FREE SPEAKING: Lita Braswell is among the folks in Eureka Springs unafraid to speak up.
EUREKA SPRINGS — Berryville and Eureka Springs, the two county seats of Carroll County, are 12 miles apart geographically. The psychic gap is much wider.
“Berryville has five-minute city council meetings,” says Bill King, co-publisher of the Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs. “We have five-hour council meetings.”
It was Bugsy Siegel or somebody like him that said of his fellow gangsters, “We only kill each other,” meaning that the general public had nothing to fear. Eureka Springers are something like that — not bugsy or violent, no, but argumentative among themselves, while unfailingly affable and hospitable to Eureka’s many visitors, on whom the town’s prosperity depends.
They acknowledge this contentious streak, and even seem to take a certain pride in it. “We’ve always been a fractured and fractious community,” says Mary Jean Sell, news editor of the Citizen’s rival, the Eureka Springs Times-Echo. (There are too many opinions in Eureka Springs to be contained in one newspaper.) “That’s because Eureka Springs is a small town with a well-educated, sophisticated, well-traveled population. A lot of people who’ve retired here have come from top-management-level jobs. Our City Council is made up of people who own their own businesses.”
Sell worries, though, that lately the battles have become more personalized and meaner. Specifically, she mentions a campaign led by James DeVito, a restaurateur and former city official, to change the form of government from mayor-council to city administrator. In a city-wide referendum last year, the effort failed by 30 votes. Both newspapers opposed it, on the ground that it was just an attempt to oust Mayor Kathy Harrison after only two years of a four-year term. DeVito was one of two mayoral candidates defeated by Harrison.
“That campaign was led by people who have issues with Kathy Harrison,” Sell said. “There’s been a lot of talk about Kathy this and Kathy that, and I’ll admit she’s handled some issues poorly.” But, she said, “people make mistakes,” and Harrison’s aren’t sufficient reason to remove her before she’s served her full term.
King mentions Harrison’s firing of a longtime administrative assistant, a holdover from the previous administration who’d effectively functioned as a city manager. “That really divided the town.” Harrison also took city deposits away from the Bank of Eureka Springs, where they’d been for years, for a better deal at Community First Bank, whose main office is in Harrison but which has a branch, and a local board of directors, in Eureka Springs.
DeVito denies that his city-administrator movement was merely an effort to get Kathy. It was aimed at bringing efficiency and continuity to city government, he said. “We’ve had 18 mayors in 37 years. We’ve never had a two-term mayor.”
DeVito, Harrison, King, Sell and just about anyone else you talk to in Eureka Springs are in general agreement there’s more conflict here than in the average Arkansas town, and on the reasons for it.
“We have about as diverse a population as any city in Arkansas,” DeVito said. In many ways, yes, although you don’t see black faces around. Eureka has a disproportionately high gay population, for one thing, and the town’s privately sponsored “diversity weekends,” one in the spring and one in the fall, attract a number of gay visitors. Because tourism is the town’s lifeblood, there’s almost no organized opposition to these events, as there would be in any other town in Arkansas. “You hear from some people who think it’s an abomination, but they’re in the minority,” Harrison said.
Though Carry Nation once lived here, Eureka long ago overcame the qualms about alcohol that still afflict some Arkansas cities too. It surely has the most bars per capita, although some shut down during the off season. The fulltime population of Eureka is 2,300, although tourists turn it into a much bigger place.
Most Arkansas towns have a number of long-term residents, many of them related to each other, which promotes agreement. Eureka Springs has a lot of first-generation residents with no relatives in the area, people who are here because they want to be here, not because they were born in the area. In the ’60s, back-to-the land hippies arrived in numbers at the same time as religious conservatives associated with Gerald L.K. Smith, a controversial evangelist and anti-Semite who put up the Christ of the Ozarks statue and put on the Great Passion Play, both still tourist attractions.
“Most the people who end up here had a nagging feeling they ought to be here,” says Harrison, who moved here from Tulsa with her parents 27 years ago. “You’ll meet a bartender who taught art at Harvard, a book editor who’d never lived anyplace but Manhattan before coming to Eureka Springs. It’s always been a mecca for writers and artists.” Indeed, one of the things that impresses a visitor to Eureka Springs is how bright and articulate are the bartenders, the parking lot attendants, the hotel desk clerks. These are people who’ve made financial sacrifices for the privilege of living in Eureka Springs, you figure. A woman in a book store, just returned from visiting out-of-town friends, tells a clerk, “I have the feeling that all the people I knew are moving forward and I’m moving backward. And I’m glad I’m moving backward.”
Mayor Harrison says “People speak of Eureka Time. Nobody wears a watch. [She doesn’t.] It’s not just a different place, it’s a different time.”
With their intelligence, their varied backgrounds, “People here are politically savvy,” Harrison says. “They’re better at being politically active than in other towns. We have an open mike night at Council meetings where people can talk. Some of them come to almost every meeting.”
And finally, people argue because they’re all partners in the business of attracting tourists, and each of them thinks he or she knows more about running the business than the others do. It’s a one-industry town. If the hotels and motels and bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants and shops don’t make money, then the grocery store and the drug store don’t make money. Lately, business has not been good.
James DeVito is the third generation of his family to be in the tourist business in North Arkansas. He’s owned DeVito’s, a highly rated restaurant here, for nearly 20 years. “The late ’80s and early ’90s were the golden years,” he says. By way of contrast, he says, this year’s blues festival, one of many annual events to attract tourists to Eureka Springs, did the worst business of any blues festival in 18 years. An Arkansas Times reporter and photographer visited Eureka on the weekend of the annual jazz festival. The scheduled performance by the festival headliner was canceled for lack of ticket sales.
