Arkansas Week: Tourism in Arkansas
Support for Arkansas Week provided by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, The Arkansas Times at Little Rock Public Radio. I'm Dawn Scott, and welcome to Arkansas Week. This week it is all about tourism. Tourism for The Natural State has been on the rebound since the COVID pandemic, and it is making a comeback.
Since 2022, there's been an increase in visitors and in spending, and we'll speak about the recent tourism data that was released. And to further enhance tourism, there's a master plan in the works for the future of the capital cities. Downtown area and surrounding cities in Central Arkansas are connecting it all together with the bike and walking trail network joining me to talk about what our state has to offer our three guests in Studio.
Katie Beck is the CEO for the Arkansas Hospitality Association. We also have Casey Covington, who's the Executive director for Metro Plan and Gabe Holmstrom, who is the Executive Director for the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. And if each of you would just tell me what your organization does and the purpose. Sure.
And thank you so much for having me, Don. The Hospitality Association is the umbrella organization that represents travel, tourism, hospitality, hotels and lodging properties and restaurants throughout the state. So I always say everything that brings joy and happiness to peoples lives. So and what we do at the association is serve as their voice.
We focus a lot on advocacy and education and just providing resources to those businesses in any way that we can. Casey, talk to us about Metro plan. What is your mission and what are you working toward? So Metro plan, we are responsible for regional transportation planning throughout Central Arkansas.
We want to ensure that our citizens and our visitors have access to equitable transportation to have easy access whether they're in a car, whether they're on a bus or whether on a bicycle trail connecting the region. And so that is our focus is on transportation planning and also quality of life. It's important that we all live in Central Arkansas and we want to ensure that we have a high quality of life.
And Gabe, tell us about the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. So the Downtown Little Rock Partnership is a nonprofit organization that focuses on the city core, on the downtown core. So this is not unique to Little Rock. Downtown organizations exist in cities all across the country, and the world for that matter.
But we are focused every day on making downtown Little Rock a place where people want to live, work, play and invest. And that can look a variety of different ways. We put together a lot of events. We focus on the public art.
We look at policy changes that may need to be made, whether that's at the state level or at the local level, to enhance the quality of life and to make it an attractive place to do all those things. I know all three of you work together to help boost tourism and our quality of life. Of course, here in in Central Arkansas, this is going to be a good discussion this half hour.
But first, tourism. It is the state's second largest industry and new tourism data was recently released with 48 million visitors to Arkansas in That is 17% higher than the previous year. Now Department Secretary Shay Lewis attributed this increase to several factors. Take a listen. In my view, it's for a couple of different reasons.
First of all, we have really leaned into digital marketing, which allows us to target key audiences across the nation and around the world to maximize our reach and helped us optimize future campaigns. And secondly, something that we know for sure is that a lot of visitors found us during the pandemic, What we are known as the Natural State really came true and and relevant during the pandemic. That helped many people gain a greater appreciation, appreciation for the beautiful outdoors that we have, which continues today and what Arkansas has in abundance.
Lodging saw the biggest increase up 23% compared to 2021. Katie, if you would talk about some of the key findings in that data. So this has been such an exciting week in seeing that the industry grew over a billion dollars in 2022, making it a $9.2 billion industry in the state. And the largest increase in that, well the 1 billion increase was in food establishments and lodging properties.
And in Arkansas we have over 850 hotels, which equate equates to over 55,000 hotel rooms. But the industry is booming and we need more. In fact, I got an e-mail yesterday from a community saying we need a hotel, how can you help us? So that's that's exciting. It's wonderful to see in the state and it's great to see that the industry is really rebounding from the pandemic. It went from 2019 record jobs numbers to 2020. Being a decimated industry and now surpassing those 2019 record numbers is just huge for the industry and wonderful for the state's economy.
It's really incredible. You know, the tourism industry employed just over 68,000 people. That represents about 4% of all jobs in the state. Delaney Thomas, who was recently appointed as the new tourism director by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, says she looks forward to marketing the state. I look forward to working together to grow Arkansas, second largest industry, and to continue to establish the Natural State as a national leader in outdoor recreation.
I'm also excited to continue to tell Arkansas's amazing story to audiences across the country and world. I love Arkansans. I love the hospitality and tourism industry and I have a deep appreciation for what our destinations do, our Outfitters and our frontline workers, what they do every single day to make sure our visitors have the best, most memorable experience possible. Really interesting, especially the employment part.
I'm going to start with you again, Katie. Just explain the reasoning for the that boost in employment. Sure. And.
