Joe David Rice Reflects on Being Arkansas' 'Accidental' Tourism Director

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017 12:00 am   3 min read

Joe David Rice, outgoing director of Arkansas' Tourism Division. (Photo composite source: Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)

In the glare of retirement’s spotlight, Joe David Rice summoned his inner raconteur, spinning a tale both tried and true.

“This one goes back to my days as a canoe tour operator,” Rice said last month at the Arkansas Hospitality Association’s annual gala dinner, where he was honored for his 30 years as the state’s tourism director.

A Louisiana couple wanted to float the Buffalo River, so Rice drove up U.S. 65 and showed them a bridge they would pass beneath on their way to the spot where he’d pick them up a few hours later. After driving miles upstream, he deposited the customers on a gravel bar and got them settled into their canoe.

“I’m putting them in on a perfect spring day in May, 70 degrees, blue sky and big white clouds,” Rice said, teasing the crowd along. “The water conditions are perfect; in fact there’s so much water moving through the shoals that we can hardly hear to talk.” Just as Rice was set to shove the canoe into the current, the Louisiana man made a timeout signal with his hands, then cupped them around his mouth.

“Over the roaring rapids he shouts, ‘Which way do we go?’”

The crowd hooted, and Rice let the laugh roll on. “I swear that’s a true story. Luckily for them, we were offering a special on downstream excursions that day.”

It was just one memory from a man who is departing as the state’s longest-serving tourism chief, now enshrined as Tourism Director Emeritus.

A Paragould native and University of Arkansas graduate who earned a master’s in environmental planning at the University of Illinois, Rice hired on with the Parks Division of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism in 1981.

As an environmental planner, Rice learned on a backwoods tour with Weyerhaeuser officials that the timber giant planned to sell land along the Cossatot River that was too steep for logging. “So I came back and said there’s some great land along the Cossatot, and we should make an effort to get it,” Rice recalled. “With the Nature Conservancy’s help, that’s exactly what happened. So I’m sort of the guy that got the Cossatot River Natural Area moving forward.”

Rice was soon transferred by Jo Luck, the department’s executive director then going by Jo Luck Wilson, who was determined to preserve Arkansas’ environment and budding image as “The Natural State.”

“She said, ‘Joe David, I’d like to put you in Tourism; with your environmental background, you can make sure we don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.’” Rice then rose as others departed. “My predecessors? Mike Mills went back to the private sector” to run the Buffalo Outdoor Center. “The other guy? How can I put this? Well, he was fired.”

Suddenly Rice was, as he put it, “the accidental tourism director.”

He’s been a fixture ever since, but about six and a half years ago, he joined a deferred retirement option program with a seven-year expiration date. “So I’ve got to get out, but it’s really with mixed feelings. I’ve worked most of my adult life here, and we’ve had a lot of successes. It’s an overused word, but it’s bittersweet.”

Back in July, Rice was already packing up his office belongings, but many of his Natural State mementos and antique rice canisters (a nod to his last name) were still on display. “I’ll be busy,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of stuff to do.”

First, he’ll ease the transition for his successor, former Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, whose appointment was announced by Parks & Tourism Executive Director Kane Webb on the night of the AHA dinner. At 75, Dailey is a decade older than Rice, but he’s fit, eager and determined to build on the state’s $7.5 billion tourism industry, one that Rice played no small role in developing.

In all, Rice served five governors, including Bill Clinton, who appointed him as tourism director, now a $108,000-a-year job.

After the promotion, Rice toured the state for 18 months championing a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms, camping fees and admission to attractions. The tax infusion transformed Arkansas tourism, creating the Tourism Development Trust Fund. Last year’s proceeds provided more than $15 million to market the state to travelers.

In the final stretch, Rice said last week that he has been talking with Dailey at least twice a week, and the two were planning a trip together for a legislative hearing in Hot Springs.

“He’s probably getting sick of me.”



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