Exact figures aren’t available, but “We estimate we got about a million tourists a year in the mid-’90s,” says Lynn Berry, marketing director for the City Advertising and Promotion Commission. “Now we get about 800,000.”
According to Joe David Rice, director of tourism for the state Department of Parks and Tourism, state tourism tax collections in Carroll County for July 2004 were down 22.3 percent from July 2003. Tax collections for January through June 2004 were down 9.8 percent from the same period in 2003. Meanwhile, collections were up 8.3 percent in the state as a whole for those six months. Pulaski County was up 12.6 percent, Garland 12.1 percent, Washington 17.6 percent, Benton 0.2 percent, Sebastian 11.7 percent. Those are the five biggest tourism counties. Carroll is sixth.
Some of the commonly mentioned factors in the decline are a shaky economy; rising gasoline prices; popular uncertainty over the war, the election, and terrorism, and a decline in bus travel. According to Berry, “The cost of liability insurance increased after 9/11. Some motor coach lines went out of business.” Increased competition is another factor. “Eureka Springs used to be a ‘destination’ when other places weren’t,” Berry says. Now, everybody’s trying to attract tourists, and “Everyplace is a destination.” And some destinations are more competitive than others. DeVito points out that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Eureka Springs didn’t have to compete with the casinos of Tunica.
A more pressing question than “Why are the tourism numbers down?” is “How to get them back up?” Naturally, there are differences of opinion. One faction thinks the town should concentrate on a particular segment of tourists, aiming its advertising at what is sometimes called the DINK niche (Double Income, No Kids). Ray Dilfield, a member of the Advertising and Promotion Commission and co-owner of a bed and breakfast, the Crescent College Inn, is one of these.
While tourism overall has declined, some market shares have increased, Dilfield said. “Group travel — bus tours — has been declining. Wedding travel and romantic-getaway travel have been picking up. Family travel has been declining.” Families have less disposable income, he said, so they’re taking shorter trips and confining their travel to weekends. (Some people say that Eureka Springs, compared to other family destinations, has few attractions for children.) “Empty-nesters are available anytime,” Dilfield said. “We should direct our advertising to the group we can appeal to. My personal feeling is that Eureka Springs is uniquely situated to appeal to couples, the romantic-getaway market, and historic travelers. We have perfectly preserved Victorian structures here.” One of those structures is Dilfield’s inn, which was built by Powell Clayton, Arkansas’s Reconstruction-era governor. “He built this house here as a tourist attraction. He established this town as a tourist attraction, a midwestern version of Saratoga Springs. It’s always been tourism here.”
Others feel it would be a mistake for the town to focus on one part of the tourism market. “I disagree with saying we’re this or that,” DeVito, a former member of the CAPC, said. “Eureka Springs doesn’t stop at the city limits. We have the Buffalo River, we’ve got hiking and trout fishing.” It has scenery, and a town built on hillsides, and what Dilfield calls “a quiet escape from the pressures of the world.” It also has the Smith Foundation’s religious attractions, and it’s close to Branson — but a better place to stay, according to DeVito.
Whatever advertising strategy the CAPC decides on, an ad agency will execute it. Apparently. At one time, Eureka employed an ad agency. Then it did the job in-house. Now the commission is looking for an agency again, although that decision too has become controversial — like everything else — with former mayor Beau Satori arguing passionately that the commission would do better to expand the CAPC staff than to hire an outside ad agency.
One agency that declined to seek the CAPC account, though invited to apply, was the agency that had the account for roughly 20 years, until the mid-’90s. This was Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods (CJRW) of Little Rock. In an August letter declining to apply, CJRW president Wayne Woods said that a former mayor (apparently Satori) had recently said that CJRW had taken advantage of the CAPC, an accusation that Woods denied.
“As much as we love Eureka Springs and would like to again be your marketing partner to take Eureka back to the pinnacle of tourism, we feel that our presence would not be the best for Eureka at this time,” Woods wrote. “We think that we would be seen again as a wedge between two segments in the community that want to take Eureka’s future in different directions.”
Meanwhile, the city tourism tax on meals, lodging and gifts (this is separate from the state tax) is under study. Some merchants say the “gift” section of the tax is unfair, that it shouldn’t be applied to items like books that can and will be bought elsewhere if the Eureka Springs price has to be raised to include the tax. Some are refusing to pay it. One of these is bookstore owner Karen Lindblad, a member of the City Council.
Another dissident is Lita Braswell, a feisty club owner (The Copacabana) who’s been here four years. She is, among other things, a big promoter of the diversity weekends. “And I’m straight!” She is fiery mad at city government, which shut down an outside musical event she was holding though she’d been issued a permit earlier. (A mistake, according to the city.) But Braswell says this was just the latest misstep by city officials whose policies actually drive off tourists.
“There was a police-car parade, and the city made ’em turn off the sirens. Police cars without sirens! Now they’ve started clamping down on bike noise, and the bikers have been coming here for years.”
Motorcyclists do constitute a significant part of Eureka’s visitors these days. Many establishments have “Bikers Welcome” signs in the window. Besides the live-and-let-live attitude of Eureka Springs, bikers like the hilly, twisty roads in the area.
It takes a certain kind of person to withstand all this criticism unruffled. Mayor Harrison seems to be that kind of person. Maybe it’s because she puts up such a wall of words herself that the critical remarks can’t get through. She wastes none of those words on negativism, either. She’s ruthlessly up-beat. Of course, there are differences of opinion at Eureka, she says. “This has always been a place where different cultures meet. Different Indian tribes used to meet here.”
She’d much rather talk about Eureka’s rosy future than about any tourism decline. “I feel good about what I’ve seen in the last few weeks. Four new shops are opening. We’re working on an arts and cultural district.” Movies have been filmed at Eureka. Harrison hopes to get more film business. After all, “We don’t need a movie set. We are one.”