Tourism officials: Relationships are a must

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 195 views 

WEST MEMPHIS —The teaser to a Tuesday (Mar. 6) breakout session during the 38th Annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism noted: “What the Arkansas Legislature does in session could affect how you do business in this state. Learn how to be a force with tourism and the General Assembly.”

So what where the lessons learned for the tourism officials and a few legislators in the packed room at the Southland Racino in West Memphis?

“You can probably expect a lot of surprises,” Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, told the group, adding that new legislators and the likelihood of a political divide in the Arkansas House and Senate will create a new dynamic. “We will see partisanship in the House, but I don’t think we will see it at the same level we see it in Washington D.C.”

McNulty, like many lobbyists and political watchers, believes Republicans could gain an historic majority in the Arkansas House, with a lesser chance they could dominate the Senate.

The House has 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans, and the Senate has 20 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Because of Census redistricting, all 100 House and 35 Senate districts are on the 2012 ballot.

Former State Rep. Ted Mullenix, R-Hot Springs, now works as a lobbyist for the Arkansas Realtors Association and other groups. Mullenix, who also addressed the tourism group on Tuesday, said his estimate shows the Democrats with nine seats secure — either no opponent or no significant opponent — in the Senate and the Republicans with 10 secure seats. In the House, Mullenix estimates that Republicans and Democrats each have 26 secure seats.

McNulty said the new political dynamic will prove a challenge for Gov. Mike Beebe (D) in his remaining almost three years in office.

“I think that will add some interest … because of a potentially divided House and Senate, his skills as a Governor will be a lot more important,” McNulty said of the 2013 General Assembly.

Issues McNulty plans to monitor include:
• Protecting the existing law that creates Advertising & Promotion commissions;
• Possible tort reform changes;
• “Defending” the budget of the Arkansas Parks & Tourism Department; and,
• Watching for the “school calendar issues” that often arise during a session.

Arkansas tourism industry leaders oppose efforts to extend the school year because it reduces the number of days families may attend tourism facilities.

“This will be one of the most interesting sessions and situations that we’ve had in a long time. I don’t mean that in a good or a bad way, … but it will be different because of what could happen in those (elections),” she said.

McNulty, Mullenix and a few tourism officials in the audience stressed that relationships, especially with the many new legislators, will be more important than ever in promoting and protecting the tourism industry in Arkansas.

“Term limits has forever changed the political climate in Arkansas,” said Mullenix, who worked more than 25 years in the tourism industry.

He added that term limits almost guarantees a 30% to 40% turnover every two years in the Arkansas Legislature.

“How would you like that in your business every year?” Mullenix rhetorically asked. “But that’s reality, and that’s what we’ve got to deal with in the Legislature.”

Mullenix said it is important to enhance ongoing relationships and build new relationships “with energy” about the tourism industry. He reminded the tourism officials that establishing industry-improvement expectations during the 1980s and 1990s resulted in big gains for the tourism industry.

McNulty said any conversation about the tourism industry, especially with legislators, should begin with a reminder that the tourism had a $5.6 billion economic impact during 2011, employs more than 100,000, and is Arkansas’ second-largest industry.

“That is a start-off for anything you do. … Make that your first message, and then go on with your conversation,” she advised.