New foundation seeks to maximize expertise, funding for parks and tourism
By Dwain Hebda
It’s rare that you find a government agency that doesn’t have a ready way to take your money. But when it comes to ongoing financial support from the field, the state’s Parks and Tourism department is just such an entity.
No matter how much one loves the Arkansas outdoors – from the splendor of Petit Jean State Park to the sweeping expanse of Bull Shoals – there exists no structured means to express that appreciation financially.
The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Arkansas, officially established in November 2017, provides that missing mechanism for companies, foundations and individuals to support the state’s public spaces. Jim Shamburger, founding member and chairman of the board of directors, says such an option is long overdue.
“The foundation was created to connect people to parks and give them an avenue to support, enhance and add value to them. In other words, a way for people who enjoy the parks to support the parks,” he says. “Over the decades, Arkansas has made great advancements in the quality and scope of our parks across the state. I know that the State Parks system has worked to improve the infrastructure and keep the parks current and relevant for all generations across the state. There simply hasn’t been a connection from people who use the parks and a way to give back.
“The foundation works to secure private investments to help enhance and preserve our state parks and recreation network and maximize the value for both residents and visitors.”
Any way you care to look at it, Arkansas’ tourism industry, anchored by its state parks, is a behemoth. According to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s 2017 Arkansas Tourism Economic Impact report, visitors to the state equaled 29.4 million person trips (defined as someone traveling 50 miles or more each way from their home in one day or someone who spends one or more nights out of town and returns home.)
These visitors spent an average of $267.43 per person trip for a total travel expenditure of $7.9 billion, up from 2016’s $7.7 billion. State and local taxes collected reached $405,000 and $149,000, respectively. In addition, more than 66,000 people work in the state’s tourism industry.
What’s more, the Arkansas Tourism Ticker showed the first three months of 2018 on pace to improve 2017’s record-setting numbers. And that still doesn’t tell the full financial story, as there’s no way to completely quantify how often these amenities attract and retain residents based on the quality of life they represent.
Such figures are all the more impressive when one considers Arkansas is one of only a few states that don’t charge admission to its state parks, said Suzanne Grobmyer, executive director for the new foundation. She said the purpose of funds raised by the organization would be to augment the work already being done by administrative entities, thus stretching Parks and Tourism’s budget on a project-by-project basis.
“[State parks] are very infrastructure heavy,” she says. “Our state parks went through innovations to move to compete with resorts throughout the state or in surrounding states. They have to have something different, but similar, to other amenities that are accessible if you were to go to a lodge in, say, Branson. They’ve gone through a pretty extensive renovation throughout the years to improve the lodges, parks, improve cabins, camping.
“Money in a lot of ways goes to existing or rehabbing things that have long been there. We are something that gets to add a little bit of innovation to these areas.”
Grobmyer, 34 and the mother of a young child, is the epitome of the coming generation of Arkansas parks consumers: Young professionals from out-of-state with the time and money to experience an adventure vacation or resident families looking for a day trip in their backyard. She says sharing the perspective of these intended audiences helps her communicate the goals of the foundation effectively.
“I think my youth is something of an asset,” she says. “I kind of get the generation because I’m literally in the center of these kinds of conversations about understanding how as a state, our greatest opportunity is to add economic development and to make our state an interesting place to live. I’m 100 percent in that camp.”
Grobmyer is also quick to point out that despite its name, the foundation’s vision is broader than supporting state park projects exclusively. Instead, the group hopes to support a variety of public spaces in communities from one end of Arkansas to the other, be it to boost tourism, attract new residents, stem population drain or all of the above.
“We want people to know that our work is being done to improve an overall quality of life,” she says. “That’s what’s defining booming cities right now, whether it’s Austin or Denver or Nashville. Places like Dallas, where no one ever would have thought of a large park, now they’re building this huge green park in the middle of the city. It’s the competition now of where is the best place to live, where is the best place to have your family.”
The foundation, seeded with a $300,000, three-year grant from the Walton Family Foundation, has already hit the ground running regarding donor solicitation and formulating future fundraising campaigns. Among its initial projects are The East Trail Project at Hobbs State Park in Northwest Arkansas, the creation of a pocket park at Allsopp Park in Little Rock, and the development of the High Country Bike Route, partnering with Adventure Cycling, that will eventually connect Northwest and Central Arkansas sites. According to Grobmyer, foundation support for current projects and those to come may be financial, advisory, networking or a little of all three.
“The idea of the foundation is funds, but it’s also ideas and what’s been done and how do we do it,” she says. “It’s an information funnel where someone can go and say, ‘This is what we’re looking to do,’ and we can help connect that to people who have done it before or maybe we’ve done it. That really offers another resource that we can provide.”
Thus far, the foundation runs on a shoestring (Grobmyer is the only paid employee) as it looks to increase donations to do more and bigger projects. In these early stages, it’s become clear that communicating the foundation’s purpose and vision is key to attracting donors, but Grobmyer says the foundation does hold certain advantages as well.
“We are a new organization, a new board setting up new funding sources with new ideas. New sometimes comes with challenges to existing structures,” she says. “There’s not an organization that’s done what we’ve done. There are some that I’ve really leaned into to provide some counsel because they have done projects similarly, but they’re not dealing with the same agencies, or they’re not dealing with the same communities. That can always present internal and external challenges for an organization.
“On the other hand, I think our organization is ‘I give, and I see.’ There’s a real physicality to our organization that we are physically creating something that not only we hope to have completed in a reasonable timeline, but also that you and your family can enjoy. There are real tangible benefits. A lot of times organizations are more organizational and more programmatic which have impacts, but sometimes have longer lead times, or you don’t see it.”
Shamburger, a longtime hotelier, leads an all-star cast on the foundation board, including Bryan Day, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority; John Gill, senior member of the Little Rock law firm Gill Ragon Owen; Ed Nicholson, retired Senior Director of Corporate Social Responsibility with Tyson Foods; Jane Rogers, former Trustee of the University of Arkansas and past President of the National Chi Omega Foundation and Northwest Arkansas businessman Craig Soos.
He says the end goal of the foundation work is a simple, two-fold proposition: Allow people and entities with interest in the outdoors to contribute to their care and improvement and to shepherd those funds in a responsible manner that advances the state’s interests for residents and visitors alike.
“[The foundation] fits right in the middle of all of the existing efforts to bind together that framework where people can connect with and impact the state they live in,” Shamburger says. “Our long-term goal is to support and enhance the Natural State to become the destination for outdoor adventure.
“We have the climate that allows for outdoor activity any time of the year; we are surrounded by lakes, mountains, rivers, the plains, as well as historical and cultural experiences found nowhere else in the world. Our mission has been something that people grab onto.”