P. ALLEN SMITH: Says his marketing is worth four times what the state pays for it.

Gardening and lifestyle guru P. Allen Smith, a Little Rock celebrity with nationwide television and video reach, wants the state to pay more for his services marketing Arkansas: He believes the annual contract with P. Allen Smith Garden Home, subcontracted through the ad firm CJRW, should be raised by $645,000 each year, from $200,000 to $845,000, for 2019 and 2020.

If he is unsuccessful, it’s possible he’d take other states up on their bids to get him to move there, suggested a couple of legislators at a joint meeting of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The hearing, requested by Smith after the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism blocked the increase, lasted 2 hours and 39 minutes.

Smith’s request was blocked by Stacy Hurst, secretary of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Hurst made the decision in consultation with the advertising agencies for other state departments and after analyzing the value of Smith’s contract. Her department’s decisions on spending are based on “solid research and accountability measures to ensure the best return on investment,” she told the committee.

State Sen. Mark Johnson (R-Little Rock) and Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), raised the specter that Smith might move his media empire from Arkansas with questions about whether he’d been invited by other states; Smith confirmed he had been approached. “We would see a loss, wouldn’t we?” Clark asked Smith, to which he responded that yes, his business would change its content. “That really bothers me,” Johnson said, launching into a recitation of his visit with his wife to Moss Mountain Farm, Smith’s venue in Roland, where a tourist from Indiana told him she’d come to Arkansas just to have brunch at Moss Mountain.

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Smith presented legislators with a summary of his work across the state and how it has exceeded the requirements of his contract, with media produced on 41 towns and 388 projects, and aired on such platforms as YouTube and ROKU. The worth to the state, Smith said, was $1.3 million; he said he went beyond the contract to illustrate the value of his work. “You don’t want to continue doing it” for $200,000 Johnson asked Smith. “Oh, no, not interested,” Smith replied.

Hurst, speaking after Smith, said she was proud of the department’s marketing efforts. “What we do is working,” she said. “We take a smart, measured, responsible and data-driven approach to develop our marketing strategies, being ever mindful that we must be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. We do not spend frivolously.” She provided the members of the committee an analysis of the contract with Smith.

A couple of legislators, apparently hoping to find a flaw in the department’s data, challenged Hurst on a number determined by a consultant that every dollar spent on marketing brings in $135, demanding she provide a “more credible number.” Cynthia Dunlap, chief fiscal officer for the department, said there was substantial data to back up the numbers and that she would provide that to skeptical legislators.

In contrast, Rep. Gayla Hendren McKenzie (R-Gravette), said the data provided by Smith was “disappointing” in that it lacked detail.

Hurst said Smith’s request to quadruple his contract fee predated her appointment as secretary, and that she met with him and his team after Smith went to Governor Hutchinson. “I followed up with our advertising agency and Heritage’s advertising agency, and neither of them thought it would be a good use. We were not getting a return that we hoped for.”  She also contacted other agencies “and none of them had the interest or the money to substantially contribute to the $850,000 engagement.” However, she said, the department “welcomes some form of engagement with Mr. Smith, but we want to negotiate price and measurables.”

Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs), expressed concern that the committee was on a “slippery slope” in deliberations on procurement. “We’re not experts,” he said, and members were “opening ourselves up to a lot of problems,” noting the legislature moved this year to spend $1 million to hire a procurement consultant.

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Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) chimed in today via Twitter: