Last Friday night we received word that Mike Mills has stepped down as the Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. This comes only 6 months into his tenure leading the state’s lead outdoor recreation and promotional agency. Arkansas Outside announced Mill’s appointment by Governor Sanders in January. We had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Mills in February, he seemed excited about the prospect of leading the department into the future including a focus on outdoor recreation.
…he was quick to point out that paddling beyond the Buffalo National River should be a priority, increasing the visibility of other rivers and floating opportunities throughout the state. He also mentioned rock climbing as an area that could see growth in the future. – From his interview with AO.
One of Mill’s focuses has been improving how public and business interests work together.
Secretary Mills has only been in his new position for about a month but he has high expectations for the department. A major goal is to move more efficiently on dealings of public and business interests, particularly with the state parks. – From his interview with AO.
He seems to have achieved at least part of this goal with the passing of SB472 and SP464.
The Governor’s Office released the news (news release below) at exactly 5 pm on Friday night with little mention of Mills other than a quick “I thank Secretary Mills for his service to this administration and years of work as a pioneer in Arkansas’ tourism industry.” A time of day/week known to garner little attention as the state heads into the weekend. No reason for the departure was given and the release is focused on the interim Secretary, Shea Lewis, the current Director of Arkansas State Parks.
Mills served in the position for the shortest amount of time since the agency was first created in the early 1970s. The last time that an interim Secretary existed was after Kane Webb left in December of 2018 and was held by the then Chief Financial Officer for the department, Cynthia Dunlap. She held that position for several months before Governor Asa Hutchison named Stacy Hurst as Secretary. She was replaced by Mills in January this year.
For local reaction to the news, read the comments on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Senior Editor, Rex Nelson’s Facebook Post.
If you don’t have time to go through all the comments, read the Director of Arkansas Heritage, Jimmy Bryant’s post:
“I worked for Mike Mills as Director of the Division of Arkansas Heritage, one of the three divisions of the Department of Parks Heritage and Tourism. Mike was a first class executive. When he came on board the first thing he told us was, “Don’t call me Secretary Mills, always call me Mike! He did not have the grandiose ego that many in state government have. He took time to get to know the employees of Arkansas Heritage, and the employees appreciated his genuine interest in their jobs and their lives. Morale soared at Arkansas Heritage when he came on board and productivity soared as well. He gave us the latitude to do our jobs and we appreciated that. His method of management is something that will long be remembered at Arkansas Heritage. I can tell you that when the employees of Arkansas Heritage who worked in the Headquarters building heard about his resignation they recoiled in disbelief. There was absolute stunned silence when word got out. It was as if the employees had lost a relative and I am not exaggerating. I want Mike to know that the employees of Arkansas Heritage will miss him greatly and they appreciate all he did for them in just a short five months!”
And Mike Mills’ response:
“I was doing fine until I read this. I couldn’t even read it to my wife because my eyes were full of tears. My heart was breaking. Thank you and every single person who you represent for your energy, your respect, your dedication to Arkansas, and your heart felt love!!!! I will always be a part of this great Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism.”
Last week we found out that the Tourism Director, Travis Napper, was resigning to work for Tourism Economics an international tourism data company. Napper was the Executive Director of Experience Ruston in Ruston, Louisiana before being picked by Secretary Stacy Hurst to manage the Arkansas Tourism Section. He started just as everything was shutting down during the pandemic in early 2020.
The Governor’s News Release:
Sanders Announces Shea Lewis as Interim Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Today, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Shea Lewis, currently Director of Arkansas State Parks, will be serving as interim Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary as Secretary Mike Mills steps away from the administration.
“Arkansas is the Natural State, and with his strong record of leadership in Arkansas parks and tourism, Shea Lewis is perfectly equipped to step seamlessly into this new role and continue our work to grow our outdoor economy and make Arkansas an unparalleled place to live, work, and raise a family,” Sanders said. “I thank Secretary Mills for his service to this administration and years of work as a pioneer in Arkansas’ tourism industry.”
Shea Lewis biography:
Shea Lewis was selected as the 10th director of Arkansas State Parks in 2022. In that role, he was responsible for the day-to-day operation of 52 state parks found in 48 counties, covering 55,000 acres across the state.
With over 9 million visitors on an annual basis, his areas of responsibility ranged from operations, maintenance, planning, development, emergency and program services, marketing, promotion, revenue, sales, outdoor grants, and general administration.
Shea started his career with Arkansas State Parks as a seasonal park interpreter in 1995. With nearly three decades under his belt, he has also served as a full-time interpreter, park superintendent, region supervisor, and deputy director for Arkansas State Parks.
He received a bachelor’s degree in parks, recreation, and leisure studies from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in educational/instructional media design from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
We are not done seeing changes at the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. A new department Secretary will have to be named and a new Tourism Director will need to be hired, there is also the possibility of more changes.