UPDATED: Fayetteville City Council considers changes to major event approval process

Local musician Barrett Baber performs during the 2015 Bikes, Blues & BBQ motorcycle rally in the municipal parking lot at the southwest corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue.

Photo: Clayton Taylor

Update: Aldermen agreed to wait until April 5 before making a final decision on this proposal. For details of that decision, see our March 1 City Council Recap.

Fayetteville City Council members are set to continue a discussion on whether the city should alter the way it handles certain large events and festivals in the Dickson Street area.

An ordinance proposed in mid-February would change the approval process for event applications that request closure of city streets or parking lots in the Entertainment District for more than two days.

Currently, festival applications are approved in-house by city staff and the mayor. If passed, the new ordinance would instead require approval from the full City Council each year that a festival organizer wishes to host an event.

The idea was brought forward by Cary Arsaga, owner of several Arsaga’s restaurants in Fayetteville, including The Depot location at the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue. Arsaga in January presented a petition to City Council members with roughly 800 signatures of residents in favor of adopting the new policy.

Arsaga told aldermen some local businesses are negatively impacted by multi-day festivals that close public property.

“After being in business for over 25 years in Fayetteville, I know there is a major misunderstanding in the public and also with city officials on how major events affect the city,” Arsaga said. “It is a common belief that…it helps all the businesses. That is not the case.”

He said there should be a public forum, such as a City Council meeting, when considering those types of events so that small business owners could voice their concerns.

City staff said aside from a single LPGA concert in 2015, the only recent event that would’ve been affected by the new plan is Bikes, Blues & BBQ. While his petition did not mention any specific festivals or events, Arsaga has been a vocal critic of the annual motorcycle rally which takes place each fall on and around Dickson Street.

In a recent newspaper op-ed, Arsaga said the festival’s growth from a modest, day-and-a-half event in 2000 to its current four-day schedule has led to excessive noise, traffic and other unintended consequences.

“Many of our residents leave town,” Arsaga wrote. “Many who can’t leave choose to stay home for the duration of the event.”

While some business owners benefit from the increase in visitors to the area, Arsaga said there are shops and restaurants that lose money during the rally and sometimes choose to close their doors until the event is over.

Joe Fennel, owner of Bordinos restaurant, said his business does not make much money during Bikes, Blues & BBQ, but he is opposed to any change in the process that might make it more difficult for the event to be approved.

“I’m not worried about my cash register, I am worried about what is good for Dickson Street as a whole,” said Fennel. “If you’re on Dickson Street, you need to be thinking about everybody. If you’re thinking about yourself, you probably need to be somewhere else.”

Most council members kept their comments to themselves during the first reading of the ordinance on Feb. 16.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Marsh, who sponsored the proposal, said she agrees with Arsaga. She said residents should have an opportunity to weigh in on the process since multi-day events have a large impact on the city. She also said she’d be in favor of expanding the ordinance to include the entire city, not just the Entertainment District.

Ward 3 Alderman Justin Tennant asked city staff to describe the current event approval process.

Peter Nierengarten, the city’s director of sustainability and resilience, said organizers begin by filling out an application packet within 21 days of their event. The packet includes a section on event features, which asks the whether the event will include certain things like alcohol, carnival rides, elevated noise levels, fireworks, and parades.

If the organizer plans to include any of those features, the festival is automatically considered a “major event,” which requires additional paperwork and feedback from various division heads, including the Police Department, Transportation Department, Parking Management, and Parks and Recreation.

Nierengarten said each department looks at several factors, including the timing of the proposed festival and its compatibility to other scheduled events like University of Arkansas sports events or major performances at the Walton Arts Center. He said public safety, transportation, and expected parking impact are other factors used to approve major events.

“It sounds like there are multiple staff members and multiple groups in city staff that put in a lot of time vetting out these events,” said Tennant. “I just think it’s important to get an idea of the process that is in place if we are going to make a decision to change it.”

The council agreed to leave the proposal on the first reading. The discussion will continue on March 1.