And it's these businesses that are new businesses, it's expansion of businesses and it is creating those destination travel and hospitality businesses. It's that tourism experience, economy that is making such a boom here in the state at creating so many more jobs within the industry. And Casey, I want to get to you. Central Arkansas planning organization, Metro Plan is preparing to build a 222 mile trail network to connect cities called Tell me if I'm correct here, Central Arkansas Regional Greenway.
OK tell us more about this. Well, I think we should start with bicycle tourism is really taking off over the entire United States. People are getting out there wanting to go and ride longer distances. They want to Mountain bike in Arkansas has been very successful in that. Northwest Arkansas has certainly attracted a number of regions.
Central Arkansas, the Big Dam Bridge 100 is one of our biggest tourism events. It's bringing people in, they're riding bikes, they're going to our hotels, they're eating at our restaurants. And so bicycle tourism is a big part of the regional plan that we have. That 222 mile connection will also serve a transportation focus. And so for me that lives in Little Rock.
If I want to commute to downtown, I have a bike facility to do so. And so that 220 mile bike network will connect all of our major communities from Conway to Cabot to Benton to Little Rock through that transportation network. And I believe it will help with tourism. Interestingly, Central Arkansas has a really unique destination because we have the Ouachita's that are on the West side of our region. We have the Ozarks, It's on the north side, We have the River Valley and then on the east side you have really the Delta.
And so if somebody can come here, they can spend, you know, afternoons riding 50 miles in the Delta on flat trails. And the next day they can be on a mountain bike riding in the Ouachita's or the Ozarks. And I think Central Arkansas is very uniquely placed to help build that bicycle culture that will help tourism and also help our citizens through quality of life and providing new transportation options. You know, I read there are 6 corridors to be connected and I do believe we have a map just to show the areas if you'll just kind of go through.
I know you mentioned Northwest, the Delta, but this is, this is what it looks like here, Casey, it is. So there's there are six major connections. Some of those are fairly familiar.
The Arkansas River Trail has certainly been one that the region has enjoyed that will connect the Maumelle, the Maumelle Park as well the downtown also we have Rattlesnake Ridge. All that area is going on and I think is really an opportunity for us to draw tourism into that Maumelle Pinnacles area. We also have the Southwest Trail that's been getting a lot of press that will connect Little Rock to Hot Springs, that actually connects to national Land parks through the National Park and then through our Clinton Center as well as the Central High School, which really does provide both that tourism opportunity as well as that opportunity for somebody that really wants to get out of the car and enjoy the natural environment that we live on. The few bottoms is really a great section just South of the State Fair, just another big tourism that we just enjoyed. And that trail will actually go across there and really provide an opportunity for our citizens and visitors that want to see a very unique environment, which is an urban wetlands right through the center of our city.
Well, that brings me to you, Gabe. The The Downtown Partnership is creating a master plan for downtown as well, which I imagine connects directly into what Casey's been talking about. So absolutely, Casey has been involved at the early stages of the planning process.
And so, yeah, so we're working with the city to develop a master plan for downtown Little Rock. This is something that we've never done in the capital city. So we're very fortunate to be able to take advantage of this opportunity. When you look at some of the other cities who have on undergone the master plan process and then you see where they are five, 10/15/20 years later, you can really see the result of the progress that of the plan that was laid out, you know. So what does that mean? You know, that's a question I get a lot and it's, it's a lot of things.
So you know take for example the Arkansas River and we have this beautiful asset that runs right through the middle of our city. But yet we as a people tend to go to a lot of the different lakes. But if you go look at rivers in capital cities or major cities in some of these other states, they are full of recreational boating. So we have some of that, but how is that increased? Why is that not up to the level that you see in other states? And that's that's one thing that's going to be looked at the streetscape, how streets flow, what does that look like? And down to the minutiae of trash cans and St. lights. And one of my favorite examples to talk about is if you go to the intersection of Capitol and Main at the core of our downtown and you look around and here we are, we've got five different styles of St.
lights in one intersection. It's true. So how do we take a look at that? How do we make that more uniform and then develop a plan for adjusting these? And then how do we connect into these greenways and these trails? And when you take a map of the trails and the protected bikeways in downtown Little Rock, it's it's interesting and it's it's a little odd to see because you have the section here, you have a section over here and they're not connected. So at the end of this several years down the road, hopefully these are all going to be connected where somebody who lives in Selma or who lives in Stiff Station or who lives in East Village are going to be able to take a bike path to downtown and then go to some of these other neighborhoods, maybe go around the Big Damn Bridge and come back.
But all of these things that everyone's talking about, it all works together. And it's just it's so good to see that we have this interest from tourism for people coming here. We have the hotels in the Convention Center in downtown Little Rock clearly But we need to make sure that that is a place that is being putting its best foot forward and being used in the highest and best way.
