Business Talk on KASU: Tourism, Economic Development Leaders Team Up to Recruit Back in Arkansas
As COVID-19 has impacted tourism and travel as well as business development, Arkansas is working to stay open and ready for business. Arkansas tourism and economics officials have spent many years trying to get people to work, live, and play in Arkansas.
Three people working hard on these efforts have new tools and collaborations to conduct their business thanks to the Arkansas legislature and an executive order from Governor Asa Hutchinson to develop more outdoor recreation businesses. Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst, Commerce Secretary Mike Preston and Arkansas Director of Tourism Travis Napper recently met with TB&P Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock. A partial and slightly edited transcript is below.
Roby Brock: Travis, do you see us in a growth mode coming out of COVID-19 right now or has this latest surge reduced some things?
Travis Napper: It will be interesting to see how the numbers work out over the next couple of months, as most of our latest numbers are a bit retrospective, most recently from May when we had a 2% tourist tax increase. March, April and May 2021 were our best March, April and May we have ever had, and May actually being the best month we have ever had, period. I expect these numbers to continue through June and possibly into July. It’ll be interesting to see in August – that’s when it usually slows down with going back to school anyway, but with the skyrocketing it’ll be interesting to watch. We’ve heard, in our discussions with our partners across the state, that this has tempered some, but the entertainment industry has been so strong because of it. As everyone knows, convention business – meetings and business – is going to be much slower to come back.
Stacy Hurst: One of the biggest challenges for us is to keep operating. For example, state parks. We need to operate in a safe manner for employees, but also for our visitors. Our Arkansas state parks are a very substantial contributor to our tourism economy, so it was important during the pandemic that we stay open. We have never completely closed state parks. It continues to be a challenge, but we have risen to the challenge and continue to provide a safe place for employees and travelers.
Brock: Mike, has this changed the type of companies you recruit for the state? What do business leaders tell you they need in a COVID-19 environment?
Mike Preston: Not necessarily. It hasn’t changed the type of businesses we’re trying to recruit in the state, it just opened it up to more opportunities. Certainly, during the pandemic, businesses were nervous. They were reluctant to go ahead with any plans, but as we moved into 2021 and a vaccine became available, and life started to return to normal until we hit this recent peak, there was a lot of pent-up demand. We actually exceeded our numbers in the first eight months of 2021 than we did throughout 2020 in terms of recruiting in the state.
We try to factor in how we account for remote work and things like that. So this really ties into what Stacy and Travis are talking about on the tourism side and trying to get people into the state. Because now we have the opportunity, not only to recruit companies to come and settle here, but people who are able to work remotely don’t have to live in other parts of the country. They can live in a place with a great quality of life like Arkansas and still do their job for this California company – get paid well, but live in a place with a low cost to do business and a high quality of life. .
Brock: The governor established the Office of Outdoor Recreation in June. There will be a new director hired for this. Have you already hired this new manager? Second, what is this office going to do that you, Travis and Mike weren’t already doing?
Hurst: We are looking for a new General Manager for the Outdoor Recreation Office. We are very excited about this initiative. I have a stack of about 80 CVs that I’m trying to work on. But we’re looking for a great person who can navigate a number of responsibilities and sectors, and really build bridges in the outdoor economy. I think one of the really important things that they will bring to the table is better collaboration between state government agencies, the federal government, but also to develop the outdoor economy through entrepreneurship. linked to the outdoors. We’ve seen it in Northwest Arkansas related to cycling and mountain biking.
Cover: The amount of awareness and questions we’ve received about what it’s going to look like [is tremendous]. While not all of these details have been figured out yet, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I was actually at a meeting with a bunch of other state tourism directors last week. There is a lot of talk about the need to continue investing in outdoor recreation. I’m happy that we can do that with some of the other states and to have this liaison between the different departments, the different places across the state, which goes from the local level to the state to the federal level will be a huge asset.
Brock: Tell me about the ‘See Why Arkansas’ initiative.
Hurst: It’s a new initiative for us to invite people from all over the world to truly see Arkansas as a place to move. We have about a million dollars in our tourism budget to spend on relocation and retirement. This is what we are proposing, while Commerce, of course, is concerned with the workforce. It originally started out as a way to maybe invite a kid who grew up in Arkansas but left for college or went to college here and then left to remind him all the great things we offer in Arkansas. This low cost of living, great access to the outdoors, but wonderful employment opportunities here. This is the creative message that we are going to spread and really encourage people to serve as ambassadors across the state. Through the chambers of commerce, through our advertising and promotion boards, to really help us know that Arkansas is a great place to live and work. I’m excited about this and think it’s a great partnership between our department and Trade.
Brock: We had negative headlines from this last legislative session that deterred some people from coming to Arkansas. How do you fight this?
Hurst: We received a bit of reluctance from people emailing us saying they didn’t agree with the legislation, but we didn’t see that impacting our tourism numbers. I think our take on this is that we are still a very hospitable place, we still have a high cost of living, and we are very welcoming to all individuals in Arkansas.
Brock: We always talk a lot about the pipeline and what’s in the pipeline. What is the business outlook looking like right now in the state of Arkansas?
Preston: I am optimistic about our future in Arkansas. I think that by coming out of this pandemic, we have a real opportunity to stand out from other states. And that’s because of the work that has been done throughout the pandemic, the leadership of our governor, and the fact that he has brought us through these difficult waters. I think we’ll be better on the other side. The optimism is that we are seeing our pipeline really increase for projects. Part of that is the result of, like I said, 2,020 people really sitting on the sidelines to see what is going on. But with the economy roaring or trying to come back, we’re going to be able to win a lot of projects.
Some of the ground has been laid after the governor’s initiatives on computer education, which we are already doing in manufacturing, transportation, and logistics. All of these things are things that we are going to capitalize on. When it comes to broadband, we still have work to do in the state to ensure that we are fully served statewide. We have made significant progress with CARES funding. We hope to make more progress on this as we go along. We don’t want to have obstacles that we can control that are slowing us down because the future is wide open for Arkansas.
Brock: So when is the next major economic announcement in Arkansas?
Preston: We have several good ones in the mix, so stay tuned. I think we are entering the third quarter of this year and in the fourth quarter we are going to have some strong announcements. September, October will be really good. I’ll leave it at that, but these will all be exciting news to come.