BY MELANIE BUCK –
Since the late 1800’s, there has been a lodge atop Rich Mountain inside Queen Wilhelmina State Park where countless visitors have enjoyed scenic views, picnics, family gatherings, and so much more. Following an extensive renovation that lasted from December 2012 until June 2015 and cost $9.6 million, the Queen has shown that her wait was more than worth it and she has the record numbers to prove it.
In her first year after reopening on July 1, 2015, Queen Wilhelmina generated $2,056,252, with an overall lodge occupancy rate of 77.16%. The record numbers far exceed any prior year the Queen has seen. In 2008, the previous record year, the park generated $1,545,171, with a 63.11% lodge occupancy rate. “It’s been non-stop since reopening,” said Jack Faulkner, Front Desk Manager of the lodge who has worked there for 26 years. He has become a friend to many of the lodge’s return visitors and says the lodge feels like a home away from home to most of them.
In fact, explained Paula Magers, Park Superintendent, there are some families who have been visiting the park at least once a year for 30 years or more. “There are families who have raised their kids up here and now they are bringing their kids here,” said Magers. “There are many families who have annual reunions here and some that come every Christmas.” And although the renovations caused some families to miss a couple of years, they came back as soon as the lodge reopened and love the new look and feel of the crown jewel atop Arkansas’ second highest peak.
“We have a lot of people who are really amazed with how it looks and how it’s changed since they were here before,” said Magers. “All the comments have been positive; that they really like it. The park is so peaceful, so relaxing. It’s not like going to a huge hotel.”
In addition to the lodge, the 460-acre park includes a campground with 41 campsites and a bathhouse; picnic areas; trails; and a seasonal miniature train. The campground has been remodeled as well with new electrical wiring and upgraded campsites. Of the $2,056,252 in revenue taken in from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, $982,574 was generated by the lodge; $794,645 by the restaurant; $206,389 by the gift shop; $72,263 by camping; and $382 by concessionaires.
“The views are what draw people here,” said Magers. Just to sit and watch the sunset atop the mountain is a treat and many couples have chosen to take their vows looking over the expansive bird’s eye view of the region that lies below.
Not only does the top of Rich Mountain provide stunning views, unique flora and fauna, and wildlife, it also provides a large portion of revenue for those in the valleys below. In fact, the local population has thrived off of the popularity of the Queen for many years. John Vacca sits as Chair of the Arkansas Regional Coalition (ARCO) and recently said the importance of the park has been felt, as citizens and business owners alike benefit from what the attraction brings. “With the lodge being closed, we were losing around $16 million in indirect revenue to just Mena. It’s a great thing to see people going back to the lodge and coming down to visit Mena. It’s a big boost for our town.”
As the Queen looks to the future, the hopes are that each year becomes, not just a record breaker, but a memory maker for many generations to come.
Arkansas State Parks Director Greg Butts summed up the majesty of the lodge by saying, “I think what you see is a first class facility. It’s all about the beautiful views, about the special times, and special places like Queen Wilhelmina. We are continuing the hotel business here, now spanning three different centuries and here we are today. We’re in the memory business and the forever business. Folks come to state parks in the pursuit of happiness. In the constitution it talks about the pursuit of happiness and that’s what state parks are. We’re all busy, going 100 miles per hour and parks are a place to come reconnect with history, the natural environment, and outdoor spaces. It’s about special places, special times, and special people.”