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Bearing the market 

Why does it cost $1.3 million to run the River Market?

“That was my question,” Mayor Mark Stodola said in advance of the City Board of Directors vote to approve a one-year agreement that would turn the market's operations over to the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

River Market rents and parking fees produced only $268,593 in 2008. But that was only $62,486 less than was budgeted.

The entire 2008 budget for the River Market — which the LRCVB contributed $242,472 to — was $887,659. For 2009, it's $946,703, with expected revenues of $390,518. The LRCVB is to contribute $250,000. The city will have to make up the rest.

But the River Market shouldn't be expected to pay for itself, assistant city manager Bryan Day said, anymore than other parks in Little Rock — or nationally — do. The River Market is a public service.

Are the vendors in the Ottenheimer Hall paying enough in rent? The parks perspective is yes, Day said. Most of the vendors “are small business, minority, one-person shops.” A businessman might think differently, but the River Market isn't a business.

The Riverfest Amphitheatre — which in its heyday produced up to $150,000 a year, Day said, but is used less now — is the obvious vehicle to bring in more money.

Over the past 10 years, the River Market has had to borrow $2,253,939 from the general fund, Finance Director Sara Lenehan said.

With total spending of $1.29 million, the River Market was over budget by $601,077 in 2008. It's over the year-to-date budget by $188,041 this year.

The most striking budget-busting was in the area of public relations. Thanks to some confusion, the River Market and the LRCVB were paying invoices against the same budget, spending $345,467, nearly double the $180,000 that was budgeted, Lenehan said.

The PR budget is part of the “services” category, which includes utilities. Utilities went over budget by $52,000. 

A fire at the market accounted for a large part of the nearly $185,000 in overspending in the maintenance and repair budget.

But Dan O'Byrne, CEO of the convention bureau, says there will be no overspending while his agency runs the market, which starts Nov. 1. “We intend to take the revenues whatever they are and manage from that point,” he said. “We use a more explicit business model.”

Turning things over to the LRCVB should produce savings by eliminating redundancies. The current staff of the River Market may apply for jobs with the LRCVB, but there will no doubt be casualties. (Director Shannon Light declined to be interviewed for this article.) “We already have people who clean facilities, deal with staging, set up functions. We can deploy those resources,” O'Byrne said.

“We paid $1,000 to have someone come change the filters in the air conditioners,” Day said. “The Bureau has an HVAC person. We hire construction people to paint and fix; the bureau has its own crew.”

The LRCVB, with its ample marketing staff, will also be able to direct business to the River Market and amphitheater. Its salesmen can now offer conventioneers the meeting space without having to coordinate with the city Parks and Recreation Department.

The city and the LRCVB will each contribute $250,000 to operations in 2010. If revenues don't grow, that gives LRCVB some $750,000 with which to run the market. “If the revenues are only $750,000, then we'll do our best to operate the business at $750,000,” O'Byrne said.

At a recent City Board meeting, some directors questioned whether other, private outfits, had been considered to run the River Market. City Manager Bruce Moore said they had, but that a trial one-year contract with the LRCVB seemed like the best solution. City Director Dean Kumpuris, who has made Riverfront Park his pet project, said he believed the new agreement in 2010 will “look very different” from this year's, approval of which was unanimous. “It will morph into something better, with more opportunities to come,” he said. “I think it's going to be a positive thing that's going to happen.”

It's not easy to give up running the River Market, Day said. “We birthed it, managed it, grew it.” But the city will still maintain control by defining the “long-term vision” for the facility, which Day said should be “a farmer's market first and foremost.”

Riverfront Park will still be managed by city parks. 

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