Council's Goal: Double Arkansas Tourism Dollars in 10 Years

Council's Goal: Double Arkansas Tourism Dollars in 10 Years
Members of the Natural State Advisory Council, from left to right: Suzanne Grobmyer, chief of staff of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism; Mindy West, chief financial officer at Murphy USA Inc. of El Dorado; council Chairman Bryan Sanders; and Tom Walton, co-founder of the Runway Group of Bentonville. (Lara Farrar)

The Natural State Advisory Council is narrowing ideas to expand outdoor recreation offerings in four zones around parks in different regions of the state, Bryan Sanders, the council’s chairman, said during a Rotary Club of Little Rock presentation Tuesday. 

Three other members of the Natural State Advisory Council — Suzanne Grobmyer, chief of staff of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism; Tom Walton, co-founder of the Runway Group of Bentonville and a grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton; and Mindy West, chief financial officer at publicly traded Murphy USA Inc. of El Dorado — joined Sanders for a discussion on outdoor recreation in Arkansas.

Sanders’ wife, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, named the first gentleman to lead the 17-member council in January. The council will coordinate with the Arkansas Department of Commerce to promote the state's outdoor recreation industry and the economic impact of outdoor infrastructure investment. 

“She [Sarah Huckabee Sanders] was tired of Arkansas competing at the bottom in everything, and certainly in places we deserve to be competing at the top,” Bryan Sanders said. “I started thinking about that and one of the areas I know we can compete at the top is outdoor recreation, particularly in this region of the country.”

He said the goal is to double the $3.5 billion that tourism contributes to the state’s economy in the next decade. 

“I think we can crush our neighboring states as a destination for outdoor recreation,” Bryan Sanders said. “Tourism is the number two industry behind agriculture. Nothing against the agriculture industry, but I see tourism really leading as the number one industry in the state.”

The advisory council has identified four state parks to bolster existing infrastructure to attract more outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy activities like biking or climbing, he said. Those include Queen Wilhelmina State Park in western Arkansas, where the council is exploring creating a downhill biking destination “that would rival any lift access biking resort in the world,” Bryan Sanders said. 

He said Petit Jean State Park in Conway County could become an “elite climbing destination.” The council is also exploring an “outdoor recreation corridor” around Little Rock that would connect trails from the downtown area to Pinnacle Mountain, Maumelle and the Ouachita Mountains, he said.

And in the Arkansas Delta, the council envisions mountain biking trails at Mississippi River State Park near Helena-West Helena and Crowley’s Ridge State Park near Paragould, he said. 

“These are four areas we are zeroing in on really as pilot projects but great opportunities for private-public partnerships,” Bryan Sanders said. “We can really move the needle and further establish Arkansas as a premier outdoor recreation destination.” 

Arkansas state parks receive about 10 million visitors annually, half from out of state, he said. A major focus is improving the hospitality in those parks, such as making it easier for people to access goods and services in parks and establishing earmarked funding for better trail maintenance, he said. 

Walton, who is also chairman of the Walton Family Foundation Home Region Program, said the buildout of cycling infrastructure in northwest Arkansas has been a key driver for growth in the region. 

“My aunt would not be excited to hear this, but I rarely hear people say, ‘I move to Bentonville because of the art museum,” Walton said, referencing Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Alice Walton. “They say all of the time, ‘I move to Bentonville because I want to live in an area that has amazing outdoor recreation opportunities and infrastructure.’”

Walton said a recent economic impact study found that cycling contributed $159 million in 2022 to the northwest Arkansas economy, $100 million of which was generated from cycling-related businesses while $59 million came from cycling-related tourism. Collectively that generated more than 1,300 jobs and about $10 million in state and local taxes. 

“That is real money,” Walton said. “The question for us is how can we take that and expand it across the state.” 

Walton said he believes cycling-related tourism can expand across Arkansas. He also said more must be done to help rural communities plan trails and obtain local, state or national grants to build them.  

“You may not have mountains or undulated terrain, but the fastest growing segment in cycling is gravel,” Walton said. “We have 176,000 gravel dirt roads in Arkansas. It is amazing potential with this untapped resource that is already there. It is like the adventure unfolds as you go.” 

West, the Murphy USA CFO, said building the outdoor economy is crucial for recruiting workforce talent. She discussed efforts to create the Murphy Arts District in El Dorado, which includes indoor and outdoor theater venues, a children’s museum and art museum. Since the project launched in fall 2017, it’s created 600 jobs in the area, she said. 

“It has made a difference, but it would not have happened without some really thoughtful and deliberate planning and the collaboration of both public and private stakeholders all aligned on a common goal,” West said. 

“A lesson in that is this: If you can get Arkansans galvanized around an issue that resonates with them and they care about, they can get things done and make changes,” she said.

Bryan Sanders said he sees bolstering Arkansas’ outdoor recreation industry as a way to bring unity to the state. He said Arkansas is well-positioned to attract more tourists from the region. He said some estimates indicate there are at least 60 million people who live within a day's drive of the state, double that of Utah or Colorado. 

“One of the great things about this issue is it is a nonpartisan issue,” he said. “You ask the question, ‘Do you support reforms to improve the experience of state parks, improve access to outdoor recreation?’ It’s like 90% support. No one is against it.”  

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