Letter to the Editor: John Cross speaks out on the rise and fall of Eureka Springs tourism

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

(Editor's note: This letter from the Bank of Eureka Springs' John Cross was a reply to a column in the Lovely County Citizen, and was copied to Carroll County Newspapers. It lays out a history of the rise and fall of tourism from the early 1970s to the present.

Mr. Llee Heflin:

Enjoyed your guest commentary column in the June 14, 2007 edition of the Lovely County Citizen -- and in particular, the part about the empty buildings, Passion Play attendance being down, the town being in a state of crisis, those who are in charge don't have a clue as what should or can be done about it. You are right on track!!!

Also, your statement that "In order to understand the potential of our future, we need to understand the nature of Eureka's 'glory days' in the past." Amen to that! I have been saying for the last good many years, and until I am blue in the face, that there is an old saying that if you want to plan where you are going you'd better know where you've been!

Part of the problem in Eureka Springs is that the turnover is so great that very few people remember how prosperous Eureka Springs used to be, and how it got to where it is today. Today, everybody thinks they know what's best for Eureka Springs, and spend their time "playing Eureka Springs" instead of studying Eureka Springs. And those that have been here for awhile are either in denial or have "Historic Amnesia."

The following are the facts in this matter:

1. In 1972 a small group of us concerned citizens got together and placed the first 1% tax on hotels, motels and restaurants -- the money to be used to promote Eureka Springs.

2. In the mid-1970s, three business men in Eureka Springs chartered a plane and flew to Dallas to meet with the LARC people (Leisure and Recreation Concepts) to see about getting this boarded-up burned-out town moving again. Mr. Michael Jenkins was president of LARC at that time, and they had built theme parks all over the world. Mr. Jenkins is still president of LARC. When he asked the three gentlemen what kind of project they had in mind, they said they wanted a theme park at either Lake Lucerne or Lake Leatherwood, as it was their understanding that you needed lots of water for a theme park. Mr. Jenkins thought for a minute, then leaned up in his chair and said "Boys," (they were boys back then) "you don't need a theme park in Eureka Springs, you're living in one!! All you need to do is go back, clean up, paint up, fix up, and put the jumper cables on what you've got, and you will have your theme park." So the three boys got back in their plane, flew back home, and began to plan.

3. In 1977 we increased our 1% tax on hotels, motels and restaurants to 2%.

4. In 1977 the Mayor appointed a group of Eureka Springs citizens to form a task force called the Centennial Commission to plan for and celebrate the 1979 Eureka Springs' Centennial. Said commission spent all of 1978 planning a year-long celebration in 1979. The Centennial Commission, along with others, accomplished the following:

a) Cleaned up the springs and identified them, since they were what founded the town. They were dirty, full of weeds, and what you see today is a continuation of what was established in 1978.

b) Restoration of the Western District Courthouse inside and out. We were fortunate we had a Western District Carroll County Judge by the name of Wayne Farwell, who was very sympathetic to the upcoming Centennial and Courthouse repair. It, too, was run down, with cracked windows, stuffing coming out of the juror's chairs, peeling exterior paint, etc.

c) In 1978 the first pilot trolley car went on line.

d) The Victorian Classic was begun.

e) The mural was painted on the north side of Chandler Mall.

f) The Sanford Building (Galleria Mall) was restored. Said building was destroyed by fire in 1958, almost 20 years before and had sat there all that time as a reminder that nobody cared. Four out of town businessmen each had a 25% interest in this building, and with the aid of a preservation grant from Historic Preservation, and a matching loan from Bank of Eureka Springs, this building was meticulously restored. The restoration of same probably brought more hope and confidence to the people of Eureka Springs than anything that had been done in memory.

g) Bank of Eureka Springs remodeled its building at 70 South Main Street into an authentic old time bank using its existing original fixtures. The architecture both inside and out was studied from existing Eureka Springs bank buildings and old bank interior photographs to assure that its creation was historically correct. It was dedicated as a Centennial event in June of 1979.

h) Bank of Eureka Springs put out its first old-time historical calendar in 1978 to encourage restoration and preservation, and has produced one every year since.

i) The first awning to reappear in Eureka Springs was put up on the bank's Community Room at 69 South Main Street, as awnings were a part of Eureka Springs' history and decor in the early days, and there was not one left. The return of the awning caught on in Eureka Springs with other building owners,

j) The Fuller House was restored in 1979 after a tragic fire. Said restoration is authentically correct as to original colors, etc.

k) The Eureka Springs Preservation Society was created as an outgrowth of the Centennial Commission.

