While COVID-19 has impacted tourism and travel as well as business expansion, Arkansas is pushing forward to remain open and ready for business. Tourism and economic officials in Arkansas have spent many years trying to convince people to work, live and play in Arkansas.
Three people working hard on those efforts have new tools and new collaborations to conduct their business thanks to the Arkansas Legislature and a Gov. Asa Hutchinson executive order to develop more outdoor recreation businesses. Secretary of Parks, Heritage & Tourism Stacy Hurst, Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston, and Arkansas Tourism Director Travis Napper recently sat down with TB&P Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock. A partial, lightly edited transcript is below.
Roby Brock: Travis, do you see us in a growth mode coming out of COVID-19 right now or has this latest surge pared some things back?
Travis Napper: It’ll be interesting to see how the numbers play out over the next couple of months because most of our latest numbers are kind of backward looking, dating most recently to May, where we were having a surge in our 2% tourism tax. March, April, and May 2021 were our best March, April and May we’ve ever had, and May actually being the best month we’ve ever had, period. I expect those numbers to continue through June and probably into July. It’ll be interesting to see in August – that’s when it typically slows down with school going back anyway, but with the surge, it’ll be interesting to watch. We have heard, as we’ve talked to our partners around the state, it has tempered off some, but the leisure industry has just been so strong through this. As everyone knows, the convention business – meetings and corporate – is going to be much slower to return.
Stacy Hurst: One of the biggest challenges for us is to continue to operate. For example, state parks. We have to operate in a way that it’s safe for employees, but also for our visitors. Our Arkansas state parks contribute in a very substantial way to our tourism economy, so it was important through the pandemic that we stay open. We never closed the state parks entirely. That continues to be a challenge, but we have risen to the challenge and we continue to offer a safe place for employees and for travelers.
Brock: Mike, has it changed the type of businesses that you are recruiting to the state? What are business leaders telling you they need in a COVID-19 environment?
Mike Preston: Not necessarily. It hasn’t changed the type of businesses that we’re trying to recruit to the state, it’s just opened it up to more opportunities. Certainly during the pandemic, businesses were nervous. They were hesitant to move forward with projects, but as we got into 2021 and a vaccine became available, and life started to returning back to somewhat normal until we’ve hit this recent spike, there was a lot of pent-up demand. We’ve actually surpassed our numbers in the first eight months of 2021 than we did all of 2020 in terms of recruitment to the state.
We’re trying to factor in how do we account for remote work and things like that. So it really ties hand in hand with what Stacy and Travis are talking about on the tourism side and trying to get people into the state. Because now we have an opportunity, not only recruiting businesses to come locate here, but people who are able to remotely work don’t have to live in other parts of the country. They can live somewhere with a great quality of life like Arkansas and still do their job for that California-based company – getting paid a great amount, but living in a place with a low cost of doing business and a high quality of life.
Brock: The governor created in June the Office of Outdoor Recreation. There will be a new director hired for that. Have you hired that new director yet? Secondly, what is that office going to be doing that you and Travis and Mike weren’t already doing?
Hurst: We are looking for a new executive director for the Office of Outdoor Recreation. We’re very excited about this initiative. I have a stack of about 80 resumes that I’m trying to work through. But we’re looking for a great individual who can navigate through a number of responsibilities and sectors, and really build bridges within the outdoor economy. I think that one of the really important things they’ll bring to the table is better collaboration across agencies of state government, federal government, but also to grow the outdoor economy through entrepreneurship related to the outdoors. We’ve seen some of that in Northwest Arkansas related to cycling and mountain biking.
Napper: The amount of outreach and questions we’ve received about what it’s going to look like [is tremendous]. While those details haven’t been all figured out yet, the reaction has been very positive. I was actually at a meeting with a bunch of other state tourism directors just this past week. There’s much discussion about the need to continue to invest in outdoor recreation. I’m glad that we’re able to do that with some of the other states and to have that liaison between the different departments, the different places out there across the state, that range from local to state to federal level will be a tremendous asset.
Brock: Tell me more about the ‘See Why Arkansas’ initiative.
Hurst: It’s a new initiative for us to invite people from throughout the world, really to consider Arkansas as a place to relocate. We have about a million dollars within our tourism budget to devote to relocation and retirement. That’s what we bring to the table, while Commerce, of course, is interested in workforce. It started originally as a way to invite maybe a kid who grew up in Arkansas, but went away for college or who went to college here and then left for opportunity to remind them of all the great things that we offer in Arkansas. That low cost of living, the great access to the outdoors, but wonderful job opportunities here. That’s the creative messaging that we’re going to put out there and really encourage people to serve as ambassadors across the state. Through chambers of commerce, through our advertising and promotion commissions, to really help us get the word out that Arkansas is a great place to live and to work. I’m excited about it, and I think it’s a great partnership between our department and Commerce.
Brock: We did get some negative headlines out of this last legislative session that turned some people off about coming to Arkansas. How do you combat that?
Hurst: We got a little bit of pushback from individuals who would send us emails that they disagreed with legislation, but we have not seen it impact our tourism numbers. I think our positioning on that has been that we are still a very hospitable place, we are still offering a great cost of living, and we are very welcoming to all individuals in Arkansas.
Brock: We always talk a lot about the pipeline and what’s in the pipeline. What are business prospects looking like right now in the state of Arkansas?
Preston: I’m optimistic about our future in Arkansas. I think coming out of this pandemic, we have a real opportunity to set ourselves apart from other states. And it’s because of the work that has been done throughout the pandemic, the leadership of our governor and taking us through these tough waters. I think we’re going to be better on the other side of it. The optimism lies in the fact that we’re seeing our pipeline really increased for projects. Some of that is a result of, like I said, 2020 people really sitting on the sidelines to see what was going on. But with the economy now roaring back or attempting to roar back, we’re going to be in a position to win a lot of projects.
Some of the groundwork has been laid after the governor’s initiatives on computer science education, what we’re already doing in manufacturing, transportation, and logistics. All of these things are things that we’re going to capitalize on. As for broadband, we still have work to do in the state to make sure we’re fully serviced across the state. We’ve made significant progress through the CARES funding. We’re hoping to make more progress on that as we go forward. We don’t want to have any impediments that we can control that slow us down because the future is wide open for Arkansas.
Brock: So when is the next major economic announcement in Arkansas?
Preston: We’ve got several good ones in the mix, so just stay tuned. I think as we get into the third quarter of this year and into the fourth quarter, we’re going to have some strong announcements. September, October will be really good. I’ll leave it at that, but it will be all exciting news to come.
You can watch a lengthier conversation in the video below.