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WATCH | Arrison shares ideas for advancing tourism

by Courtney Edwards | February 18, 2023 at 4:04 a.m.
Steve Arrison, center, visits with members of the Rotary Club of Hot Springs National Park following his presentation.– Photo by Courtney Edwards of The Sentinel-Record

Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison shared his thoughts on advancing tourism in Hot Springs while addressing Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on Wednesday, ideas that grew out of a discussion on Little Rock's own "tourism master plan."

"I was sort of sitting in the office talking to (VHS Director of Marketing) Bill Solleder the other day and I said, 'We can do that for a lot less than $300,000," the cost of Little Rock's plan, Arrison said. "And so, I came up with some ideas of ways that I think in the future we can improve tourism."

Arrison described a tourism master plan as "where are you now in tourism? Where do you wanna be? How are you gonna get there?" Hearing about Little Rock's master plan got Arrison thinking and writing ideas down, he said.

"I'm not saying tomorrow, I'm not saying the next day, some of them might never happen, but these just came to top of mind," he said.

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However, he is already working on his first idea, which is allowing beer and wine sales on Sunday in the community.

"There's 21 communities in the state of Arkansas that allow total alcohol sales on Sunday, not just beer and wine, everything on Sunday," he said.

"Rogers and Bentonville just passed it.

"We're the number one tourism destination in the state. People come in here from all over the country, they rent houses, they have suites in hotels, and they can't buy a bottle of wine to sit out on the dock and enjoy what we have to offer. We're behind the times. We need to step up," Arrison said.

His second idea included finally acquiring the Umetco Mining Corp. site off Highway 270 east and adding recreational activities such as soccer fields and pickleball courts. Encompassing about 600 acres, the land already has walking trails, he said. Purchasing the reclaimed mine has been discussed since 2013.

"We could open the doors tomorrow as a park," Arrison said.

"This isn't anything I'm saying is gonna happen right away, but we need to acquire the land. We've begun discussions with Umetco again that this could happen, but it's gonna have to be a city-county partnership to have a regional park."

Comparing his ideas with Little Rock's tourism master plan, Arrison said although the Hot Springs Convention Center doesn't need expanding, it does need to be kept "in first-class shape."

Another recreational idea includes opening a few of the lakes in the Northwoods to nonmotorized kayaks, he said.

"It's a diamond in the rough," he said. "There's so much more we can do out there, so we need to keep that on our agenda."

Arrison next described his vision for the Majestic Hotel site.

"What I'd like to see at the Majestic site is on the top, as you're looking at it, the first thing you see is like the dancing fountains in Branson. ... Don't have to be that big, not that big," he said.

"On the site, a nice plaza with maybe a boutique hotel with a spa, take advantage of the waters. Maybe some mixed juice developments around the side, little bars, stores, restaurants."

He also mentioned the potential to establish a new district near Oaklawn.

"Let's play off that, where you leave there, there's places to go," he said. "I mean, it's just begging for something to happen in that way."

Other ideas he mentioned that are already underway include additional parking downtown and maintaining a surplus water supply. He also cited a shortage of affordable housing and workforce development, which he said he hopes the city will address soon.

"It's very expensive to live here, and, you know, you're trying to pay hourly employees, you gotta have a place to live and a workforce."

The final idea he presented involves adding indoor pickleball courts to Uptown Hot Springs, the former Hot Springs Mall.

"Just take one of those huge empty spots," he said. "If they don't have carpet, you don't even have to do anything, just mark the floors. You've got air conditioning, you've got restrooms. What more do you want?"

From Little Rock's $300,000 plan, Arrison said it was reported that one of the main findings was "that Little Rock residents (have) a lack of pride in their city. They do not have a high opinion of it. That's not true for Hot Springs."

Arrison also went over last year's tourism statistics and the plans for this year, noting his presentation was "not endorsed by the city board or the city manager."

"We've been on a roll since COVID," he said. "The last four months of COVID, the four in the last five months of 2019, our collections of the hospitality tax set records."

From 2020 to 2021, the hospitality tax collection saw a 30% increase, and from 2021 to 2022, it saw a 14% increase, he said, noting the commission has gone from collecting about $6 million to around $10 million.

The Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, which operates Visit Hot Springs, the city's convention and visitors bureau, gets a list of people who stop at the Visitors Center each day. On Tuesday, there were around 182 on the list, he said. In the summer, more than 1,000 people visit the center in just one day.

"It's amazing where these people are coming from," Arrison said. "It used to be we'd just see them, it'd be the egg around Arkansas, where you get them from Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. It's expanded.

"We're getting them from California, Minnesota, Maine, and the amount of international business has surprised me. ... I mean, Japan, Germany, Switzerland. I mean, every day, we have a couple foreigners go through there.

"People have discovered Hot Springs, and we just gotta keep this roll going."

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