Slam Dunk (Jeff Hankins Publisher's Notes)

Hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship turned out to be every bit as fun as most of us in central Arkansas had expected or hoped.

Fortunately, every indication is that the visiting teams and fans felt the same way.

For locals, the tournament was not only an opportunity to watch great basketball, but also a social event. It became a slightly complicated weekend with spring break, Easter and the University of Arkansas' NCAA games in Raleigh, N.C., all happening at the same time.

The visiting fans found plenty of great restaurants, shopping and attractions between games. Even the University of Texas followers, who incurred boos from Arkansans provoked by the Longhorns' coach, were pretty good sports, though it's doubtful the players and band members really understood the history between the schools.

It was the biggest celebrity watch since the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Center. Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley, Nike founder Phil Knight and NBA star Penny Hardaway were at the games, in addition to the star players from the visiting teams. New Arkansas State University Coach John Brady, who took LSU to the Final Four just two years ago, watched the games Sunday and generated a lot of buzz.

Through the years, Arkansas has developed a strong reputation for delivering Southern hospitality when big events come to the state. The dozens of volunteers, the staffs of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Athletic Department and Alltel Arena, and the convention and visitors bureaus of Little Rock and North Little Rock all stepped up to the challenge. Most observers believe central Arkansas proved itself to the NCAA, which will be asked to let Alltel Arena serve as a host site again as early as 2011.

The only negative feedback I heard during the three-day weekend regarded staffing issues related to food. Friday's lines for food at the arena were challenging, and big crowds between game sessions Friday afternoon somehow caught a handful of restaurants off guard. I'm guessing lessons were learned that will result in improvements for the future, but the reality is that accommodating crowds of 16,000 people without some wait time would be impossible.

I have to admit that I grew tired of all the talk and correcting over whether the games were being played in North Little Rock or Little Rock. It's a Pulaski County facility that happened to be built on the north side of the river, and no one outside the two cities could care less about differentiating between the two.

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A few notes from the recent Governor's Conference on Tourism:

¥ The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism has hired Economic Research Associates of Los Angeles and Longwoods International of Toronto to assess the state's opportunities for new attractions or target groups that would further increase the number of tourists.

The most anticipated project under construction has to be Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. This is the kind of attraction that will bring in visitors who will also spend money at high-end restaurants and retail shops.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's new Nature Center will open this fall in downtown Little Rock and will be a nice addition to central Arkansas' tourism offerings.

But it's time to think about Little Rock's next major tourist attraction. The best, yet most challenging, idea that remains on the table: a global village at the Heifer International headquarters.

  • The fastest-growing segment of visitors to the state is the business traveler, and business travel accounts for 25 percent of all overnight stays in Arkansas.
  • Nearly half of the overnight leisure travelers in Arkansas come from just two states – Arkansas and Texas. The largest single origination area is Little Rock.
  • One-third of all travel parties include children. Half the travelers are Generation X members, and one-third are baby boomers.

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at jhankins@abpg.com.)