Little Rock stays committed to digital information kiosks

A kiosk flashes messages Wednesday May 24, 2023, outside the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal).

LITTLE ROCK -- For almost five years, "smart kiosks" across downtown Little Rock have stood ready to offer passersby help finding places to eat, shop and discover around town -- and they're expected to stick around for a while longer.

But a spokesman for Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said discussions are forthcoming with the provider of the kiosks to get better use out of them during the remaining years of the decade-long program.

"During the last half of the contract period, this administration will have discussions with Smart City Media and our downtown stakeholders to determine how we can best utilize this amenity for the benefit of Little Rock residents," Scott spokesman Aaron Sadler said.

The first 7-foot-tall kiosk was unveiled in June 2018 in front of the Statehouse Convention Center, and about six months later, city directors approved 12 more. The kiosks -- branded CityPost -- include a large touchscreen, so it acts as a human-sized smartphone. Users have choices on what to look up, from restaurants to a schedule of live events.

Two of those have since gone offline, but the city is still committed to the program that was introduced by former Mayor Mark Stodola.

Stodola, an attorney who served three terms as Little Rock mayor from 2007 through 2018, is now an advisor for Smart City Media, the New York-based company that sold and installed the kiosks.

He said he started in that role after he left office and has not been paid for his services to the company. He said he helps promote the CityPost concept with mayors from other cities around the country.

Little Rock never had to pay a penny for the kiosks, Stodola said.

"Smart City Media paid the capital and installation costs and gets revenue from advertising solicitations," he said.

Stodola acknowledged the program has room for improvement, but said he is mostly pleased with how the kiosks are performing.

"Overall, I think the program is successful," Stodola said. "There could still be more promotion of all the capabilities that the kiosks perform."

Stodola said the kiosks have a 911 emergency button, cameras with nearly 360-degree capability, emergency lighting, maps and lists of tourism sites, hotels and restaurants and their daily specials.

"There is even a 21st century version of the old photo booths where you and your buddy or girlfriend could get your picture taken," Stodola said. "It immediately is sent to your cellphone."

People who walked by the kiosk in front of Simmons Tower at 425 W. Capitol Ave. on Friday said they rarely, if ever, see other people using it.

"Honestly, I didn't even know what it was for," said Elida Chavez, who works a short distance from the kiosk location. "I'm sure you can get a lot of good information from it, especially if you're from out of town. They need to get the word out more so that more people can make good use of it."

Stodola and Mike Mainthow, owner of Smart City Media, admitted that the covid-19 pandemic and accompanying shutdowns in 2020 affected the program's momentum.

"The pandemic hurt us because no one was roaming the streets for a time," Mainthow said. "There was certainly a slowdown, but we've been seeing a good recovery."

Mainthow said the rollout for Little Rock was "smaller in relation to other cities" that have implemented the CityPost program. Kansas City and Louisville are among the cities that have Smart City Media kiosks. In all, Smart City Media has close to 1,000 total screens operating across nine cities and more rollouts are in the works for more cities, Mainthow said.

Each kiosk has two screens, so Little Rock has a total of 22 screens.

Smart City Media has been reaching out to large banks, insurance companies and other businesses in the area to become a "core sponsor" of the program. Doing so will make the program generate more revenue for the company. Smaller companies may also pay for advertising. When they do, they get more screen time and exposure, Mainthow said.

The company's business model involves selling advertising to corporate sponsors and small businesses. The city signed a 10-year contract with Smart City Media.

"We have another five years left," Mainthow said, adding that the contract includes extension options. "We're there to stay. We want to continue the participation."

Mainthow, Stodola and Sadler did not respond to questions about how much money the program has raised for the city. Smart City Media announced in 2018 that it would give 25% of its net ad revenue to the city after the costs of installation, insurance, maintenance and ad sales commissions are covered.

Mainthow said he has had some interaction with Scott's office and he expects more in the future.

"Overall, the current administration is supportive of the network," he said.