What if?

Fleet Feet Little Rock

For Eleven years now, I’ve attended the Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Over this time, I’ve made three presentations, the first was on using social media in tourism and hospitality businesses. I did one on bicycle friendliness a few years ago. It was well received but there was a lot more ground work to do in the field. Since then Arkansas found itself listed as 50th in bicycle friendliness in the country, we were at the bottom. In the years that followed, a Governor’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Committee was formed, agency heads came together from Tourism, State Police, Department of Health, the Highway Department and others came together to find some solutions. I worked with others in the Tourism Department to create a statewide Bicycle Safety Manual, State Police promised to add bicycle rights questions to the drivers education test, the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy added bicycle rights to state and local police training. Also, the Highway department started working on a new bicycle pedestrian plan for the state. We moved up.

Cities adopted complete street programs, bicycle lanes and sharrows were added. More bike shops opened. On the mountain biking side we added three more International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epic trails bringing our total to 5, tied with Colorado. Mountain Bike and Trail advocacy groups were formed in central Arkansas, Mountain View, Russellville and Fort Smith. Bentonville, Fayetteville and Hot Springs became IMBA ride centers and Northwest Arkansas was designated as the first Regional Ride Center in the country.

The Walton Family Foundation continued to expand their trail building and mountain biking advocacy. IMBA decided to come to Arkansas for their International Summit (Happening this Fall in Bentonville).

All of this was preceded by years of advocacy and support. Events such as the Joe Weber Arky 100, the Joe Martin Stage Race and the Ozark Mountain Bike Festival had started in the 70’s and 80’s respectively. Advocacy groups like Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, Bicycle Coalition of the Ozarks and Northeast Arkansas Bicycle Coalition have been doing the heavy lifting for years.

Mullet Run - Northwoods Trails - Hot Springs
Miss Arkansas, Tom Walton, Governor Hutchinson

Much of this work seemed to suddenly pay off at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism this past week. I was lucky enough to be involved, giving my second presentation on the Why and How of Bicycle Friendliness. Mine was the first breakout session of the conference and as other presentations on various aspects of tourism were made it seemed that bicycling was quickly becoming a common thread. By the time we got to the finale, the Henri Award presentation luncheon, bicycles had moved to the forefront of the conference. Kane Webb, Executive Director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, led the ceremony with several remarks about the importance of bicycling to our tourism industry. Mr. Webb had recently purchased a new bicycle and within hours of his speech he would be riding it on the Razorback Greenway Trail 10 miles from Springdale to Fayettville to enjoy an evening on Dickson. Next up was Governor Hutchinson who made a point to mention our Epic trails and reminisce about his recent ride on the Delta Heritage Trail and the upcoming IMBA World Summit. For the grand finale, Tom Walton was presented with the Tourism Person of the Year award for his work to improve mountain biking in the state. In his acceptance speech he made a point to single out the volunteers he had worked with.

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Below is from the Governor’s Weekly Radio Address:

Earlier this week, I attended the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Springdale. I had the chance to talk about the growing strength and importance of our state’s tourism industry.

At the conference, Tom Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was named “Tourism Person of the Year,” primarily for his work in making Arkansas a premier destination for mountain bikers. Tom has traveled the nation and beyond. And yet, like many of us who’ve seen the world, there remains a special place in his heart for his native state.

During his acceptance speech, Tom said something that really resonated with me. He asked simply: “What if?”

“What if” we did something unique with our biking trail system? “What if” we started a real quality-of-life movement in the Natural State? “What if” we strived for something bigger and bolder? Blessed with so much natural beauty and the friendliest people on earth, Arkansas is in the “What if?” business — and business is good.

Since 2010, the number of visitors to Arkansas has increased by 23 percent, which has resulted in an increase in state and local tax revenue of 32 percent thanks to all of the visitors spending money in this state.

Often, visitors come back to stay after experiencing all that we have to offer. Look at almost any list of reasons why a business or entrepreneur relocates and, near the top, you’ll find those three magic words — quality of life. It’s a phrase synonymous with Arkansas.

As our tourism industry grows, so does our tourism infrastructure, which includes everything from hotels and restaurants to our state parks, museums and ever-growing bike trails.

Consider the economic impact of Arkansas’s tourism industry last year:

In 2015, Arkansas welcomed more than 28 million visitors who spent more than $7 billion. That added some $500 million in tax revenue to state and local coffers. Tourism is vital to our economy, and it’s projected to be one of the fastest-growing industries over the next decade.

