Arkansas native Mike Mills has made a lifelong career out of guiding. Since 1974, he’s helped countless thousands discover Arkansas’s scenic wilderness, most of them on the Buffalo National River. He’s guided his business, Buffalo Outdoor Center of Ponca, through the rocks of changing tastes and times to become a premier outfitter.
He’s personally guided two governors, two First Ladies and two U.S. Senators on Buffalo River excursions, and even served a stint as head of Arkansas Department of Tourism, where he guided efforts to throw open wide the doors of the state to visitors from across the country and around the world.
With the dawning of the new year, Mills has taken on another challenge, this time as secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. It’s a role both novel and strangely familiar, and he hasn’t wasted any time making it his own.
“We’ve got great people in this organization,” he said. “Great people, lots of experience. I don’t need to manage that. I need to manage the overall team and bring enthusiasm and encouragement to those teams.
“I’ve snuck into a couple state parks, and they didn’t know who I was,” he said. “I went in and said, ‘Are there any administrators here today?’ They looked at me like, what do you want with them? Then when I tell them I’m their new secretary, that’s when they start calling me all kinds of formal names.
“I tell them, ‘My name’s Mike. and that’s what you call me.’” He shrugs. “I’ve been one of them for 50 years.”
Mills was born in an Army hospital in Fort Knox, Kentucky. His parents, both Arkansas natives, moved the family back to Northwest Arkansas by the time he was two.
“I was raised in Lowell, Arkansas,” Mills said with an impish smile. “When I traveled with 4-H and FFA, I’d always tell people I was from L.A. and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s cool!” I’d say, ‘You’re right. Lowell, Arkansas.’ ”
After graduating from Rogers High School, Mills began his studies at Hendrix College in Conway. In 1969, his sophomore year, Mills joined the Marine Corps. At boot camp, he discovered something exemplary about himself that stood head and shoulders over his fellow recruits.
“I was the No. 1 typist out of 350 guys,” he said. “At that point, they were needing more administrative people than they did grunts. So anywhere I went, it kept me out of trouble. This was ’69, ’70 and ’71.”
Mills returned to Hendrix where he graduated with a degree in biology in 1974 and promptly started his first canoe rental business, The Wilderness Company in Fayetteville.
“I loved canoeing. I learned to canoe at about 8, 9, 10 years old,” he said. “Dad wanted to fish, and I’m the oldest of four boys, so I paddled out there. He didn’t want me to bang on the boat because it made noise. When he wanted to stop, he wanted to stop. I learned how to step in an eddy before I even recognized what an eddy turn was.
“Our family vacations would be camping and fishing, and I still have that canoe at Buffalo Outdoor Center. It’s a 1950 Grumman sport canoe. When I got to college, it was the back-to-nature ecology movement of the late ’60s, early ’70s. I had a canoe, a tent, I knew how to camp. I had great camp recipes to cook with.”
From Fayetteville, Mills would soon relocate to Ponca, where he managed the Lost Valley Lodge resort. In 18 months, the owner approached him about buying the place.
“He tried to sell it to me for exactly twice what he had paid for it two years earlier when they hired me,” he said. “I was trying to buy it at that time too, so I knew exactly what he paid for it. I said no and really, that was the best thing that had ever happened to me, because it forced me to go down the road and start my own company, which was Buffalo Outdoor Center.”
Today, BOC is a model of diversification with cabins, zipline and other amenities to draw in visitors year around. But in 1976, the menu was a short one – canoe rentals – which only generated sales when water levels cooperated, at best about four months out of the year.
“The first 20 years were a struggle,” Mills said. “It was a canoe rental business, so its operation was March, April, May, June. You’re working four months out of the year, and the other eight months you had to find something to help bring in income.”
BOC boasted 66 canoes, which Mills, his then-wife and his brother-in-law worked hard to keep filled. The reputation of the Buffalo was growing, thanks in part to National Geographic doing a spread on it in 1977, but capitalizing on that notoriety was an elusive thing. In the off season, Mills attended community college in Harrison to get some basic business knowledge, but mostly he lived and he learned.
“There was a whole lot of on-the-job training; make a mistake, learn from it, don’t make that mistake again,” he said. “Those lessons kind of came to you. Some were hard; you buy a radio phone that’s going to be great for communications only to discover you live in a valley on the Buffalo River where it won’t work. That was pre-cellphones.”
In 1982, his wife needed a change of scenery so Mills landed the job of director of tourism in Little Rock, a post he’d hold for four years.
“That was a tremendous learning event,” he said. “I learned about state government. I got on many boards, such as Travel Industry Association of America, Travel South. It gave me a lot of experience, and it gave me a great view of the big picture of tourism.”
“In winter of ’86 I was at a travel show in Fort Worth handing out brochures to little old gray-haired ladies. I never did sell the business, it was just being managed by my brother-in-law. And I thought, ‘If I go back to my business, I now have the big picture. We need to build cabins, we need to do other things to make it a full-time resort.’ So, I left state government and went back to the resort.”
Over the next decade, a new business plan slowly but surely took shape. Five cabins became 10, and 10 became 15, until today there’s 30 that welcome visitors to arguably the most picturesque part of Arkansas. Over the years, horseback riding, the state’s first canopy zipline, camping and retail have spread out risk and lengthened the season.
Mills also leveraged the media networking he’d done while as tourism director to generate hundreds of articles, broadcast news and TV spots, accelerating interest in the river and his business. In 2011, BOC was recognized as Arkansas’ Small Business of the Year, and today, more than 12 million guests have passed through BOC’s doors. The company’s success has generated more than $1 million in tourism tax receipts and donations totaling $40,000 to the Tourism Development Foundation.
And while his time in state government was relatively brief, his service to the tourism industry has been anything but. Mills has served 40 years on the Tourism Development Foundation, 39 years on the Arkansas Travel Council, 28 years on the Board of America Outdoors Association and 25 years on the Ozark Mountain Region Tourism Association. He’s a founding member of Arkansas Resorts and a charter member of Arkansas Scenic Highway 7 and Arkansas Scenic Rivers Commission. He also spent 18 years on the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.
As he steps into his new role, Mills sees not only the immense potential for the future but notes the investment of some of the state’s leading corporate and philanthropic citizens that is helping drive Arkansas’s reputation as a tourist destination forward.
“We are extremely fortunate in this state to have relationships with the Waltons, the Murphys and the Stephens who have donated millions of dollars’ worth to trails, mountain biking and other amenities,” he said. “To that, we want to attract microbreweries and coffee shops, stuff the new generation is looking for. Having more facilities, more small businesses that help attract people to these mountain bike courses or the state parks is going to be part of that draw.
“I also want to see some more diversity. I have already suggested we make an African American cultural tour like our existing wine tour and golf tour. We receive a lot of African American visitors who are coming to Arkansas to look at history, and I don’t think we have done enough to really try to connect all that. That’s one of the priorities for me.”
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