Queries focus on Arkansas gardener's deal: Tourism chief defends axing of bigger contract for celebrity

FILE — Gardening expert P. Allen Smith speaks during the South Arkansas Community College 10th annual Lecture Series at the El Dorado Conference Center in this 2016 file photo.

In her first legislative committee meeting since being named secretary of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, lawmakers didn't go easy on Stacy Hurst on Wednesday as she defended a recent decision to block a more than $645,000 subcontract increase for an Arkansas gardener with national influence.

Hurst answered questions from the House and Senate committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs concerning a request from Arkansas-based celebrity gardener P. Allen Smith to increase his marketing subcontract with the state -- which is procured through the marketing firm Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods Inc. -- from about $200,000 to $845,600 per year.

"We take a smart, measured, responsible and data-driven approach to develop our marketing strategy, being ever mindful that we must be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Hurst said. "We don't spend frivolously or without solid research and accountability measures to ensure the best return on investment."

Smith -- who is known internationally and hosts a handful of national and international television shows including PBS' P. Allen Smith's Garden to Table, as well as podcasts and video blogs -- acts as an influencer to promote tourism in the state. Smith's productions heavily spotlight Arkansas' locales and attractions as well as the talent of local artists and chefs.

His guided tours of his gardens and Jefferson-inspired farm home in Roland draws visitors from around the globe.

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, said one of the things that "truly terrifies" him is that Smith could move out of the state if someone else makes him a better offer.

"There is a level of tourism out there that some of us just don't know. It's driven by the kinds of things that you do," Johnson told Smith. "On Easter Sunday, my wife and I went to brunch at your beautiful Moss Mountain Farm. I was sitting on the front porch of your beautiful home there in a rocking chair and a lady came by and struck up a conversation with me. I asked her where she was from and I thought she'd say North Little Rock or Conway, but she said, 'Fort Wayne, Ind.' And I said, 'Oh, well what brings you down here?' and she said, 'This. I came down here to have brunch at P. Allen Smith's farm.'"

Johnson compared Smith's marketing draw for the state to that brought to Waco, Texas, by Chip and Joanna Gaines, who gained fame from the HGTV hit show Fixer Upper.

Smith's social media effect surpasses that of the state, Johnson said. Smith's Instagram account -- @pallensmith -- has 67,700 followers, and a recent post of an Arkansas sunset from the front porch of his farmhouse garnered nearly 3,200 "likes." In comparison, the Instagram account for Arkansas Tourism -- @arkansas -- has just over 50,200 followers, and a recent photo of a buck in an Arkansas field culled more than 450 "likes."

"Your outreach has been beyond anything I understood or imagined," Johnson said.

Smith told the lawmakers that the pay increase would allow him to "amplify" what he's already offering to the state. The proposed three-year, $845,600 contract includes such productions as a Garden Home video blogs on YouTube from a location approved by CJRW for $8,500 each quarterly campaign; three Facebook posts including video for $4,500; four appearances of state Department of Parks and Tourism's choice for $40,000; three Instagram posts for $3,000; and inclusion in the national television show Garden Home and the internationally syndicated Garden Style for $318,000.

He also asked for a total of $400,000 to "create strategy" as well as pay for production, talent and distribution fees.

Hurst told the committee that the department is wanting to see more of a measurable commodity from Smith to determine the efficacy of the contract. She added that Smith's effect has been met and even surpassed by other marketing avenues.

She distributed a two-page analysis of Smith's contract statistics that she said shows Smith's marketing technique skews to an older, 55-year-old-plus audience and underperforms in reach and engagement for that demographic compared with other state efforts.

Hurst pointed to a recent social media post by one of the department's "unpaid" ambassadors that reached 71,000 people, "which is more than the reach of any of the posts" Smith provided.

According to Hurst's analysis, there were 1,432 website visits to Arkansas.com from Smith's website pallensmith.com for a two-year period while the state's digital buys from the American Association of Retired Persons website, AARP.com, sent 99,769 visitors to the state's tourism website over the same time period.

The department also paid mountain-biking influencer Seth Alvo $10,000 and got nearly 502,000 social media engagements in exchange.

Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, asked if Hurst could track the effect of tourism ads on a specific attraction, to which she replied that officials could not.

"There's got to be a more direct relationship," Caldwell said. "You can't sit here and claim that every dollar we spend that we generate $135, because that's not fact."

Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, pointed out that the state contract was with the marketing firm CJRW and not with Smith himself.

"Why would you want to interject yourself into that contract negotiation between a prime contractor with the state of Arkansas and one of its subcontractors?" House asked.

Hurst said the decision to hire influencers such as Smith is a collaborative one between the contractor and state departments. The State Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission at its meeting earlier this month gave Hurst approval to meet with Smith to discuss the contract, which remains unsigned even at the original $200,000 price tag.

"We want to sit down and negotiate a price that is measurable," Hurst said.

Caldwell said the committee would revisit the issue at a future committee meeting and approved a request by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, for the committee to produce a report detailing the marketing effects on state tourism.

When asked by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, Smith said he has been contacted by other states to relocate his brand there. In answer to a question by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, on whether he would maintain his contract based on the current $200,000, Smith replied, "Probably not."


P. Allen Smith


Democrat-Gazette file photo

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, is shown in this file photo.


Stacy Hurst

Metro on 07/25/2019