Fort Smith metro tourism sector falls flat in 2018

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 755 views 

The bus trolley in downtown Van Buren.

The 2018 Arkansas Tourism Ticker showed overall gains again for the state’s tourism industry, but Fort Smith hotel tax collections were down, metro job numbers were down, and Van Buren hospitality tax collections posted a less than 1% gain.

The Ticker, managed by Talk Business & Politics, and sponsored by the Arkansas Hospitality Association, showed a 3.1% increase in 2018 hospitality tax revenue among 17 Arkansas cities reviewed for the Ticker compared with 2017. Of the 17 cities, five posted hospitality tax collection declines for the year (Texarkana, down 5.03%; Russellville, down 1.63%, Fort Smith, down 1.49%; Springdale, down 1.45%; and Jonesboro, down 0.59%).

There also was a 1.6% increase in the monthly average of Arkansas’ tourism industry jobs in 2018 compared with 2017, according to the Ticker.

Collections of Fort Smith’s hotel tax totaled $840,044 in 2018, down 1.49% compared with $852,733 in 2017. However, collections of the state’s 2% tourism tax in Sebastian County totaled $594,993, up 4.62% compared with 2017.

Van Buren’s hotel and prepared food tax generated $605,748 in 2018, up 0.64% compared with $601,888 in 2017. But, revenue from the 2% state tourism tax in Crawford County was $172,207 in 2018, down 4.3%.

The monthly average of jobs in the Fort Smith metro tourism sector was 9,460 in 2018, down 1.7% compared with 2017, and also below the 9,500 average in 2016. Sector employment ended the year at an estimated 9,300 jobs in December, up from 9,200 in December 2017.

Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Executive Director Maryl Koeth said the first half of 2018 was “very slow,” with tourist and business travel down more than usual.

“Even though the economy was improving, I think people were being cautious about spending those disposable dollars on eating out and leisure travel. The second half of 2018 saw a slight uptick in leisure and business travel and increased local spending on dining out which helped us end the year with a very slight gain year over year,” Koeth noted.

Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, agreed with Koeth’s assessment, but added that hotel occupancy in the city started slow and didn’t recover. The hotel occupancy rate was down 2.6% in the first half of the year and fell 4.4% during the second half.

Koeth said early trends in 2018 show an increase in tourism and business travel and she is “cautiously optimistic” the trend will continue. Part of her optimism is a result of cycling trails at Chad and Betty Colley Park and ongoing efforts to bring more businesses and events to downtown Van Buren.

“The revitalization of our Main Street is continuing to pick up speed with the start of demo work on the future Center for Art and Education and the opening of two new restaurants,” Koeth said in a note to Talk Business & Politics. “Pasta Grill will be a nice upscale dining experience for our Historic District and The Vault will add a much needed sports grill to further enhance the nighttime dining on the street. The Old Town Merchants have revamped the two main festivals while adding several new festivals to their annual events.”

Legris said tourism traffic may not be as strong as thought in 2019 because of uncertainty with when the U.S. Marshals Museum will open. Fort Smith voters on March 12 rejected a one-cent, nine-month sales tax that would have raised an estimated $16 million for completion of the U.S. Marshals Museum. The museum was initially set to open September 2019.

“We had anticipated some increase in the tourism traffic based on the progress on the Marshals Museum but now potential tourism business is in question for 2019 and possibly 2020 due to the fundraising situation,” Legris said. “However we do still have a number of events still committed including the United States Marshals Association (retired marshals) still coming this September for the (museum) dedication and the Governor’s Conference on Tourism which will meet here in 2020 and probably utilize the public space at the Museum in some fashion.”

Legris said the Fort Smith Convention Center should see another year of being home to major events. Those event, according to Legris, include the Episcopal Church conferences, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Rotary conference, Mid America Aerospace and Defense Summit, the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney’s Association, and the National Association of Letter Carriers conference.

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