Carnival company revives RiverFest, set to debut Memorial Day weekend in Little Rock

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,088 views 

After RiverFest organizers announced this past year an uncertain future for the long-running music festival in downtown Little Rock, a Memphis, Tenn.-based fairs and events production company is bringing it back — with a few changes.

The new RiverFest will pair a three-day, two-main-stage music festival with carnival elements, including carnival games, carnival food and up to 25 rides within the Ford Family Fun Zone, said Jack Daniels of Universal Fairs.

“It’s almost an event within an event,” he said, adding the company has been conducting research for several months, and more family-friendly attractions was a popular request from people in the area. Daniels said the company plans to add new elements, while doing away with others found to be unpopular.

RiverFest is scheduled for May 25-27. Musical acts have not yet been announced, though organizers say the two main stages “will be a combination of local and regional acts and well-known national headliners,” according to a press release. The lineup will be announced in early April.

Advance tickets for RiverFest will be available during March, with a discounted price of $30 for a weekend pass. They are available on the RiverFest website.

Daniels said lower ticket prices was another priority, in accordance with the company’s research.

“We are actively working with our vendors to keep our costs down and therefore keep ticket costs low,” he said. Speaking of the $30 three-day pass, Daniels said: “We’re pretty proud of that and excited about that. We want people to come back to the festival and maybe see us in a little bit different light.”

Universal Fairs has purchased the RiverFest name and website holdings from the Little Rock-based RiverFest nonprofit.

Daniel said the nonprofit and its board worked with the company during the transition. “It was very amicable. They were really so welcoming and understood what we’re wanting to do with RiverFest and our twist on it.”

Other events managed and produced by Universal Fairs include the Georgia State Fair, the Smile Project at RFK Stadium, Carolina Fair and the Mid-South Hunting & Fishing Extravaganza.

Sponsors of this year’s RiverFest include Arkansas Federal Credit Union and the Mid-South Ford Dealers.

Riverfest had been an annual event held alongside the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock since 1977.

The Riverfest Board of Directors announced suspension of the music festival this past July. Riverfest executive director DeAnna Korte, at the time, cited increased competition from larger, for-profit music festivals as contributing to the rising cost to bring in musical acts, according to a press release.

“For a nonprofit like Riverfest, it’s about income vs. expenses,” Korte said, adding that the event’s annual budget of $2.6 million is “shoestring” in the world of music festivals, where it costs $300,000 to run two stages, $200,000 for security, $60,000 for fencing and $30,000 to clean the grounds.

At its height, Riverfest hosted more than 250,000 attendees, but the festival saw “significant” losses starting in 2015, that organizers tied to rising ticket costs, according to the release.

Riverfest began as The Summer Arts Festival in Murray Park, with activities surrounding a performance from the American Wind Symphony. With the event’s success, organizers decided to host an annual event. The date was changed to Memorial Day weekend, and the name was changed to Riverfest.

Riverfest moved downtown in 1982. In 1983, it moved to Julius Breckling Riverfront Park, and more than 100,000 people attended the festival that year, according to the release. A full-time executive director was hired in 1987, and the event continued to grow, expanding to the North Shore Riverwalk in North Little Rock from 2002 to 2010. In 2009, the festival expanded to include the Clinton Presidential Park and library.