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River Market keeps the beat 

JUMPING JOINTS: On the weekend.
  • JUMPING JOINTS: On the weekend.

The heart of downtown’s entertainment district has skipped a few beats and threatened to stop at times. But the muscle is young — born a decade ago with the debut of the River Market — and has proved resilient.

The River Market on Friday and Saturday nights is jumping, and the real numbers back that up. Tax receipts at the Flying Fish, a relative newcomer to the district, soared 42 percent after the Clinton Presidential Library opened in 2004; Sticky Fingerz grew 21 percent. (Alcohol sales are not included in the figures.)

Not everyone made it to the promised land — the corner of LaHarpe and President Clinton Avenue has seen several restaurant/clubs come and go. But Sticky Fingerz owners Chris King and Suzon Awbrey took heart from their own success and opened Rumba/Revolution at the unlucky corner. “We have our good days and our bad days” at Rumba/Revolution, King said, “but we’re committed to this neighborhood.”

The Underground Pub opened nine years ago, a survivor of the district’s pre-development lean times. Owner Scott Harris said the business made it because it was well-funded on the front end, but that it had weathered some pretty tough times.

What Harris wants to see happen now is outdoor entertainment and passage of a law that would let Little Rock create an entertainment district along Clinton Avenue, so club-goers could enjoy street music and a drink at the same time, a la Beale Street in Memphis. Odies Wilson, intergovernmental relations manager for the city of Little Rock, is optimistic the open-container bill, vetoed in the last legislative session by Gov. Mike Huckabee, will be successfully reintroduced in the 2007 General Assembly.

Opinion on the bill is not unanimous. River Market Artspace owner Debra Wood is a firm opponent of the idea. “I think that’s an insane thing to do,” she said — she doesn’t want drunks crashing into the galleries on 2nd Friday Art Night events or to see the trash in the streets she believes the law would promote.

Even Harris has reservations. “It won’t be the best thing for me,” the Underground Pub owner said. “It will be hard for me to compete, being off the beaten path.” The pub is located in the Museum Center below street level. Unless there’s some form of entertainment outside the clubs, there’s not much reason to allow drinking on the street, he said.

In 2007, residents from the new condo developments being built in the neighborhood potentially will bring new blood to the club scene. By fall, the River Rail trolley will run not just in a circle, but to the Clinton Library as well. The opening of Central Arkansas Library System’s Arkansas Studies institute, which the historic Geyer and Adams building on Clinton Avenue is being renovated to hold, isn’t too far off. The Institute will house Bill Clinton’s papers from his gubernatorial and attorney general years and will contain 40,000 rare books, 10,000 manuscripts, and genealogical records for researchers in state history.

But for now, Harris said, the district is “saturated” with bars and restaurants. He expects that new competition from the north side of the river once the Dickey-Stephens baseball park is completed may thin his neighborhood’s crowds.

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