Longtime outdoor recreation business owner and Arkansas tourism industry promoter Mike Mills was nominated Tuesday (Dec. 6) by Gov.-elect Sarah Sanders to be the next secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
Mills is the founder and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC) near Ponca. It was Arkansas’ first log cabin resort. The center opened in 1976 and has had more than 12 million guests and collected more than $1 million in tourism tax while donating over $40,000 to the Tourism Development Foundation. In 2011, he created Arkansas’ first Zip Line Canopy Tour and in 2013, BOC was Arkansas’ Small Business of the Year.
His work in the tourism sector spans more than 48 years. He has served 40 years on the Tourism Development Foundation, 39 years on the Arkansas Travel Council, 28 years on the Board of America Outdoors Association, and 25 years on the Ozark Mountain Region Tourism Association. He was a founding member of Arkansas Resorts and a charter member of Arkansas Scenic Highway 7 and Arkansas Scenic Rivers Commission. He also spent 18 years on the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.
“Mike Mills is one of the premier outdoor recreation and tourism leaders not only in the state of Arkansas but across the country, and I am proud to announce my intention to nominate him as the next Secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism,” Sanders said in a statement. “Arkansas is the Natural State – and from our unparalleled natural beauty to our world-class outdoor recreation to our rich cultural heritage, we have an incredible story to tell. Together, we will share it with the rest of the nation and the world and take our state to the next level.”
From 1982 to 1986, Mills was as the Arkansas Director of Tourism where he started Partners in Tourism, and in 2018 he was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame. He graduated from Rogers High School, and after graduation he served in the United States Marine Corps for two years. He then received a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College.
“I am honored that Governor-elect Sanders has nominated me to be the Secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism – and ready to get to work growing our outdoor economy,” Mills said. “It’s time to unleash the Natural State’s potential to be a true leader in parks and tourism, improving access for all Arkansans and our visitors to world-class outdoor recreation.”
The state’s 2% tourism tax and tourism and travel industry jobs are setting new records in the first eight months of 2022, showing that the industry is recovering and growing from the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, according to the latest Arkansas Tourism Ticker.
Arkansas’ 2% tourism tax revenue between January and August was $16.314 million, up 18% compared with the $13.819 million in the same period of 2021 and up 36.5% over the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. The 2021 collections of the tax ($20.544 million) set an annual record for the tax, and revenue set a new monthly record in June of $2.528 million.
January-August hospitality tax collections among 17 cities surveyed for the Arkansas Tourism Ticker were up 16.14% compared with the same period in 2021, and up 20.6% compared with the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.
At a press conference announcing Mills’ nomination, Sanders was asked about a recurring debate at the state legislature to eliminate the remaining portion of the grocery tax. That tax helps fund a 1/8 cent conservation tax that was approved by voters during Gov. Mike Huckabee’s administration to support Parks & Tourism, Game & Fish and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.
When asked about the potential of repealing the 1/8th cent conservation tax or the remaining portion of the grocery tax, Sanders said she had no plans to work in that direction. She emphasized the lowering and eventual repeal of the personal income tax remained her top tax cutting priority.