After giving a pep talk to hospitality industry leaders at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock, Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters on Wednesday that he had begun the process of selecting a new state Tourism chief to replace longtime agency Executive Director Richard Davies.
And although he would prefer a candidate from Arkansas who was familiar with the state’s tourism industry, Hutchinson said his key qualifications for the position include strong management, people and public relations skills.
Davies, who has worked for the Department of Parks and Tourism more than 42 years and served under eight governors, is set to retire at the end of this year. He has been inducted into the Hall of Fame by both the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and the Arkansas Hospitality Association. The Arkansas Broadcasters Association named him Arkansan of the Year in 2004.
“Richard Davies has done an extraordinary job leading the agency for number decades, and has made it one of the premier Parks and Tourism agencies in the United States,” Hutchinson said at the Arkansas Hospitality Association’s 71st annual convention.
“As we look down the road, I am starting to consider different options for a replacement, and I am sure that we will get someone that’s top quality, but what I want from them is to take a fresh look, be creative and to build on the great success that we already have – not just for tourism but for our parks and heritage.”
During his brief speech to members of the hospitality trade group, Hutchinson highlighted the fact that the tourism and hospitality industry is the second largest industry in Arkansas, behind only agriculture and the farming sector.
The popular Republican governor, who was given red carpet treatment and a standing ovation at the convention, said he has just started the selection process to replace the highly popular Davies, but had not yet interviewed any candidates. “I have identified how I want to go about that search and identified some that I want to be interviewing,” he said.
When asked if he would consider State Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Yellville, and former Little Rock city board member and current State Department of Heritage Director Stacy Hurst for the position – both of whom shared the stage at the AHA convention with Hutchinson and Davies, and have been mentioned as possible candidates for the high profile cabinet position – the governor said, “Well they certainly both can be top-notch.”
However, he added there may be some constitutional concerns that may prohibit Linck, executive director of the Ozark Mountain Region Tourism Association, from taking the post because of his tenure in the legislature.
“Beyond that I don’t want to get into specific names because we want to look at candidates across the board and keep it open,” the governor said. “But my first preference is to have someone from Arkansas who has an understanding of our tourism industry and our state parks (that) have to be managed well – and that’s the most important criteria …”
Besides replacing Davies, Hutchinson said a lot of other senior level leaders at the state Tourism and Parks departments have left or will be leaving the agency soon. He said the new executive director will play a major role in hiring replacements for those positions and ensuring a smooth transition going forward.
Hutchinson also was asked by reporters about a letter sent Tuesday by the state’s congressional delegation to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz, asking him to address state’s rights concern over the DOE’s oversight of the $2 billion Plains & Eastern Clean Line Transmission multi-state, renewable energy project.
The governor said he has not spoken yet with DOE officials, but was aware of the delegation’s letter, and said it raised a number of good questions and concerns about state’s rights and federal oversight of such energy development projects.
“My historic view and understanding of the law is that this is a decision that is made at the federal level, and the delegations have raised questions on whether this should be referred by to the state for some determination, so we need to wait and see how the federal government responds,” Hutchinson said, adding that he has asked state Public Service Commission Chair Ted Thomas to review and evaluate the concerns in the congressional delegation’s letter.
Hutchinson also reiterated his stance that he did the “right thing” as governor in cancelling in the state’s agreements on Aug. 14 with Planned Parenthood after the Center for Medical Progress released a series of undercover videos showing members of the national Planned Parenthood organization discussing selling aborted fetal tissue.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker has set a hearing for tomorrow (Sept. 17) in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland regarding Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s order to halt all state Medicaid contracts with the organization.
“I am confident that I did the right thing as governor, and (Department of Human Services Director) John Selig made the right determination. We did the right thing,” he said. “Now, looking at it (the law), it provides very clearly that you have 30 days-notice to terminate it, that’s in the contract and that’s what we relied on, and there is a whole raft of federal regulations to go along with that and we will see what the judge says on that.”
But, Hutchinson added, “regardless of what the judge says – we did the right thing.”