You know and the with the new Art Center that's gone in if you think of downtown then you think of many of the regions we go to. We often walk between those locations and so with the Art Center we have the the Clinton Library you've got the old State House. I think a goal for us is Metro plan and working through the Downtown Partnership is to make it an opportunity for somebody could come down there and park their car and could walk from one location to the next, they can enjoy the restaurants downtown And that I think is an opportunity for us to promote tourism and promote people in that Downtown Partnership Plan. Well, it also just makes it easier for the people who live here as well because it is disjointed to some degree. We don't we we tend to drive from place to place right now. Well and and that's one of the unique things about Little Rock and about downtown Little Rock specifically.
It's the only urban area in the entire state, right? So we, as you alluded to, we as a society and as a culture here in Arkansas are so accustomed to relying on our car to go wherever it is we want to go. But yet, when we go to these bigger cities, we don't even question we're going to park the car and we're going to walk or we're going to take an Uber or take public transportation. Now if somebody parks in the river market and then they want to walk to the Art Center, we need to make sure that there is a path that is clearly marked and clearly lit and identified because in the grand scheme of things, you're talking about walking seven blocks, right? So how do we work on changing that culture and creating that community of walkability And it makes it a more pleasant experience for the people who are are visiting. I have a couple questions for you, Katie, following up from what you said, there was a community that contacted you. They need a hotel. Are they in the network that we just showed the the map, the the place where people are visiting and then that my second question is just what is really getting people here to the state? Yes they are.
And that's part of the, the reason why is they're saying we we are getting these visitors we we need to have lodging to house these visitors and to help enhance their visit to the state and the recreation activities that they're participating in. The lodging industry is just an incredible one throughout the state and creating that hospitable environment, the nature of hospitality, it's it's it's Arkansas, it's Arkansans and it's really showcasing Arkansas as a destination in the mid South, which I mean working with with you all and our partners throughout the state. It's an incredible thing to see that just rise in visitors to the state, but also really making it a destination throughout the the country. And we heard earlier in the program too that truly out of the pandemic, they saw Arkansas as the natural state, as a place to be outside that was safe during the pandemic, but now really they're liking it here.
I mean, what is really attracting people in your opinion? Absolutely. We're a hidden gem. People came to Arkansas and a little bit of what Casey spoke about earlier is we have such a diverse beauty within the state, from the Buffalo River to the Ozarks to the Delta. It's an incredible state where you can partake in so many different types of recreation and feature and we are able to help feature from the Hospitality Association the incredible cuisine that we offer too. I hear that a lot from people, maybe people who move away and then come, they say they miss, you know, certain restaurants and certain food. But I'm curious what inspired the trail network? Was it just seeing that it was somewhat disjointed not only in in Little Rock but it but across the state.
So certainly our board which is made-up of mayors and county judges have looked at other regions and we really went and benchmarked those locations and all of those really successful southern cities. If you think of Austin, we think of upstate South Carolina, certainly Northwest Arkansas, they are providing that quality of life that is attracting residents and it's really a circle. You attract residents, you build quality of life, you attract them tour tourists, they stay in your area and that's in an ultimate goal.
But in looking at those areas, I think there was a realization that if we were going to compete nationally, we had to do something to improve our quality of life and building opportunities for people to enjoy Central Arkansas and all of Arkansas and trails are a part of that. Is there a timeline for completion of of everything? We are seeing projects really come to fruition really quickly. I can't give you a timeline. I will say that our Board has committed $55 million / 10 years to build it. That's money that comes through metro plan for transportation purposes and why we're focused on transportation. I think they'll be additional money that will come through for a recreational opportunities, hopefully tourism opportunities.
But a couple of the projects that we're working on right now, the Southwest Trail was mentioned earlier, Placi County and Saline County are working on the first segment of that that will be kind of through Southwest little rocket into Saline County that's moving along Placi County bid its first section. So I think it'll probably go to construction here the next couple months. Another really unique opportunity is in the city of Benton. There is an old river bridge. It dates back into the 1800s that is currently being rehabbed and it was originally used really probably for for buggies and horses and then it changed the cars and now it's going to be converted to a pedestrian bicycle.
And I'll connect into that downtown Benton, which is another really great downtown that has an opportunity to enhance tourism. And through that bridge location, it's going to, I think provide a really unique opportunity for our Central Arkansans to enjoy our history, enjoy our transportation system and our natural environment and celebrate all those great things that we enjoy. Well, that's interesting because you don't necessarily think of Benton as an attraction or a place that you want to necessarily go visit, but it is becoming that which feeds into of course, hospitality. Absolutely. In fact, I was in downtown Benton earlier this week to try out a new restaurant and then it's a it's a lovely place and I'm excited to hear those development projects in the works. And I'm curious what areas of downtown are going to be incorporated into this plan as well.