1) The Restoration of the Month award was begun by the bank to deserving property owners that restored homes and commercial buildings.

m) In 1978 the Chamber of Commerce put out its first visitor guide.

n) The Railroad was returned to Eureka Springs by the Dortch family from Scott, Arkansas, and this completed the plan of bringing back what we had lost (the trolley and train) and taking care of what we've got (our springs, historic buildings, etc.).

o) The Dave Bird family built the first convention center in Northwest Arkansas -- without government assistance!

5. As a result of the tremendous cooperation of the citizens of Eureka Springs (probably the last time we had a goal, a plan, a dream, and had such cooperation), Eureka became a boom town again, and tax collections went from $100,000 in 1977 to over $900,000 in 1993.

6. Since 1993, Eureka Springs' CAPC tax collections on same store sales, and adjusted for inflation, have continued to decline, and are down about 9% (from last year) for the first 5 fiscal months of this year.

7. We have a great product here, and it is not tarnished or torn. Those that come here love it, but if you don't invite them, they won't come.

8. Sadly, Eureka Springs has become the best-kept secret in America.

9. There are more "For Rent" signs on buildings today than there were before the Centennial.

10. Revenue from the downtown parking lots is down considerably.

11. The Passion Play has gone from 289,000 paid admissions in 1993 to 88,000 last year.

12. Blue Spring is down considerably, as are the country music shows and other attractions.

How did we get in this mess we find ourselves in? Well, here again are the facts:

1. In the fall of 1995 we fired the Woods Brothers Ad Agency (now Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods). This is the agency that took us up for 16 years, as mentioned in the above tax collections. They currently have the Arkansas Parks and Tourism account, Hot Springs, and others, all of which are successful!

2. The following May, 1996, the Chamber of Commerce had the 'wisdom' to fire Bob Purvis (by vote of 7 to 5), who was overseeing both the CAPC and the Chamber of Commerce, and who took us up, along with the ad agency, for 16 years.

3. We separated the CAPC from the Chamber of Commerce and created two fiefdoms, which resulted in draining the budget!

4. We have tried in-house advertising, and as most of us know, it was a failed experiment. It is no coincidence that the best years in Eureka Springs were when we had an ad agency, and our worst years have been recently when we did not. We simply do not have the expertise, knowledge, training, forecasting ability and other tools that the professionals have, and that is why businesses and cities hire ad agencies. There is an old Chinese proverb that says "man who represents self has fool for client."

How do we turn this town around?

1. We start with setting a budget at the CAPC with at least 50% or more of collections devoted to advertising.

2. We hire the best professional tourism ad agency we can find, and until we do so, this town is not going anywhere! Said agency needs to be well-funded and given a few years to turn this town around, as even a good coach can't turn around a losing team in just one year or so. When you are sick you go to a professional. Our town is sick and it needs a professional!

3. Again, we go back to what worked in the past, and that is one professional director with a CAPC Board of Commissioners and a Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. This eliminates two staffs, two benefit programs, two directors, two rents, duplication of office supplies, furniture, etc., etc., etc.. This will probably save about a quarter of a million dollars a year, and when we split the agencies in the past, guess where that new money for the CAPC (director, office, staff, etc.) came from? -- ADVERTISING.

4. A banker friend of mine in Muskogee, Okla., said they split their Advertising and Promotion Commission from the Chamber of Commerce and created two agencies several years ago, but they recognized their mistake, and last year they put them back together again. We are too small a town to have two agencies, both with the same goal, and. the loss of efficiency in the last 10 years has been devastating!

5. We are the only tourism town/entity without an ad agency, and everyone in our state and region is up but us. THIS IS NO COINCIDENCE!!

6. Eureka desperately needs leadership, as the old guard that made it work has either died, left, or retired, and nobody has picked up the baton. We need more cooperation and less confrontation. We need to quit worrying about who will rule, and start practicing the Golden Rule.

Yes, we need to take Eureka back! The Centennial was a goal, a dream and a plan for the city of Eureka Springs, but for one reason or another, we have lost our way and do not have a focused direction. Eureka Springs is like a ship without a rudder that keeps going in a downward spiral that will lead to the destruction of our economy.

I don't mind being buried in a cemetery, but I don't want to die in one!!!

John F. Cross

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