By Louie Graves
The formal grand opening of the new $2.5 million Red River Welcome Center on U.S. Highway 70 north of Texarkana took place Monday, and no one was more anxious to finish the ceremony and get back to her work routine than the center’s manager, Sheila Nichols.
The new center actually opened June 19, one day before the old building was taken down.
Nichols is a Nashville resident who has a 100-mile round trip drive every day between her Corinth community home to the parking lot at the welcome center.
To say that she loves her work — and takes it seriously — is an understatement.
About a hundred persons a day walk into the spacious cedar lobby to ask questions about the state. Nichols and her colleague, Marilyn Polomsky (who says she lived for a time at Dierks), know about every large and small attraction in Arkansas, and they are living, breathing promoters.
“I love selling the state of Arkansas, and I have many stories about the visitors we’ve had here,” Nichols says.
While she spoke to the reporter, a young man walked in and asked about biking trails. He was led to a large display of pamphlets of trails and other attractions, but he was also talking to two experts on the subject.
Nichols is a Nashville High School dropout who worked at the Briar plant for 23 years before going to work at the Crater of Diamonds.
Along the way she got her GED through UA-Cossatot in 2004, and in 2014 she walked across the stage at UALR to pick up her college diploma. “Getting that bachelors degree was on my bucket list,“ she says with humor, but with a glint of the determination she needed to get that document.
All employees of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism must become a Certified Travel Consultant. They get their training through the U.S. Travel Association. She also participates in state-wide travels with other Parks and Tourism employees to learn about the famous and lesser-known attractions of the state. That’s how she became an expert.
“I especially enjoy promoting the Delta, because no one thinks there’s anything there.”
As an example, she cites Marion in East Arkansas where there is an information facility at the site of the sinking of the Sultana, a steam powered Civil War era sternwheeler. Its boilers exploded and more than 1,500 Union soldiers, just out of dreadful Confederate prisons and who were headed home died.
“More people died in that shipwreck than in the Titanic,” she says. “But it isn’t so well known because President Lincoln had just been assassinated.”
Nichol’s welcome center is situated almost on the banks of the Red River. It is located in a split between north and southbound lanes of the highway. The northbound lane is in Arkansas; the southbound lane is in Texas.
About 50 yards behind the building is the state line which is marked by an old grove of pecan trees.
Inside the building are some experts on what makes Arkansas unique.