50,000 throng for movable feast

Food-truck festival fills streets in LR

BY BRANDON MULDER
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN — Chooey, an 11-year-old Yorkie from Benton, is keenly interested in a hot dog Saturday during the Main Street Food Truck Festival in downtown Little Rock. More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/galleries.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN — People crowd into Little Rock’s downtown Saturday for the food and fun of the Main Street Food Truck Festival.

Food trucks and popup tents lined the streets of downtown Little Rock on Saturday afternoon, peddling everything from deep-fried eats to tarot card readings.

The sixth annual Main Street Food Truck Festival was estimated to draw a record-setting crowd of 50,000. People wandered the cross-streets around Main Street and Capitol Avenue window-shopping their culinary options. Street performers stood on corners, competing with the rattling hum of generators.

The ever-growing festival has turned Little Rock into a Southern mecca of the food-truck industry, attracting vendors from across the South.

“Any food truck that knows what’s good for them is going to be at the festival,” said Justin Patterson, owner and chef of the Southern Gourmasian food truck and restaurant in downtown Little Rock. “If they’re smart, if they plan, if they brought the right amount of food and the right amount of employees, they will come and make a killing. If they’re ready for it.”

Organized by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, the festival is, at its core, a marketing campaign for the revitalization and redevelopment of downtown.

The festival was the brainchild of the Main Street Revitalization Task Force in 2010, which sought to transform the Main Street corridor into a happening, hip destination. The area now boasts several more culinary and retail options than it had just a few years ago.

This year, the festival, featuring at least 60 food trucks, expanded from its original Main Street location and took a turn down Capitol Avenue as the downtown redevelopment project takes on new ambitions: the revitalization of the “Financial Quarter,” or the 20 city blocks bordered by Broadway, Main Street, Sixth Street and the Arkansas River.

“With the addition of housing and increased density in some of the surrounding neighborhoods, we feel like we’ve got some good momentum going with what’s happening in the Creative Corridor — the influx of restaurants and things like that,” said John Martin, who’s with Moses Tucker Real Estate and co-chairman of the nascent Little Rock Financial Quarter Task Force.

On Saturday, plans for the Financial Quarter were introduced to the public, with visual and data presentations illustrating the task force’s vision.

One focus will be the six bank lobbies along Capitol Avenue that were designed 30-40 years ago and existed as the financial hub of the city. After shifts in banking technology, those lobbies now sit mostly empty and seldom used, planners said. Their ambition is to transform the spaces into retail shops and eateries.

“How can those spaces be reimagined and repurposed?” said Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. “Is there a better way to set up those buildings and lobbies, as well as the streets, to make them more people friendly, to bring the people who work in the office towers down to the street?”

Planners estimate more than 5,700 people populate the several office buildings that intersperse Little Rock’s skyline. And the four hotels in the area hold more than 1,060 rooms.

“We have all these employees, but all they do is go to their desk or go to the break area and eat their lunch and go back to their office. They never touch foot outside. They drive their car in from home, leave and that’s it,” Martin said. “We’d like to engage them more. We want to bring them down to the street level and give them reasons to be more active, especially after 5 [p.m.]”

Planners also hope to connect the residential areas around the Governor’s Mansion with the Old State House on President Clinton Avenue with a bikeable, walkable redesign of Center Street.

Comprised of 220 developers and business owners, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership is a nonprofit created in 1984 with a mission to make downtown a “place that people want to live, work and play,” Holmstrom said.

The partnership is financed in part by proceeds from the annual Food Truck Festival. The trucks — some of which travel from as far as Shreveport and Memphis — pay $250 each to participate. The partnership also collects funds from its members.

Holmstrom said the partnership’s Financial Quarter plans still are taking shape.

“It’s still early in the process,” he said. “We’re still in the imagining phase.”

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