Arkansas River tourism study moving forward

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 102 views 

story by Marla Cantrell
[email protected]

A new committee, appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe, will take on two pilot projects designed to bring tourism dollars to the Arkansas River corridor and the Delta region, through the development and promotion of the Arkansas River.

Revenue from tourism fuels Arkansas’ economy. Last year, approximately 23 million tourists and business travelers spent $5.4 billion in the state, down from the 24 million who spent $5.6 billion in 2008.

Broken down by county, Sebastian County took in $319 million in tourism dollars from 1.2 million visitors, also down from 2008, when 1.4 million tourists spent an estimated $363 million. In Crawford County, 176,000 travelers spent $38 million in 2009, as opposed to the $40 million 186,000 tourist doled out in 2008.

Maryl Koeth, president of the Arkansas River Connection and director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission, thinks one way to grow those numbers is by utilizing the untapped resource. She’s has been working, along with 19 other ARC board members, to accomplish the task for more than four years. She now serves on the Governor’s newly-formed committee, chairing one sub-committee and serving on another. (Link here for an early story about the effort to create a river-to-rails tourism connection in Arkansas.)

The first step will be to complete a $40,000 inventory and feasibility study, which is funded by the ARC. It will show amenities available, such as public lands, marinas, and historic sites. The study will also pinpoint facilities the traveler needs and expects, including convenience stores, shopping venues and fueling stations. It will also show the deficiencies in those same areas.

“We’ve been pulling people off the interstate for years, and drawing them into our towns,” Koeth said. “And we have this beautiful waterway, something we’ve had forever, and we’ve not been promoting it, or helping develop it the way we have most of our lakes. This study is the beginning of how we do that.”

The work, which is set to begin in the coming weeks, will be a joint effort between Castin and Associates, in Little Rock, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Business School. The Van Buren Chamber of Commerce is also working on the project, providing administrative support.

The committee is optimistic the study can be completed in two months. Soon after, two yet-to-be-determined pilot projects — one in the Delta and one in the Arkansas River Corridor will begin.

Bringing retailers on board will be a major focus. The committee wants to make the areas surrounding the river enticing to travelers. And that means retail and entertainment developments could be miles away from an actual marina.

Koeth said it’s feasible boaters could dock at Wildcat Marina in downtown Van Buren and spend three or four days in the area. She believes the wine country near Ozark and in the Altus area could benefit, as well as the historic sites, restaurants and hotels in Fort Smith. Even Northwest Arkansas should be able to draw in boaters.

There are obstacles. Transportation is a conundrum. If a boaters step onto dry land in Van Buren, how will they get to the museums, wineries and night life in Northwest Arkansas?

There is also a lack of marinas on the approximately 400 miles of Arkansas River that snakes its way across the width of the state. Ozark is hoping to build one, but has yet to accomplish the task.

Another is long stretches of river where there are no facilities for boats to refuel. Some boaters have fuel trucked to the river banks, but that deters most leisure travel.

Navigational guides often don’t have point-to-point GPS listing for parts of the Arkansas River, which is one of the things the committee is working to resolve.

And then there’s the reputation of the Arkansas, which is by no means spotless. Joe David Rice, tourism director for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, said the river’s bad rap took hold in the pre-Nixon days, when sanitation wasn’t a primary concern. But through the years, billions of dollars have been spent on cleaning up the waterway.

“We have an abundance of bass fishing here, including several major tournaments where records have been broken,” Rice said. “Bass don’t thrive in unhealthy waters.  The Arkansas is a healthy river.”

The Arkansas, Rice said, is not only clean, but beautiful. Stone cliffs rise above the river, sandbars break the surface, and birds congregate on nearby banks. He said the River Valley in the Van Buren and Fort Smith area is especially lucrative because the Western history of the area will draw travelers in.

State agencies are also meeting to compile a list of tax credits and grants that could be used to fund projects and draw in developers. When the list is complete, it will be listed on a state website for communities and private investors to use.

Koeth said she doesn’t know what the development of the Arkansas River Corridor will bring. She sees a day when tourists flock to the area to spend time on the water and to see the sights specific to our area. And she believes the tourism dollars will grow, bringing new life to a place known for its history.

“It’s a wonderful thought,” Koeth said. “We are all drawn to water. We have this river. We have this opportunity. Others need to know what a great state this is.”