Not even the upbeat Shannon Light can deny the River Market is looking a little shabby these days. But, ever the optimist, Light says, “It's been good to live with it looking kind of bad.”
It's given a sense of urgency to the $55,000 redo the decade-old market is undergoing. By the end of March, when the first and second NCAA rounds tip off at Alltel Arena and crowds are expected to jam the River Market district, Light expects the center space of the market to be wide open and transformed into a “bright, vibrant” space.
The middle aisle of the market, once occupied by stalls, will offer three seating clusters. Designed by architect Rick Redden, the clusters will accommodate 150 people seated on jazzy, stackable Herman Miller chairs in a pale green polypropylene and comfortable chairs upholstered in orange leather-looking vinyl. Tables will be butcher-block tables in a honey-hued stain and in three sizes: long tables for big groups at one end of each of the three clusters, round four-tops in the middle and three bar-stool height cocktail tables at the other end. Ficus trees in giant pots will be set amid the tables, and Redden is considering stringing lights above each cluster. The concrete floors will be dyed and etched as faux pavers to define the clusters. Vendors are being encouraged to spiff up, and Big on Tokyo and Scapetto's are doing just that.
Vendors once filled the center aisle, but over the years they've either left the market entirely or filled in the gaps in stalls on the north and south market walls. The most recent to bunk were Community Bakery and Hardin's Market, the last of several grocery-style vendors that failed to make a go of it at the market. Trinket and clothing vendors have set up temporarily in the empty spaces. Signs advertising the coming of a new restaurant vendor, the Farmer's Daughter, have gone up and come down again. Andina's Cafe, which had to leave its area on the east end of the River Market when Boulevard Bread moved in — a lease change that caused hard feelings against management — has struggled to make its outdoor stall on the west end of the market comfortable.
The emphasis on groceries — a la the great markets of San Francisco, Philadelphia and Baltimore — was expected to succeed thanks to the increase in residential living space downtown. But now, Light said, the thinking is, “Let's be who we are.” The retail emphasis hasn't worked and she's realized, “I need to get off that hill.”
So the new idea of the market is this: It will be a place for folks to gather, open up the laptop and surf wi-fi style, nosh, meet with groups, eat in, take out. The bigger space could accommodate special events. It will serve as a sort of “student union,” Redding, said, for students at the Clinton School for Public Service, who will be using classroom space at the Institute for Arkansas History going up across the street.
But will it also serve as a sort of homeless shelter? “It's a public space,” Light said, and it will be comfortable. But she doesn't believe the denizens of Riverfront Park will cause trouble. “This is part of the public fabric of who we are.”
What's coming up: B.K. Brown Meats, a Holly Farms purveyor now in the middle aisle on the west end, will move to a stall on the south side of the market. Chocolatier Carmen Portillo is negotiating now for space to open Cocoa Belle, where she'll sell truffles and other sweets. Big on Tokyo has repainted its signage and is reorganizing its stall. Scapetto's is raising the height of its showcases, manager Paul Riggi said; he thinks the new seating arrangement will bring in more business. Light is encouraging vendors to consider increasing density and renting less space so more sellers can be squeezed in, and she hasn't given up on the idea of groceries. She's also working to bring portable kiosks to the middle aisle for special purposes, like cooking demonstrations.
Also new: To accommodate a schedule of special events downtown, the market will be open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday in March and on April 6.
In mid-March, the Advertising and Promotion Commission — which is paying for the rehab — will also open a Little Rock souvenir shop in the kiosk on the east plaza of the market that formerly housed Arkansas Junction.
Then there's beer. River Market boosters would like the folks enjoying its new seating arrangement to be able to buy a brew. Boulevard Bread, which is self contained, can serve beer and wine, but drinks can't be taken into the market hall. Arkansas's liquor laws would seem to prohibit consumption within the hall, but the RM is working on it.
“We're not done dreaming,” Light said.