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story.lead_photo.caption Samuel Ellis inspects a bike Thursday at Rock Town River Outfitters in Little Rock.

As the waters of the swollen Arkansas River rose in Little Rock, Samuel Ellis had to make the tough decision to indefinitely stop kayak rentals offered by his tour company.

Weeks of flooding along the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers have hurt tourism and recreation businesses in the central United States, even if the businesses are not directly dependent on the river.

Three years ago, Ellis' kayak and bike rental and tour company had three kayaks for rent. Business has grown, and he said he often has 25 people at a time paddling along the usually gentle river. That is, until the flooding.

Ellis said the water tends to be higher in June anyway, but around Memorial Day this year, reports came in of projections for historic flooding heading his way. He temporarily shut down his downtown riverfront boathouse and his typically more protected location slightly farther upstream.

[RELATED: Stay off Arkansas River, officials warn; levels drop, but water speed still perilous]

His company, Rock Town River Outfitters, also rents bikes, but the river spilled over onto trails along its banks, so tours have been restricted to dry areas in downtown Little Rock.

"It has hit me pretty hard this month," Ellis said. "I'm hoping the water will go down fast so that we can at least have our bike trail back."

Record flooding has hit much of the South and the central United States this spring as higher-than-average rainfall has strained dams and aging levees.

About a quarter of the businesses surveyed by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism reported being affected by the flooding, Deputy Director Kristine Puckett said.

[RELATED: Flooding keeps weather service busy]

The department has been working to dispel fears that the entire state is under water, and it is reminding tourists and residents alike that Arkansas has 50 state parks, as well as dozens of towns and cities that are unaffected by the flooding.

For some Mississippi River towns that rely heavily on tourism, the perception of the flooding is as bad as the high water itself.

Kimmswick, Mo., just south of St. Louis, has 170 residents but draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to small restaurants, quaint shops and two large festivals. One of them, the Strawberry Festival scheduled for June 1 and 2, was canceled due to flooding.

The town itself is dry, thanks to a levee reinforced with sandbags. But two of the three roads leading to Kimmswick are under water, and town leaders feared it would be unsafe to have the expected 50,000 festivalgoers coming and going via one road.

[MORE: Baptist agency offering flood aid]

Mayor Phil Stang said business this spring "is a little off" because of the perceived flooding, even though every shop in town is open. The fact is, he said, people in Kimmswick are experienced in fighting back the river.

"The good news is we're very, very good at it," Stang said. "And the bad news is we're very, very good at it because we have to be."

The perception of the flooding also is very much a reality in Grafton, Ill., another St. Louis-area town on the Mississippi River.

Grafton has no levee, and businesses along the main highway through town are inundated. Stephanie Tate, spokeswoman for the Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau, called the situation "pretty awful."

"April through November, they're usually hopping in Grafton," Tate said. "People in Grafton make their living in those months. So it's tough.

"You live and die by the river, and this year the river is flexing its muscles."

[LIST: Post-flood food safety recommendations]

Ellis hopes to get kayaks back out on the Arkansas River in a couple of weeks in what he expects will be a rush from cooped-up kayakers. One unexpected but happy consequence of the flooding has been an uptick in questions from people who know that Ellis understands the river, he said.

"We've been answering phone calls since we started hearing about these floods about river safety, places you can go," Ellis said.

"On the financial side, yes, we've taken a bit of a hit," he said. "But it's nothing we won't be able to come back from."

A Section on 06/10/2019

Print Headline: Flooding takes toll on tourism business

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