Posted on April 14, 2014
Originally published in the El Dorado News-Times on April 15, 2014.
By: Dave Showers
Invoking self-deprecating comedian Rodney Dangerfield to illustrate the short shrift tourism gets as a component of economic development, Richard Davies unfurled a shtick no less guffaw-inducing than those formerly employed by the last of the one-liners.
The state?s director of parks and tourism Monday night regaled the patrons of the Chamber of Commerce?s annual banquet at the El Dorado Conference Center with anecdotes and chestnuts collected from a career that?s spanned four governors and more than two decades. Distilled to its essence, the job entails, "Talking Yankees and Texans into coming here and spending their money.?
His success is borne out by the numbers he cited: 23 million visitors to Arkansas last year spent $5.9 billion and generated $425 million in state and local taxes. At a more micro level, he said tourists spent $105 million in Union County last year that infused the coffers of local government with $5 million of tax revenue.
Most of the visitors were drawn by the state?s bucolic allure. To fully monetize the asset, a robust service industry has to be in place.
"The number two consideration when people are deciding where to go is shopping,? he said. "They get mad if you don?t have shopping opportunities. You can have lots of visitors, but if you don?t have available businesses, you?ll never take their money.?
Points of interest such as the Clinton Library in Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville are pulling tourists from beyond what Davies described as the "egg,? an area circumscribed by Dallas and Houston to the west, Memphis to the east, New Orleans to the south and Iowa to the north.
The U.S. Marshal?s museum in Fort Smith is another destination that could beckon tourists from far-flung locales. It?s a zero-sum game, said Davies, explaining that tourists "aren?t invented,? but have to be "stolen from somewhere else.?
"People from far afield are coming,? he said "We?ve always had the outdoor aura, but now we have facilities and programs that have given Arkansas a reputation for having arts and culture.?
He said El Dorado?s rebranding as a festival city is in keeping with sea change that?s transformed Arkansas tourism.
Miss Arkansas Amy Crain preceded Davies at the lecturn. The former denizen of El Dorado was introduced by her mother, Terri, an educator at Parkers Chapel. Crain spoke briefly before having to decamp to West Memphis for another speaking engagement. She said she?s shared her anti-bullying message of kindness and respect with more than 50,000 children since donning the Miss Arkansas crown last summer.
Her extensive travels have made her fondness for home more profound.
"The heart knows where the home is,? said Crain, who was presented a bouquet by Mayor Frank Hash. "El Dorado?s contributed greatly to who I am.?
The First Financial Bank Nonprofit Excellence Award winner: Salvation Army. Runners-up: Fairview Community Development Association and Medical Center of South Arkansas Auxiliary."