We said goodbye to Tourism Director Joe David Rice in December, but not before picking his brain about the hidden gems in the Natural State.
When he first passed through the doors of the Tourism Department’s office back in the mid 1980s, not even Joe David Rice himself could have predicted the vital role he would soon be playing in preserving, conserving and promoting the landscape of his beloved home state of Arkansas. Born in Paragould and raised in Jonesboro, Rice has represented the state for thirty years in his role as tourism director for Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, a position he first accepted in May of 1987.
“I’m sort of an accidental tourism director,” laughs Joe David Rice. “My graduate degree is in environmental planning, which got me a position at Arkansas State Parks. I was eventually transferred to the Tourism Division and took on this job when my predecessor was fired.”
Looking back, it may have been one of the best “accidents” in Arkansas’ history, as Rice has managed to not only enhance the image of the state on a global level during his time in office, but also help establish a Tourism Development Trust Fund, assist with the passage of Amendment 75 (the 1/8 Cent Conservation Tax) and help get the Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1983 passed by the U.S. Congress. Rice has received national acclaim from the National Recreation & Parks Association and the National Park Service during his tenure, and served two terms as Chair of the National Council of State Tourism Directors.
Sadly, we said goodbye to Rice in December, as he retired after 30 successful years in office. To give him a proper send-off, we sat down with him one last time to hear what he’s up to next and to get the scoop on the top 10 places to visit in Arkansas for 2018.
How long have you lived in Arkansas?
63 years of my 65 years. I spent two years going to grad school at the University of Illinois.
When you first started in 1987, what was Arkansas’ reputation around the world?
It was mostly oriented around the state’s “Natural” product; hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, boating and enjoying the scenery.
How is that reputation different now?
Our product base is so much more diverse now. We have the Clinton Presidential Library, Crystal Bridges, the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District, the “Unexpected” mural project in Fort Smith, Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, Little Rock’s River District, the Amazeum, a great assortment of wonderful restaurants, lots of micro-breweries, exciting shopping venues and world-class bike trails.
What will you miss most about your role as Arkansas’ Tourism Director?
The fact that no two days are alike is one of the best parts of this job. I’ve gone hot air ballooning with Tim Forbes. I got to drive George Takei to McGehee. I presented an Arkansas Traveler certificate to Ralph Stanley. And I headed up Arkansas’ delegation to the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism, hosted by President Clinton in 1995. But the best part of the position has been the chance to work with so many great folks who, like me, are absolutely devoted to making Arkansas an attractive option for the traveling public.
What are your top 10 places to visit in Arkansas?
1. El Dorado. This has always been a fascinating community, but the transformation via the Murphy Arts District is nothing short of amazing.
2. Bentonville. What was once a sleepy little town back in my college days is now a thriving, dynamic destination with some of the best dining anywhere around.
3. Hot Springs. There are lots of good things happening in the The Spa City, especially with microbreweries, restaurants and mountain biking.
4. Jonesboro. My hometown is on a roll with a major new convention center in the works.
5. Wilson. Gaylon Lawrence and his team are doing wonders in this Mississippi County community, and it’s only a dozen miles or so from Dyess, which is Johnny Cash’s boyhood home.
6. Newton County. With Whitaker Point, Hemmed-In Hollow, Lost Valley, the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, Indian Creek, Ponca and, of course, the Buffalo River, what more could you ask?
7. Cossatot River. This is the hidden gem of southwestern Arkansas.
8. Little Rock. Our capital city is truly a happening place, with an incredible assortment of shopping, dining and entertainment options.
9. Eureka Springs. Because quirky is good!
10. Petit Jean State Park. It’s the flagship of our state park system. This mountaintop retreat has it all: wonderful trails, cozy cabins, an iconic waterfall and a handsome lodge with tasty food.
As an avid mountain biker, do you have any favorite trails in the state?
As I advance in my years, my enthusiasm for mountain biking isn’t what it was, but I still enjoy road biking, canoeing and hiking. The Lost Valley Trail near Ponca is probably my single favorite trail.
Okay, so between Fayetteville, Little Rock and Jonesboro, choose one for eating, playing and staying. Go!
This is one tough question. Given that Jonesboro’s my hometown, I’d probably opt for staying there. With the Razorback Greenway and its many other attractions, I’d play in Fayetteville. As for dining, I’d go with Little Rock and its ever-expanding restaurant scene.
What’s next for you?
My book, Arkansas Backstories, will be released next spring, and I need to finish collecting the illustrations that’ll accompany the text. The book will be a collection of some 165 essays on lesser-known aspects of Arkansas. It has pieces on Abraham Lincoln’s time in the state, Stephen Austin’s unsuccessful run for public office here and chapters on armadillos, roadrunners, porches and poison ivy. I think even the most devoted scholars in the state will find tidbits that will take them by surprise. The book will be published in the spring of 2018 by The Butler Center. Aside from that, personally, my wife Tracey and I hope to add a screened-in porch to our house, plus I plan to do some major landscaping projects… and at some point we’ll want to visit some of those places on our bucket list.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
For decades Arkansas suffered because of Bob Burns’ notorious career of poking fun at his home state and then Orval Faubus’ absolute failure to do the right thing at Little Rock Central High School. I can remember dealing with foreign journalists early in my tenure who, upon learning that I was from Arkansas, would say, “Orval Faubus, huh?” Many of us have worked for years to overcome that negative stereotyping. My hope is through our efforts, no one will ever again feel embarrassed about being from Arkansas.
Any final words as Tourism Director?
Many, many Arkansans haven’t fully explored their own state. Almost everyday I talk to someone who hasn’t yet visited Blanchard Springs Cavern, who hasn’t experienced Historic Washington State Park, or who hasn’t toured Lakeport Plantation. My 2018 challenge is for AY readers to visit new sites in The Natural State.
AY Reader Exclusive!
Check out each issue of AY magazine for an exclusive look inside Joe David Rice’s new book, Arkansas Backstories, as we will publish one essay each month, beginning in this edition.
For more information, visit aymag.com.
Photography by Jamison Mosley