Fort Smith metro tourism officials hopeful for good 2019 despite record flooding

by Michael Tilley ( 253 views 

The bus trolley in downtown Van Buren.

The Fort Smith-Van Buren tourism sector is off to a better start in 2019 following a flat 2018, with tourism officials optimistic that historic flooding in late May and early June won’t be a drag on the industry in the back half of the year.

Hospitality tax revenue in January-February 2019 was up 2.1% among 17 Arkansas cities reviewed for the Arkansas Tourism Ticker compared with the same period in 2018. The Arkansas Tourism Ticker is managed by Talk Business & Politics, and sponsored by the Arkansas Hospitality Association.

Collections in Van Buren for the two-month period were $88,456, up 1.4% compared with the same period in 2018. Fort Smith hospitality collections were $128,959, up 0.8%. In 2018, Fort Smith collections totaled $840,044, down 1.49% compared with $852,733 in 2017. Collections in Van Buren during 2018 totaled $605,748, up 0.64% compared with $601,888 in 2018.

Collections of Arkansas’ 2% statewide tourism tax in Jan.-Feb. 2019 were up 4.1% compared with the same period in 2018. Following are collections of the state’s 2% tourism tax in Fort Smith metro counties .
Crawford County
Jan.-Feb. 2019: $23,702
Jan.-Feb. 2018: $20,146
up 17.65%

Franklin County
Jan.-Feb. 2019: $3,201
Jan.-Feb. 2018: $1,398
up 128.9%

Logan County
Jan.-Feb. 2019: $1,355
Jan.-Feb. 2018: $1,353
up 0.13%

Sebastian County
Jan.-Feb. 2019: $88,656
Jan.-Feb. 2018: $87,607
up 1.2%

There was a 3.2% increase in monthly average of Arkansas’ tourism industry jobs in Jan.-Feb. 2019 compared with the same period in 2018. Jobs in the Fort Smith metro during the two-month period averaged 9,150, up 1.66%. Tourism jobs in the Fort Smith metro during May totaled 9,900, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from the 9,700 in May 2018. The sector set a record of 10,100 in June 2016.

Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Executive Director Maryl Koeth said the flood did reduce traffic and excursion train activity because of the “perception that all towns along the Arkansas River were underwater.” But business openings in the city’s downtown area have, she hopes, countered some of the negative flood news.

“Even with that (flooding), I think we are still doing well and will continue to do well for the remainder of the summer. It’s helped a lot that we had two new restaurants on Main Street open during the worst of the weather that has created a lot of media buzz about our newly transformed historic district. That helped get the word out that Van Buren is still open for business. Hoping Mother Nature takes a vacation for the rest of the summer and lets us get on with business,” Koeth told Talk Business & Politics.

Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, said tourism activity and collections are running “slightly above” projections even with the flooding. He also said event groups, especially those with concerts planned for the flooded Harry E. Kelley Riverfront Park are, are adapting instead of canceling shows.

“The balance of the year continues to look good and local celebrations have adapted. Fourth of July has been moved, the Blues Festival is holding dates in the fall and the Peacemaker Music and Art festival is considering alternate locations,” Legris said.

Legris also said the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism “continues efforts to spread the word that Arkansas is still well open for business in spite of some national weather news made last month and early this month.”