Blue Dome booster
An interview with Jo Armstrong, Blue Dome Arts Festival organizer
Jo Armstrong, owner of Arnie's Bar and executive director of Blue Dome Arts Festival
Jo Armstrong is the executive director of the Blue Dome Arts Festival and Eat Street Tulsa. She’s also co-owner, along with her husband Chris, of the Blue Dome District’s first and finest neighborhood watering hole, Arnie’s. In between catching up with regulars, the lively drink slinger-turned-business owner and civic booster filled us in on new developments in the Blue Dome, downtown’s growth, and what to expect from two of Tulsa’s favorite city festivals in 2016.
The Tulsa Voice: So first of all, how’d you make your way to Arnie’s?
Jo Armstrong: Oh, gosh. Let's see. [My husband] Chris and I have owned the bar since December of '04 and he says it’s where we fell in love. I don't disagree. We met working at Spaghetti Warehouse. Everybody laughs about it, but you have to think back to 2000…there was nothing else down here. Anyway, he asked me out and I said no, but we'd come down here after work and hang out with our co-workers on the patio. And I’d work on St. Patrick's Day when they needed extra bartenders. Essentially, we both ended up bartending quite a bit together, and we just fell in love, and fell in love with Arnie's. I’d finished college at OSU at this point. Then the owner was in financial trouble, and we just eventually said, “you know what? We're interested in buying it.” We got married in '03 and bought the bar in '04.
TTV: Right after you were married? That's crazy!
JA: Yes. It was crazy. He was an accountant and I was in school for a second degree. We went from accounting and nursing to buying a bar. And at the time, there was nothing going on downtown, so our parents were saying, "No, no, no. Please don't do it." And we're like, “yeah, it'll be fun and it'll be great.”
And it is very fun. That's why I work up in the Dome. It's hard to get work done down here because we know everybody and love everybody. It's like our family. We're a big, annoying family.
TTV: How’d you come to be in charge of BDAF?
JA: It was always one of my favorite festivals. I’d walk the festival with my double stroller and kids, trekking it out as a mom. We’d come down to say hi to Daddy selling beer on the corner, and the next year, we ran it.
Michael Sager, who started the festival, was our landlord here at Arnie's and owned the Blue Dome. The two buildings are connected, and we’d wanted it forever. Any business owner would prefer to own their building for job security, if nothing else. He came to us and said, “I'm ready to sell the Dome.”
So we bought the Dome and bar, and he said, “by the way, I want you running Blue Dome Arts Festival, too.” I was like, “wait, what?”
TTV: You’re also the Executive Director of Eat Street Tulsa. How’d you launch that?
JA: I was home with my twins who were quarantined for their first year and I was going stir crazy. I was so happy to be a mom, but we couldn't leave the house and my mind needed an escape. We loved The Great Food Truck Race, and thought, there are some good food trucks getting started here in Tulsa… so I talked to Chris, who said, "You want to do it? Just do it." And then I talked to Josh Lynch who said, "I've been thinking about it, too." So we decided to move forward.
The first year, we had 12 trucks and people were saying, “There aren’t even 12 trucks in Tulsa. You're ridiculous." I said, “trust me, there are.” This was five years ago. We had 30 this last year. There were 34 the year before. It's just growing so much, and I think a lot of that is because of this whole food truck frenzy. There are so many cool food trucks offering unique, quality meals and cuisine.
TTV: You've been downtown since before the boom. Do you feel any responsibility for Tulsa's forward momentum as a leader of that charge?
JA: I feel like within what I do, my responsibility is to keep things down here as original as possible, and to keep the growth coming. With the festival, I want to go back to the roots and make sure we stay local. Things had kind of gotten out of control for a while. I think that if you want downtown to be really cool, then you can't sell out. You have to stay true to who you are.
We don't feel like we're greater than what we are. We're not trying to be a movement. We're just trying to make sure that whatever it is we're in charge of, we take full ownership of and do it right.
TTV: What are some of the most challenging parts of owning a bar or organizing a festival?
JA: The hours that you put in. As far as the festivals go, I find trouble at the end of the day even explaining how many hours it takes. The organization needed to make that happen when you have a family zone and a pet zone and you’re doing a stage for three days and have 22 food trucks all in one space. Between a skate park and 238 artist booths—possibly more as we get it going—and figuring out how to organize them correctly… You ought to see the color-coded spreadsheets.
TTV: That makes my brain hurt.
JA: I hired an assistant this year—she's incredible—because I think my father-in-law was going to kick me out of the family if I didn't. I'm so lucky to have her. Chris is obviously an amazing help. We have some incredible sponsors that have been very helpful with graphic design and whatnot. Add in our stage managers, emcees, sound guy, electricians, handyman, and bartenders, and we’ve got a full crew. And obviously it takes a ton of volunteers to help make these events happen. HEY, please, we're looking for volunteers. We need a lot of volunteers. Anybody…
TTV: I’ve heard you might be repurposing the Dome.
JA: We're in meetings, and we’re real excited about moving forward. We’re in the initial stages of the design for a small events center. I want something very lively. People are always stopping to take selfies with the Dome. Why not let people come in and create their own memories in it?
TTV: People are so familiar with the Dome as a landmark. It's cool to see you guys doing something new with it.
JA: New purpose, yes, but we’re going for more of a kickback. Kind of recovering it back to its old glory, but then repurposing the inside. We want to keep it as close to the original as possible. It's not going to be a fast project, but it's going to be one that's done right.
For more from Megan, read her red-eyed review of six boxes of cereal.