THE MUSIC, the fireworks, the epic people-watching—most central Arkansans likely have some memories, fond or otherwise, of Riverfest. The festival ran for 40 years before calling it quits in 2017 after declining attendance and the rising costs of performer fees made for too much of a financial burden. But thanks to Universal Fairs, an events company based in Memphis, RiverFest will undergo a rebirth this month.
“We feel that it’s a good opportunity for us, but we also feel that the city’s really been welcoming to it,” says event director Jack Daniels. “When we started to look at it, part of the concern was that maybe people were just tired of it. And the more we get into it, the more we realize people are like, Oh, my god. Please! We gotta have Riverfest.”
Jack says that reviving and rejuvenating floundering events like Riverfest is Universal Fairs’ “bread and butter,” and the company has already invested $2 million into its operations budget to make sure the new RiverFest is a success. But while the three-day festival will mostly resemble the Riverfest Arkansans know and love, Jack says his team is committed to building on aspects of the event that worked in the past and changing those that didn’t. Most notably, the new RiverFest will return to the traditional Memorial Day weekend schedule and keep the two-performance-stage setup, while expanding the family-friendly side of the festival and easing congestion by keeping President Clinton Avenue open.
But as Jack will tell you, living up to the legacy of such an Arkansas tradition is no easy feat. Here’s what else the event director had to say about what went into rescuing this iconic festival.
“When it comes down to it, the hardest part has been finding a lineup that makes sense. The balance is really tricky. But music aside, just putting this thing together—something that has this much history—and giving the nod to the traditions that exist in combination with the direction we know we have to go in order to be profitable.”
On Making Changes
“We’ve got a re-entry program that’s going to allow people to come and go. That’s one of the reasons why we did shift a little bit from last year’s Riverfest to RiverFest this year—to really make sure we could partner with some of the downtown businesses and allow them to operate, keep roads open. Our goal is to keep commerce happening. This way, I think everybody wins.”
On the Future of RiverFest
“We are fair people and we know what a fair means to people. So we’d like to make this not only the spring music festival, but the spring fair, as well. We really want to grow. We’re not interested in one and done. We want this to be our thing.”
On Taking Over the Reins
“I think it was bittersweet for [the previous owners] that things didn’t ultimately work out for that version of Riverfest, and I’ve noted that in some of the conversations I’ve had with previous board members. I do think that they’re glad that it’s coming back in some way, because everybody who knows the city recognizes the value.”
RiverFest headliners include Young the Giant (pictured above), Kip Moore, Jamey Johnson, Young Thug and more TBA. For more details, visit riverfestarkansas.com.