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Shea Lewis was named director of Arkansas State Parks on January 3. Deputy director since 2017, he now oversees a $158 million budget and attractions across the state. A veteran of the Arkansas Division of State Parks in the State Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Lewis began his career as an interpreter at Millwood State Park and Village Creek State Park.
Lewis holds a bachelor’s degree in Parks, Recreation, and Leisure Studies from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in Educational/Instructional Resources and Media Design from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. .
Lewis succeeds Grady Spann, who had served as manager since 2016 and retired Dec. 31 after 28 years with Arkansas State Parks.
What is your mission and what is under your supervision?
It’s a big job and a huge responsibility – 52 parks in 48 counties and over 54,000 acres with four lodges, 204 cabins and 1,700 campsites. It’s just scratching the surface; Arkansas State Parks Division has many facets.
Speaking of facets, did I mention the public diamond mine we operate?
Depending on the time of year and if you include seasonal staff, we can exceed 1,000 employees. Arkansas State Parks exist to enhance the quality of life through exceptional outdoor experiences, connections to Arkansas heritage, and sound resource stewardship.
How has the pandemic affected visitor numbers at state parks?
Coming out of 2021, during which we experienced record attendance (9.4 million visitors), we do not see this trend changing. Arkansas state parks have been essential recreation spots during the pandemic. A whole new audience discovered our parks. We hope their experiences will bring them back.
Does the parks division have staffing issues?
Yes, just like others in the hospitality and service industry, we are facing staff shortages. But I’m extremely proud of our hard-working staff. They have helped us overcome these shortages without sacrificing service to our visitors.
What’s new in terms of programming and equipment?
The two largest projects currently underway are efforts and improvements at Pinnacle Mountain State Park and Delta Heritage Trail State Park. We are about to begin construction on a new visitor center at Pinnacle Mountain and are working toward the completion of the rail-trail project in eastern Arkansas that will make up the Delta Heritage Trail.
What is the biggest growth opportunity for parks?
Right now, even though both are on the rise, [it is] group business in our lodges and conference centers as well as in our restaurants. While we have seen an increase in visits and record revenues in camping, cabin rentals and other areas during the pandemic, we have seen declines in lodges and restaurants. With recent group bookings, we are optimistic that this service will return.
How does the Parks Division work with state tourism businesses, and what is an example of a successful relationship?
In my interview with [Gov. Asa] Hutchinson, he collectively described Arkansas’ state parks as one of the state’s greatest economic engines. I would agree.
Our parks connect people to resources and communities. We would not be successful without community, dealer and contract partners. The Ozark Folk Center is staffed by craftsmen and contracted musicians who support the park’s mission. We have concessions at Pinnacle Mountain, Lake Catherine, DeGray Lake Resort and Queen Wilhelmina State Parks.
Which of the parks in Arkansas do you think is the most overlooked or perhaps a hidden gem that few know about?
How about spending a night in jail? Our newly renovated Historic Jail Bed & Breakfast at Historic Washington State Park offers modern amenities in a unique setting, for an unforgettable experience.
What was your biggest leadership lesson and what did you learn from it?
You can’t do it all yourself. I am so lucky to have the support and guidance of Governor Asa Hutchinson and Secretary [Stacy] Hurst [chief of the state Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism]. You must trust others to be successful. I am proud to work with a group of professionals in our central office in Little Rock as well as an incredible group of customer and resource conscious employees in the parks.