The next Miss Arkansas will be crowned in a different zip code than the 58 women who held the title before her, as the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Pageant moves from Hot Springs, its home since 1958, to the capital city in 2017.
That means all the people and money that have been traveling to Hot Springs will be visiting Little Rock for the next Miss Arkansas pageant, scheduled for June 17 at Robinson Center. Little Rock leaders are thinking that the event could be worth $2 million to the city.
“It was an exciting process,” said Alan Sims, vice president of sales and services for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau of planning and negotiations involved in putting together the request for proposal to host the pageant. “It was a fun bid to present. We really went at it with the approach of how can we make this, for the contestants, an experience they will remember all of their lives.”
Jessie Ward Bennett, executive director of the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Pageant and a former Miss Arkansas herself, appreciated that focus, which is to include arrival and welcome events for contestants at the state Capitol Building and a luncheon with the first lady at the Governor’s Mansion.
“What a beautiful thing to do and a nice tradition to start,” she said. “These are some experiences you will have that are unique to being a Miss Arkansas contestant, and I love that Little Rock understood that, and that they really embraced it, and that they have some of those things planned for us and the pageant this year.”
Conversations about moving the pageant from Hot Springs began a few years ago, Mrs. Bennett said, as pageant leaders sought to move the date of the event back to June to accommodate Miss America pageant requirements.
Attendance was steady this year as the pageant was held over the Fourth of July holiday, but event costs were higher because the pageant had to pay staff more for holiday overtime work.
“We also had to hire a private plane to take [reigning Miss Arkansas Savvy Janine Shields] to Washington, D.C., the very next morning, and we’re thankful we had that as an option, but we had to do that because there was no way for her to get her ticket until she won, and when she won … it was just difficult,” said Mrs. Bennett. “It was an expensive venture, and she was the last girl crowned in the entire country.”
Bennett was crowned Miss Arkansas in June 2001, and competed in the Miss America pageant the following September.
“I had ample time to not only complete my paperwork, but to get my things moved into the place that I was going to live, begin preparing for Miss America and do my job as Miss Arkansas. There’s a lot that has to happen in that period of time, and that experience was so good for me, but Savvy has been so rushed,” Mrs. Bennett said of Miss Shields, who has been in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for the Miss America competition. “Bless her heart, she has not had even a moment to take in that experience, and I hate that for her because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Conway, North Little Rock, Hot Springs and Little Rock vied for the honor of being (or remaining) the home of the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Pageant, Mrs. Bennett said.
“It truly opened our eyes to the possibilities,” she said. “When you think about the recently renovated auditorium, the things for pageant-goers to do downtown, the historic epicenter of our state is in Little Rock. It’s our capital city. There were just a lot of things that made a lot of sense. We just feel like it’s a great move for our program, it’s a great move for the city of Little Rock, and it’s a great move for contestants as well. It’s been kind of a perfect alignment.”
Two years ago, the pageant moved contestants’ accommodations from a Hot Springs hotel to the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences, transporting girls to and from the Hot Springs Civic Center in four 12-passenger vans.
“We were well accommodated there and it was very convenient to the Hot Springs Civic Center, but we made the move to Math and Science school for cost. It was a big difference in cost and we wanted to invest those dollars elsewhere,” Mrs. Bennett explained.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Philander Smith College agreed to house contestants in their dormitories so the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau could stay within the pageant’s budget, Mr. Sims said.
Ultimately, though, officials decided to put the contestants up at the DoubleTree, which offered special pricing for the occasion. Judges will stay at the Little Rock Marriott and the Miss America representative who attends will stay at the Capital Hotel.
“In all our discussions with the board and working through the bid process, we know there are going to be four ticketed events at Robinson, and Robinson will seat 2,214. We know that all four of those performances will be sold out. So that’s going to be at least 8,800 people in the Robinson to support this over that week,” Sims said.
Those numbers don’t account for the fact that the Miss Arkansas pageant now comes with the Miss Arkansas’ Outstanding Teen pageant, with 36 teens and 65 younger girls.
City officials aren’t sure yet how lucrative these events might be.
“The study that Hot Springs did back in 2009, which didn’t include the Miss Arkansas’ Outstanding Teen Pageant, was at $1.4 million,” Mr. Sims said. “We think with the addition of another pageant and hosting here in this venue, we know that number’s going to grow. We think it’s going to be closer to $2 million. We’re still … figuring that out.”
In the meantime, preparations for reopening Robinson continue.
“We’re still on time and on budget and all of that is happening right now,” said John Mayner, vice president of communications and marketing at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Ribbon cutting is scheduled for November 10. I really think this is the first of many things that we’re going to see.”
And while Mrs. Bennett looks forward to seeing the next Miss Arkansas crowned on June 17, 2017, this week she is in Atlantic City cheering on the 2016 Miss Arkansas, who won the preliminary talent competition Wednesday night, the first Miss Arkansas to do so in many years.
“Savvy is emotionally a very strong person, probably moreso than I’ve witnessed in anyone at her age. She has the tenacity and the positivity to really be a contender,” Bennett said. “She’s so magnetic. I think that’s the term that describes her best. She is so charismatic and so kind and so real. With her, what you see is what you get – and it’s beautiful. I definitely can see her being Miss America.”
Mr. Sims has never attended a Miss Arkansas pageant, but that’s about to change.
“I will be at every one that’s in Little Rock from now on,” Mr. Sims said. “I think when everybody sees that stage, and those contestants are looking up, it’s going to be like Hollywood. It’s going to be amazing.”
Robinson Center, newly renovated and set to reopen in November, was key.
“People are going to be standing there with their mouths open, not able to believe the transformation in this hall,” Mr. Sims said. “It really is going to be an amazing experience for these contestants and the pageant board.”