By Kitty Chism | Photo by Jamison Mosley
Stacy Hurst relishes a good challenge. As secretary of the newly formed Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, challenges don’t come much bigger.
Hurst, long active in the Little Rock business and philanthropy communities and a former city director, now leads the newly formed department — a merger of State Parks and Tourism and the Department of Heritage — giving her oversight of several thousand state employees providing beloved public services.
This reorganization under Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the first major reorganization of state government since the administration of Dale Bumpers in the early 1970s, went into effect in July and fuses 42 former departments into just 15 divisions, each run by a cabinet secretary reporting directly to the governor. Hutchinson’s rationale for the reorganization was to rid the government of duplication and lower costs by as much as $15 million a year.
And he had a champion in Hurst, whose energy and reputation for hard work had long been established. Her newest mandate is particularly huge, however. Parks alone administers 52 parks, 10 marinas and eight restaurants on more than 54,000 acres with 1,700 full- and part-time workers serving 8 million visitors a year on a budget of $126 million. It also runs a recreation-grants program for small-town parks and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful anti-littering program.
All this now fills Hurst’s plate on top of running eight agencies and museums of cultural interest, including the Mosaic Templar, Delta Cultural, Historic Arkansas and Old State House museums that were part of the former, stand-alone Department of Heritage, which she previously directed beginning in 2014. Add to that her new responsibilities for War Memorial Stadium, refurbished eight years ago but in need of more upgrades; the Capitol Zoning District, arbiter of land use around the state capitol; and the Governor’s Mansion District, which rigorously controls the neighborhood of historic homes near the governor’s residence.
For good measure, Hurst also is serving her second term on the Little Rock Airport Commission, which oversees Clinton National Airport.
There’s still more: Her old job at Heritage was expanded a year ago to include oversight of the state archives, the gigantic collection of old documents, publications, photographs, microfilmed newspapers, military records and other materials relating to Arkansas history, collected since the 1700s.
“She has just always been driven and found great satisfaction in efforts, little and big, that benefit many people,” said longtime friend Kathryn Griffin.
Hard work helped Hurst assemble an impressive resume that includes nonprofit fundraising, foundation leadership, business marketing, elected city office, revitalization crusades, partisan campaigns, commission appointments and eventually state-government leadership.
But her journey hasn’t been without setbacks and critics. She lost a fiercely close election for state representative; led a controversial transition to state control of all governor’s mansion operations; withstood criticism for the 2-year-old, $9.5 million bastion of administration offices housing most of the agencies connected to the Department of Heritage; clashed very publicly with the state’s archivist; endured biting criticism for erasing a few top agency jobs; brokered a controversial easement to save the Little Rock’s Women’s City Club; and failed in a last-ditch bid to save another popular landmark — the 88-year-old Clarendon bridge that cyclists across the South begged her to spare.
Along the way, she learned how to counter critics, accept them and move on.
Rebecca Burkes, a lawyer who worked as Hurst’s deputy until last January, called her “a very strategic thinker and conscientious steward of taxpayer money. She sees the delivery of state-agency services like a business tending to its customers. I found her very willing to think hard about taking things to the next level, to get out into the state and talk to folks, take a look at a new idea presented to her and think a lot about what she might do with it.”
Today, Hurst’s office reflects the exhaustive breadth of her job, punctuated with works by Arkansas artists like Pine Bluff glassmaker James Hayes and photo reminders on the walls of significant work-life milestones, reminders of past challenges accepted. This latest could prove the most daunting yet.
“She has a really tough job with many moving parts now, no doubt about it, and I have told her that,” says Gordon Rather, longtime Historic Arkansas Museum board member. “She also bends over backwards to find sources of funding for what we really need.”
“Actually,” notes former Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily, who now directs the tourism division of the Department of Parks and Tourism under Hurst, “she has a knack for bringing players together to get things done and then stays passionately involved; she doesn’t go away easily.”
Daily believes Hurst’s true strength comes from her appreciation of the state’s rich history and how that meshes with tourism. It’s an unfailingly holistic vision, he says.
“She gets it, she sees the big picture but stays on top of the details,” he notes of Hurst’s style, which he attributes to the governor giving her this even bigger job.
“Her experience in the private sector and her extensive record of public service are characteristics I knew we needed in state government,” Hutchinson says. “She has been a key part of our transformation efforts, and I am excited to see the fresh ideas she will bring to leading this new department.”
Seeking out challenges has always come naturally to her, Hurst admits. “I became known for working very hard.”
And the reputation stuck. The morning after she lost that close election for state representative in 2014, the newly elected governor was on the phone asking her to lead his transition team and play a pivotal role in his first administration. Suddenly, she was back in the game. But the challenges in front of her now are bigger than ever with stakes that could get even higher. For Hurst, however, her new role represents an opportunity unlike any other she’s had to render widespread, innovative change in the state she adores.
“I am very excited, because I really love this work and this state I call home,” she says of the new responsibilities the governor has tossed her way.
“It’s a real honor to be part of this historic time, this important initiative to deliver state services to the people better and more efficiently,” she continues. “I am convinced we can really accomplish something good this way for the taxpayers.”