Well, so there's been a lot of attention given to the the East Village area of of Little Rock where you have the Clinton Library and then the previous the headquarters of Heifer International. Which was purchased by One Health earlier, I guess about last year. And then in their announcement with Lyon College, they're going to be bringing the first veterinary in the first dental school to the entire state of Arkansas and that's going to be right in downtown Little Rock. So what, you know, one of the things that I keep saying is that, you know, pay attention to where we are right now.
But remember this in three years because in three years from now the big highway construction project's going to be done. You're going to have a dental and veterinary school that's going to bring 1000 new people into downtown, into the east side of Little Rock. And then there is a massive $37 million development with art space where they're bringing in 60 live work units for artists to come in. So and then there's a new brewery coming in. So all of this activity, not to mention the the new Symphony building. So all of this activity is happening east of I30 that is going to just create a snowball effect if you will for the rest of the city.
And I know there are some trails out that E way, but I know you're that's an area you're looking at to develop out as well it is. So there's the 6:30 has a corridor that's kind of parsley there and you have to hop back and forth. Rock Creek is probably one starts on the West End and really making those little connections can really be helpful in terms of building that rat out and that's a really probably productive route for our citizens because of all the employment it touches UAMS, it touches Baptist, it touches Saint Vincent, touches a retail that's there at university as well as the the residential that's located along it. And so that's really a productive route that I think we'll we'll see some early success on. We're in Conway.
Conway, I believe it was last year announced in pretty substantial TIGER grant in the $20 million range to build a bike facility through it. So that's actually going to be an enhancement to our trail system. I think Conway is going to be probably one of the leading communities in terms of being able to get that bike facility and bike networks built out in Central Arkansas. You know, Casey, on that point, there's an innovation plan too, right? To conserve energy, protect the environment and the community can actually get involved in this.
Yeah. So we're we're really excited about this. This was an opportunity that we were not expecting at the beginning of the year. But due to some Congress actions in DC, we were able to partner with the state of Arkansas, with our counterpart in Northwest Arkansas, which is the North Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas Planning Commission in Fort Smith on a an environment and innovation plan.
And this is a plan for Arkansas to come to us and tell us what they want to see in terms of energy independence. What should we be doing to protect the environment that we have in Arkansas? And so we do have a several opportunities for people to participate. Right now we have a survey that is out. We encourage people. If you all can go to firstname.lastname@example.org, you can find it in an opportunity to connect and and share your vision for how we continue to develop energy independence in Central Arkansas and take steps to ensure that we're protecting the environment.
Yeah, our natural state, our natural state, absolutely. We do have a couple of minutes left. And I do just want some final thoughts from each of you. You know, how are the businesses doing in downtown? What other things can you add to the conversation? Each of you? We'll start with you Gabe.
The we've had the mention of the the food attractions in the restaurants and that's one of the things that we continually hear about Little Rock is that we really hit above our weight when it comes to the variety of these independent restaurants that are unique to the area. Even in the past few years, we've had new restaurants added to the restaurant scene. People are excited about seeing that on the office space. You know that's one of the big conversations with downtowns all across the country is everybody was hit very hard during the pandemic and then with work from home that's really impacted commercial real estate, some areas are seeing that more negatively impacted than others, but overall we're in pretty good shape in downtown.
You know, one of the interesting takeaways with the consultants that are developing the master plan is that, hey, your residential occupancy of apartments is really high. Why aren't more apartments being built? Why aren't we creating, they're increasing the density of the people that live down here. So that's something that I think is going to continue to increase in the coming years where we're going to continue to increase the number of people who live downtown who want that walkable pace of life. We have about a minute left. So a few seconds from you. On final thoughts, Casey, well, I'm really excited about the commitment of our Central Arkansas leadership.
They were the ones that said we need a plan. It's not just sufficient to plan, but we're going to commit funding to it. So I want to compliment them and I think with their leadership, we will see success in our plan. And you, Katie, it's an incredibly exciting time for the entire state and we are all fortunate to have leaders and the governor's administration who is on board who are really spearheading this initiative to grow travel and tourism and hospitality throughout the state.
So we're excited and to see what the future holds. Katie back with the Hospitality Association, Casey Covington with Metro Plan and Gabe Holmstrom with the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. A great discussion in this half hour. Thank you all for being with us and that does it for Arkansas week.
Thanks for being here. I'm Dawn Scott. We'll see you next time. Support for Arkansas Week provided by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the Arkansas Times and Little Rock Public Radio.