the same couldn’t be said for North Little Rock. But there was potential in the North Little Rock historic downtown as well. And bit by bit, it started gaining traction.
Even the town’s nickname, “Dogtown” has evolved. The origin of the tag is somewhat in dispute; it arose either as a commentary on NLR’s citizenry by its well-heeled neighbors or literally from Little Rock dumping its stray dog population north of the river.
Either way, the tag was considered a major put-down by city leaders (who actually tried to bury the moniker via mock funeral in 1965) and was jeeringly chanted from the stands at sporting events by visiting teams.
All of that is gone now; not only do generations of North Little Rock natives proudly embrace the name, but it has been used in marketing everything from a local film festival to T-shirts to a namesake beer. Right alongside, the city has steadily come into vogue, too.
Developers, some frustrated by high prices and lack of space in the River Market, found Argenta long on charm and a relative bargain to boot. By the time the new Dickey Stephens ballpark landed here more than a decade ago, there was genuine momentum on the housing front, with stylish apartments and townhomes springing up in place of blighted and forlorn properties.
All of which has set the stage for the latest and most ambitious project of all, Argenta Plaza, which will provide public performance space, bubbling fountains and multimedia attractions.
“That’s going to be our crown and when it’s not hosting a festival, it’ll be a beautiful place to look at, to visit, to hang out in or to sit at the restaurant and enjoy the fountains and the lights and all the stuff we’re going to incorporate into this thing,” Mayor Smith says. “We’re excited about what’s getting ready to happen in our downtown.”
City leaders hope Argenta Plaza will be done in late 2018 or early 2019, but its already proving to be a magnet for businesses and additional development. Late last year, Little Rock tech company First Orion announced it was building a six-story, 80,000-square-foot headquarters right on the plaza and various other players are descending to spend millions on upscale housing, a hotel, restaurants and other neighborhood amenities.
“I think that companies around the country are going to see this as what attracts the people who they want to come work for them,” says Mayor Smith, pride glowing in his voice as bright as the ballpark lights beaming against a springtime indigo sky. “On top of all that, we’ve got land to develop which really adds to the vision these companies are having. They can build new facilities. We can handle their parking issues. They’re going to be walkable to restaurants, to where they live and to baseball games and concerts and never have to get in a car.”
Mayor Smith couldn’t be more excited. This place he loves is getting more positive attention every day, and tourists are finding out what a treasure it is. Add North Little Rock to your must-see places this year. You’ll be glad you did.
How to Dogtown like a Local
Catch your favorite act at Verizon Arena, one of the best music venues for big-name acts in the South. As a warm-up, Cregeen’s Irish Pub pours a proper Guinness; if the St. James Gate sandwich isn’t on the menu, ask. (verizonarena.com; cregeens.com)
Visit the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum and tour the USS Razorback, a WWII-era submarine. If you’re so inclined, you can even make arrangements to spend an overnight in the sub to experience what sailors’ life and accommodations were like. If that’s too confining, take your shore leave at Flyway Brewing for great beer and some truly innovative Arkansas-sourced chow. (aimmuseum.org; flywaybrewing.com)
In March, the Little Rock Marathon runs through Argenta; get there early before they close the streets to watch the runners trot by. If you couldn’t care less about running, wait it out at Mugs Café for the great pancakes. (mugscafe.org)
The Joint is a theater and coffeehouse right in the middle of the neighborhood. It hosts a lot of different kinds of events, but make sure you take in a set by The Main Thing, a comedy trio that’s a crowd pleaser. For something even more unpredictable, take in some standup or The Joint Project Comedy Improv. (thejointargenta.com)
April sees Opening Day of Arkansas Travelers baseball. Take the time to visit Arkansas Ale House located at Diamond Bear Brewery before the short stroll to the game. The brats alone are worth the price of admission. (diamondbear.com)
North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau
#1 Eldor Johnson Drive
North Little Rock, AR 72118