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Small towns see opportunity in tourism: communities strive to capitalize on $2.7 billion tourism industry.

MANY OF THE STATE'S small towns are growing increasingly savvy about tourism, and they're finding imaginative ways to use their natural assets to stimulate economic development.

During the last five years, community leaders across the state have banded together to decide how to capitalize on indigenous sources of potential revenue. Ongoing efforts by the state Department of Parks and Tourism have raised awareness about the economic possibilities of tourism.

A recent Parks and Tourism report on the state of tourism in Arkansas underscores the importance of the industry to the state and warns that Arkansas has to be prepared to increase its investment in tourism to offset the efforts of regional competitors. As riverboat gambling flourishes in Mississippi and Louisiana prepares to get in on the gaming action, Arkansas is facing more competition than ever for the tourism dollar.

Tourism pumped $2.7 billion into Arkansas' economy and accounted for $127 million in state taxes last year, according to Parks and Tourism.

That's a pie that small towns such as Hardy, Calico Rock, Paragould, Magnolia and Lake Village want a bigger piece of.

Residents of Lake Village, located in the state's southeast corner about 20 miles from the Mississippi border, will try to capture some of the tourism dollars that fly through the town along U.S. Highway 82.

"We're in a wonderful corridor for people going to casinos," notes Laurie Bridewell of Lake Village, chairman of the town's tourism committee. "Every minute we can get people to stay a little longer means a little more money and exposure for us."

A major tool Lake Village has used toward that end is its Lake Chicot Water Festival, held annually during the last weekend of June on an oxbow of the Mississippi River. In 1993, the festival drew between 14,000-15,000 people to the town of about 3,000. Bridewell says the city's sales tax revenues, which usually average between $16,000-$17,000 a month, jumped to about $38,000 during the festival week.

The success of the festival, which has operated on a larger scale each year since 1988, is generating seed money for economic development.

Year-Round Activities

The town is also organizing year-round activities for travelers, such as tours of the area's catfish-processing plants and farm tours. Many local farmers have begun raising emus, flightless Australian birds that are related to the ostrich, and Bridewell hopes tours of those farms, in particular, will make a unique attraction.

Lake Village is counting on a major Christmas celebration that the town will kick off this year to stimulate additional tourism and draw attention to the restored downtown area that houses specialty stores. Using a 12 days of Christmas theme, the town plans a media blitz in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi to promote the festival's small-town flavor.

By making people more aware of what Lake Village has to offer, Bridewell says, the community hopes people, especially those in Mississippi, will begin to consider the town as a place to retire.

"I see our future as a retirement community. We're going to be sort of a bedroom community of a larger town across the river," she predicts, referring to neighboring Greenville, Miss.

Like Lake Village, towns such as Hardy, Calico Rock and Paragould are building their tourism around bodies of water and forestland.

Both Hardy, situated on the Spring River, and Calico Rock, on the White River, use the abundant trout found in their cold-water rivers to entice tourists. Once there, they aim to keep tourists entertained with their historic downtown shopping areas.

Gene Lockie, chairman of Calico Rock's tourism committee, says a color promotional brochure the town produced led to increased tourism in Izard County. From 1991 to 1992, tourism revenues grew by 18 percent, he says. The town is on its second printing of 25,000 of the brochures.

Not content to sit on its laurels, the town's long-range plans include building a train depot and trying to bring in an excursion train.

Similarly, Hardy's river location has led to the restoration of its historic downtown, known as Old Hardy Town, which features antique and crafts stores. Ten years ago, about 30-40 percent of downtown storefronts were occupied.

"Now you can't find space down there. All the businesses are full, and there's a waiting list," says Dan Rega of the Spring River Area Chamber of Commerce.

Paragould Plans

Paragould formed a tourism task force last year to examine how it could better market its attractions and snare many tourists bound for Branson, Mo.

"Paragould is a key entrance to the state through the Missouri bootheel along |U.S.~ Highway 412," says Dr. Alan Ainley, a dentist and task force member.

"We felt like there was a lot of tourism that was being overlooked in our particular area. We had a tendency to discount Crowley's Ridge and the beauty along it," says Ainley, explaining a few of the reasons for the task force formation.

Magnolia has used its annual Magnolia Blossom Festival, celebrated each spring in the town's historic courthouse square, as a foundation for other tourism activities. Recognizing that its historic antebellum homes, farm lands and Southern hospitality were assets, Magnolia has built tours around those attractions.

The town is targeting retired people, in particular.

"That's the group that you really should be going after because of the free time and expendable income they have, and they're interested in historical, education things," says Ray Sullivent, chairman of Magnolia's tourism committee.

Like many small towns, Magnolia is not synonymous with tourism, but if Sullivent and community leaders in small towns across the state have their way, that will slowly change.

"We're not known for our tourism, but we're working on it," Sullivent says.
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Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 13, 1993
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