November/December 2015 Issue
As a state Parks, Recreation and Travel
commissioner, Cindy Smith works to spread
the word about the state’s greatest assets.
Photography by Janet Warlick
Photographed on location at Historic Arkansas Museum
Cindy Smith has a knack for turning the conversation to Arkansas no matter where she is.
“I love my town. I love Arkansas,” she said. “I want other people to, too.”
She wants to know what people’s interests are and then lets them know where they might go to do more of that around the state — and especially around her Delta town, McGehee.
“I would say, ‘When was the last time you went to Arkansas?’” she said, and then she would follow with a question about where they went. “And I would say, ‘Well, you need to go back. Have you ever been to Hot Springs?’ Or if people like to fish, I would tell them why they need to go to the Delta or why they need to duck hunt in the Delta or just whatever.”
Smith, an Arkansas State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission member, has visited almost all of the Arkansas State Parks since she was appointed in 2009.
“I thought, well, I can’t do this if I don’t visit all the state parks,” she said. “I only lack three, and I’m going to go within the next two weeks to see those.”
Smith moved around the United States with her family when she was growing up.
“My parents always took advantage of wherever we lived to learn that area,” she said. “We went to all the state parks. When we lived in California, we traveled all over the state camping, and we went to Nevada and we saw all the things there were to see in that area, and in Idaho, we learned to ski, and just whatever there was in all the places we lived.”
She moved to McGehee when she was 16.
“I just loved the South, and I ended up after college marrying the boy who lived across the street, who is a farmer,” she said. “I realized I was going to live in the same place the rest of my life, which was exciting to me.”
Smith works to further one of the state’s top industries — tourism. The state’s 2 percent tourism tax brought in more than $12.8 million during the first 11 months of 2014, she said.
Smith taught French for a couple of years before opening Periwinkle Place, a gift shop that has kept her busy for the past 22 years. She still found time to volunteer with the PTA, her church and various local causes. She was publicity chairman for McGehee’s annual OwlFest for a while.
“I guess I am a self-proclaimed little promoter of stuff,” she said. “I just like to let people know that this is what’s going on and what they could be doing.”
It is almost second nature for her to tell people about Delta Heritage Trail State Park, which will be an 84.5 mile bike and pedestrian trail across southeast Arkansas when it’s completed, and about the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee, for which she coordinated a grand opening two years ago. That museum contains artifacts and information about the camps in Rohwer and Jerome, where Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II.
“For the first time ever, the levee is paved from Arkansas City to where the Clearwater operation is, and it’s a multi-use roadway. Cars and four-wheelers and bicycles can ride on the levee, which is just a beautiful view of the Mississippi River, in parts, but mostly of the surrounding area that’s wooded on one side and farmland on the other side,” said Smith of the trail.
Her friends are jealous of the job that entails road trips to festivals, yacht trips down the Arkansas River and frequent stays in hotels or lodges across the state. She reminds them that it is not a paid position but concedes that she adores it just the same.
“On the simplest level, we go to a meeting once a month; we approve advertising; we have input for what we think needs to be going on in the state,” she said.
She doesn’t tell park staff she’s a commissioner when she visits state parks and welcome centers across the state. She doesn’t want special treatment; she just wants to see what they do and how they do it.
“I just always try to drive through the downtowns of towns and meet the people and see what they’re doing to revitalize their communities,” she said.
She takes note of what she sees and incorporates it in her work with chamber of commerce directors and mayors in McGehee, Dumas and Lake Village to bring changes — and tourists — to their communities. They are collaborating now on a brochure that will lead people to area attractions and businesses, similar to guides the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism publishes for motorcycle rides across different regions of the state.
“One community does not have enough of a draw to be considered a tourist location, but within a 40-mile drive there is plenty to do so we’re going to work together on that,” Smith said.
“That’s what I do — I do projects. It’s fun. It’s what I like to do. I like to say I’m a volunteer for Arkansas and an advocate for the Delta because I really am intrigued seeing people get excited for the Delta, and I’ve enjoyed trying to excite people.”