Game pieces and tough questions

guest commentary by David Potts

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I received a call from Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders a few weeks ago, kind of. It was an automated call. If you live within the city limits of Fort Smith, an automated call from the Mayor Sanders isn’t unusual.

But this call was somewhat different. The phone rang, I picked up the receiver, I heard that distinct pause that lets you know it’s an automated call, then a woman’s voice identified herself as Mayor Sandy Sanders. At first I thought the mayor might be suffering from gender identity issues. Then I realized it was a glitch in the automated calling system. This new feminine voice of the mayor intrigued me enough to listen to the full message.

This automated telephone call from Mayor Sanders “personally” invited me to attend a forum at the community center at Creekmore Park to explore the possible alternative futures for Fort Smith. As a lifelong resident of Fort Smith who plans to live to 110 then die in Fort Smith and be buried at Oak Cemetery, I have a vested interest in the future of Fort Smith. This forum topic motivated me to accept the Mayor’s invitation and attend.

For much of my life I could be accused of dereliction of duty as a citizen for failing to participate in the government of Fort Smith. Being a rookie participant in a community forum, I entered the Rose room at Creekmore Park’s community center with the intent to keep my mouth shut and just observe. However, I was slowly drawn into participating.
The meeting was facilitated by Wally Bailey, Fort Smith’s Director of Planning and Construction and his staff. I’m not sure I really understood the purpose of the meeting except it was part of the City Planning Department’s activities in updating their Comprehensive Plan.

If you are not familiar with Fort Smith’s Comprehensive Plan, it is a document of which the stated purpose “is a vision for the future that plans for a twenty year time period, based on local conditions, values and aspirations.” This particular plan’s focus is to “focus on ensuring that these community facets contribute to promote the city’s economic development and prosperity, defining what that means and how to achieve it.”

So far I am on board. I like the part about economic development and prosperity.

To develop this comprehensive plan our city leaders hired WRT, a consulting company, to assist in its development. As part of their process, Mr. Bailey and his staff was asked to hold a series of community forums, this series being titled “Imagining Alternative Futures.”

For this particular meeting WRT developed a “game,” similar in concept to a board game for the attendees to play. We, the attendees, were split into several groups. Each group had their own table where a large map of Fort Smith was spread and the group was given a certain number of “game pieces” that represented certain types of businesses and the number of jobs they represented. As a team our task was to decide where in Fort Smith we wanted these future businesses to locate.

As I first sat at my table I thought this process would be a complete waste of time. I’m still skeptical whether the consultants or Mr. Bailey will give much weight to our opinions (since our opinions lack professional experience or any formal education in land use and development), but I found the discussion among my group interesting and informative.

My group demonstrated great knowledge of Fort Smith and many thoughtful and intelligent opinions voiced, opinions of the attendees, not the planning department staff. (Several times I asked the opinion of the pleasant young lady facilitating our discussions but each time she deferred, keeping her opinion to herself.) When the forum ended, I left more interested in the future development of Fort Smith, but I also left more concerned.

Fort Smith’s future “economic development and prosperity” will not mysteriously materialize at locations bearing the job levels represented by game pieces we pushed around on a map of Fort Smith. Business investment happens or one reason and only one reason: To make money for the people risking the loss of their money every time they invest in buildings or business ventures. That’s just a fact of life.

Fort Smith’s Comprehensive Plan might assist in economic development and prosperity, but it will never be the driver. I would even suggest in the hands of overzealous city officials, the Comprehensive Plan could drive away “economic development and prosperity.”

Fort Smith’s future, its quality-of-life, its prosperity; these require a community with a growing and thriving economic base. A growing and thriving economic base requires a community to be business friendly. The people Fort Smith need to begin to ask themselves, “How can we become more business friendly so that economic growth and great paying jobs are attracted to Fort Smith?” At the same time existing businesses in Fort Smith need to ask themselves “How can we contribute more to the community to increase the general quality of life?” Then all need to ask, “Do we have the right leaders in place who believe in Fort Smith and really want to lead Fort Smith to prosperity?”

Then let’s ask ourselves what we can do to help Mr. Bailey achieve his career’s masterpiece of planning that we can all point to as a new beginning for Fort Smith’s prosperity. (Hey Wally, no pressure.)

One more thing, shop Fort Smith.