Twenty years ago, some expressed surprise when a route along Crowley’s Ridge in Eastern Arkansas was designated as the state’s first National Scenic Byway through the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Surely there were more scenic routes, naysayers groused. But the name itself is somewhat of a misnomer, as designation requires routes to meet at least one of six intrinsic qualities: scenic, yes; but natural, archeological, historic, cultural or recreational significance also are qualifiers.
Arguably, Crowley’s Ridge has aspects of all six, with its natural qualities perhaps being most important. An erosional remnant of the Ice Age, this ridge is the only formation of its kind in the country. It has major historic significance as well, due to the fact that people gravitated to the ridge to escape the desolate swamps that once made up the rest of the Arkansas Delta. As the only high ground, this crescent-shaped sliver of land served as a bridge for mail delivery, military troop movements, and human and animal migration.
Local impetus for seeking National Scenic Byway designation was primarily economic, as a means of linking attractions and creating the critical mass necessary to attract travelers to drive the route and spend money along the way.
Two additional routes through Arkansas have been designated as National Scenic Byways. The Arkansas segment of the 10-state Great River Road along the Mississippi River, actually established in 1938, officially became a National Scenic Byway in 2002, followed in 2005 by the Talimena Scenic Drive, which extends from Oklahoma into Arkansas.
Historic markers dot our landscapes, calling for visitors to pull off the road, and in recent years we have seen the establishment of trails focused on the Civil War, civil rights, music, territorial heritage, biking, motorcycles, birding, food, wine, and other interests.
The two National Scenic Byways through the Arkansas Delta provide significant educational as well as economic benefits, serving as laboratories for learning outside the classroom. The need to research and develop attractions along Crowley’s Ridge Parkway led to Arkansas State University’s first major project along the route –development of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott as Arkansas’s northern anchor for the route.
It also contributed to the establishment of A-State’s Heritage Studies Ph.D. program and its companion Heritage Sites program. In addition to Hemingway-Pfeiffer, these sites now include the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, and other affiliated heritage sites.
These sites clearly are economic catalysts in their small communities. By way of example, within two years of opening the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, Piggott added 14 new tourism-related businesses, including restaurants, bed and breakfasts, gift and antique shops, another museum and other attractions.
Along with traveler-related income, grants since 1998 through the National Scenic Byways program have funneled approximately $10 million into projects to carry out the Corridor Management Plans for the two Arkansas Delta byways, ranging from hiking and biking trails development to museum enhancements and visitor infrastructure. Though the National Scenic Byways targeted grants program no longer exists, these grants have leveraged an additional $15 million from other sources for byways-related projects.
Twenty years ago, few people in the Arkansas Delta thought of tourism as economic development, due largely to the nature of the tourism industry. It is not like an industrial plant, where you can figure the number of widgets produced, the cost of production, and the profit after sale. Instead, it is a cluster of hospitality-related businesses.
And therein lies the tourism challenge.
At the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, for instance, the site is expected to generate $10 million in travel-related income and create as many as 100 new jobs in the hospitality industry when fully operational.
The various Arkansas byways and trails being developed provide great opportunities for partnerships to link attractions and visitor amenities. Ensuring that travelers have multiple options for where to eat, where to sleep and what to see and do will go a long way toward keeping them in the state long enough to spend some money.
Editor’s note: Dr. Ruth Hawkins is director of the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites, and executive director of the Arkansas Delta Byways. The opinions expressed are those of the author.