In my first year as governor, I’ve had opportunities to promote tourism in almost every corner of the state. I took a bike ride along the Delta Heritage Trail. I announced that Bentonville had attracted the 2016 International Mountain Biking World Summit. And just last week at the Governor’s Mansion, we celebrated with Rosanne Cash the restoring of the Historic Dyess Colony and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the Upper Delta. Already, the Cash home in Dyess is drawing visitors from all over the world.

The other day, I heard a story about a couple from Australia who were passing through. They stopped in our visitor’s center in West Memphis to get a map. What they also received was a warm, friendly welcome from one of our state’s ambassadors working at the center. Thanks to that worker’s passion and enthusiasm, the couple said they would make it a point to spend more time in Arkansas when they returned.

Stories like this are common in our state’s tourism industry; as a state, Arkansas really does stand out above the rest.

What if? A questioned asked by hundred’s of cycling advocates for many years. Maybe we’re close to finding the answer.

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5 Responses

  1. I am glad to see the economic benefits of trails. I want to add that I’ve done presentations about trails in floodplains and safety issues. A concern
    I’ve had that is shared by others is how rude some bicyclists are on The Arkansas River Trail around the Big Dam Bridge, A friend who is a local government official told me he would not walk on the trail because of the speed and inconsideration of bicyclists who exceed the speed limit, especially on the Big Dam Bridge. When I gave a presentation at the Arkansas Floodplain Management Association Fall Conference last September, some in the audience told me the problems with bicyclists speeding around curves in that area. I walk along the trail and appreciate people who say, “On your left” or something similar. I can’t ride a bike because of knee issues, What I hate are people who don’t understand that people on the trail may not know enough to take a conversation off the trail. I saw someone almost kid a father and child on the bridge because the father was chewing out the son on the Little Rock side near the bottom. The bicyclist was speeding and expected them to move, The father did not realize the bicyclist was coming toward them.

    I hate it when bicyclists won’t slow down, in a group of pedestrians and get mad because they have to brake. Curves are the worsts because some bicyclists are going too fast to stay on their right, I know many are training, but it’s a multi-use trail. Consideration should come from both sides.

    There are good bicyclists. Like anything else, some give the rest a bad name, I’ve been on many trails in the same, Some ban bicycles because of that behavior, I also realize lack of consideration comes in all groups. I’m meaning the jerk who forced a woman off the Arkansas River Trail in Dardanelle because he wanted to drive his car on it.

    For those in the area who speed, think of the man I saw last month who held his wife as they were walking just east of the Big Dam Bridge on the North Little Rock side of the river trail. She was recovering from a stroke. He was holding her so she could walk as part of her recovery and he was holding her to steady her so she wouldn’t fall.

    1. Johnny –

      I’m a cyclist and know your feeling. I’ve been run off the trail in the past by the local “racing” club members out in their full cycling kits, as if everyone should give way to them and their need to converse instead of running a nice single file line on a 10′ trail (even worse, it was in a corner). That said, there are plenty of other users that are inconsiderate – dog owners who let their dog leash across the trail, families who walk 5 wide and act like their toddler is the only person in the universe who matters, etc.

      I think clearer markings would help – if there is a clear this is one lane/that is another mark it might help out with some interaction issues.

  2. The sentence that has “many trails in the same” should be “many trails in the state”. I hate automatic spellcheck.

  3. So….yes to all of this, but :

    We can’t just keep keep adding “bike stuff” without an education program that reaches into homes of people who don’t already run in these circles.

    In the last 6 months I’ve been attacked by a dog and dismounted violently from my bike, been followed and scolded by a truck on 71, and yelled at repeatedly on the greenway for following the rules.

    Granted I put close to 5,000 miles on my bike annually so the odds of these things happening to me are much higher. Nonetheless, our communities still have large, vocal groups of people that would rather the bikers not exists.

    It’s gotten better in many ways and worse in others.

    Thanks much for your work!

  4. Joe, it’s been impressive to see the change in mindset in Arkansas over the past decade and embracing not just the “Natural State” but making sure that bicyclists can enjoy it in their preferred way as well — it’s been a game changer. Congrats to you and others for the work you’ve been doing on this. Sorry to have missed the Conference this year after attending the past 2, but Arkansas really has a lot of positive momentum going on and neighboring states are taking notice.

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