Arkansas tourism continues to set records
Michael Tilley of Talk Business & Politics joins us today to discuss the latest updates on the Crawford County library, Arkansas tourism, and a new gift to the U.S. Marshals Museum.
Kyle Kellams: On the road is Michael Tilley. He has pulled his car over to talk with us. You're in Ozark I believe?
Michael Tilley: Yes, sir. One of the hidden gems of the state... well, not really hidden from the interstate, but a pretty city.
Crawford County approves more money for library censorship legal fees
KK: Yeah, it's a very pretty city and some some good food in Ozark as well. Michael is with Talk Business & Politics. Most Fridays we talk about some of the week's news. That's what we're going to do this time. Let's start with Crawford County and the library, Michael, it's not a new subject for us. But there's been a new development. What is it?
MT: Well, it all stems from you know, last year when a few evangelical types were not happy that they had LGBTQ books in the Crawford County Library System. So they had the books moved to a what's called a "social section." It's essentially hidden. Tammi Hamby is the leader that effort was able to get herself on the Crawford County Library Board—as board chairman no less—but as expected when you essentially censor books, lawsuits ensued. Also, the Crawford County Library Director resigned—although they're still some of us think that she had a choice to either resign or be fired—but she resigned. They had to pay her severance. Recently, the Crawford County Judge had to request a little over $112,000—Chris Keith is the judge—to cover legal fees. And that brings their tally up to around $245,000, if not a little more. So $245,000 Crawford County has had to spend. This is mostly the county, it's not the library system, to defend against lawsuits.
Now there is one lawsuit they've already lost. That was the Act 689 where Crawford County was enjoined with the state when federal judge Timothy Brooks essentially allowed an injunction against a law going in place. Essentially, this law where state legislators and governor Sarah Sanders signed on, essentially gave libraries the ability to censor books. That law, for now has been stopped. There's also a lawsuit filed by Brian Meadors. And it's very similar to a lawsuit he filed many years ago. I don't know if your listeners remember when Cedarville high school wanted to block or ban Harry Potter books because they were gonna leave kids to witchcraft. And so, it's all the same constitutional arguments are there that he's filed. So, that that lawsuit is still pending.
And on top of all of this, if you remember Crawford County had a little snafu with filing some paperwork, and it's gonna miss out on about $3.5 million at some point between later this year and early next year in tax revenue. It just proves that if you want to censor books based on your religion, I guess you just need to be prepared to pony up. Unfortunately, this is taxpayer dollars, and I suspect that not all taxpayers in Crawford County and not all Crawford County residents supported that action by Tammi Hamby and her followers. But they're all paying up.
KK: As the costs and the lawsuits mount up, do you get any sense that there's an idea like, let's let's change tactic, let's retreat, let's not do this?
MT: We're not hearing it yet. And keep in mind, Gentry Wahlmeier—the attorney who's no longer the attorney by the way, they've hired a new attorney for the Crawford County Library System—he told them when they were doing it, don't do it. You're probably gonna lose. You're gonna get hit with lawsuits and you're gonna lose and it's gonna be expensive. He tried to tell him not to do it, but they did it. So here we are.
The Arkansas Tourism Ticker shows another record setting year
KK: Alright, speaking of money mounting up: money mounts up in the Arkansas tourism sector, Talk Business and Politics has the Tourism Ticker that keeps track of both jobs and financial income related to tourism. First half of the year, another banner first half of a year.
MT: It is another banner year, and I want listeners to keep in mind that the 2023 numbers are up against what was just a record setting 2022, so just keep that in mind. For example, last year, Arkansas' 2% tourism tax was up over 17% over 2021. Well, this year through the first six months of the year, that taxes generated $12.7 million and that's up almost 9% compared to that robust 2022. June set a new record for collections of $2.7 million through that 2% tourism tax. And of the 17 cities we survey, their hospitality tax collections were almost $35 million and that was up 8.6%. And again, that was up against record set last year. And on the jobs front, there's been an average of 128,900 jobs every month in that sector for the first six months, and that's up 6.5%. That's a healthy gain.
And, to give you some sense of direction, the August job numbers came out just a few days ago, and in Arkansas, the leisure and hospitality sector, which is essentially tourism, set another record for employment of 133,900 jobs. Now, these numbers could be revised at the beginning of every year, there are revisions at the federal level level to job numbers. But even if they're revised down a few percent, it's still just an amazing, amazing year. And one of the things that's interesting, the top five counties for that two percenters in tax collection include, of course, Benton, Washington and Sebastian County, so it's this northwest Arkansas part is pretty healthy. Of course, Pulaski and Garland are the other two counties that make up the top five.
The tourism industry was the hardest hit during COVID, and my friend said the tourism industry is kind of like a hawk. He got pissed off and COVID and just got angry. And now it has blown up this whole sector, and I thought that's a pretty good, okay, I'll go with that.
Arkansas Attorney General provides $250,000 grant to U.S. Marshals Museum
KK: I like that. The Marshals Museum, remember when we were talking about tens of millions of dollars towards their big fundraising goal. Now it's under $2 million with a new giftfrom who?
MT: Well, from the Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin gave him 250,000, it will go toward exhibition support. In this reporting. This happened this week, we asked the museum foundation, Susan Neyman, about their capital campaign goal. It was $50 million when it got started—and I can remember and as you can I'm sure Kyle, just slowly tick down and we never thought they were gonna get there. But now it's under $2 million for their initial capital campaign.
Now we've been told once they hit that—as most of your listeners know, fundraising never ends at a museum—but that initial capital campaign, which not only helped build the facility, but gives them some operating fund money. But, they're getting very close, and we've been told by several folks there that the interest from potential donors really began to peak when the museum was opening and now that it's open so people can now see it. Sometimes it's hard to get people to support something they can't see. But once you see it, it's like oh, okay, yeah, I want to be a part of this. Hopefully that will continue for the for the U.S. Marshals Museum in downtown Fort Smith.
KK: I'm in public radio, I know the concept of the fundraising never ends, I can relate.
MT: Yes, sir.
KK: All right. I hate to tell you but you'll love to hear that autumn officially arrives early Saturday morning. Somewhere between one and two o'clock tomorrow morning. So congratulations. You made it through summer.
MT: Well, I'm just I'm just glad to see to no longer see a nine at the front of the temperature thing. That's my that's what makes me happy.
KK: Michael Tilly is with Talk Business and Politics. You can read about what we've talked about and so much more at TalkBusiness.net. Continued safe travels, Michael, talk to you next Friday.
MT: I will do that. You're welcome, sir.