Jun 6, 2023 - News

Arkansas' tourism secretary shake-up

A photo of a bearded man with eyeglasses wearing a ball cap and grinning.

Mike Mills at the Delta Roots Music Festival in April. Photo: Courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

Less than six months into her term as Arkansas governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is searching for a new cabinet member.

What happened: At 5pm last Friday, Sanders' office sent out a news release noting the appointment of Shea Lewis as interim secretary of the Arkansas Department Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT).

  • The statement said Mike Mills, founder of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca and a longtime advocate of the Natural State, was stepping "away from the administration."

Driving the news: The timing of the release and lack of comment by Mills makes it unclear whether he left the position willingly.

  • Travis Napper, state tourism director, announced last week he would leave for a new job with Oxford Economics on June 23.

Why it matters: The department estimated Arkansas visitors spent $8 billion in fiscal 2021, bringing in $467 million in tax revenue and supporting more than 64,000 jobs.

Context: Sanders in February appointed a Natural State Advisory Council chaired by husband Bryan Sanders, signaling that growing the state's economy through tourism is a priority for her administration.

The intrigue: Just a day before the Mills announcement, he praised Napper to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "The challenges the Division of Tourism faced [during the pandemic] were unprecedented but with his help the tourism industry recovered more quickly than other states," Mills wrote.

What they're saying: "Mr. Mills submitted his letter of resignation and the Governor accepted," Sanders' spokesperson Alexa Henning wrote in an email.

The other side: Mills couldn't be reached by Axios, but a social media post in response to praise from the director of heritage published by the Arkansas Times seems to indicate his parting wasn't congenial:

  • "Jimmy Bryant I was doing fine until I read this. I couldn't even read it to my wife because my eyes were full of tears," Mills wrote.
  • "My heart was breaking."

What we're watching: Lewis was named interim secretary. There's no indication if Sanders is seeking a replacement outside the department yet.


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