story by Ryan Saylor
Tuesday's (Feb. 4) meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors dealt almost entirely with issues most other city governments would probably find to be ordinary and mundane.
But for Fort Smith, a city that has been dealt its share of economic blows, the spate of ordinance zone requests before the Board Tuesday and the recent planning commission meeting in January show that activity may be returning to the city, though one official said it is too early to form any opinions.
Wally Bailey, director of planning services for the city of Fort Smith, spoke to the Board about five of the seven items on its Tuesday agenda. In the planning commission meeting in January, he said there were 28 projects up for consideration, the highest he had seen in about a year.
"You know, I don't know (why there has been a surge)," he said. "It was interesting. We don't really know what caused it, so many applications. That particular agenda, we had 28, 29 items on the agenda. That was probably the biggest agenda we've had in quite some time. And certainly the most we had in 2013. And it was the most significant development items we had had at one time."
The first item to come before the Board was the development of two six-unit apartment buildings at 4615 Old Greenwood Road. At the present time, the property houses a mini-storage facility.
The property, which had been zoned commercial (General Commercial and Commercial Heavy Special, C-5-SPL), backs up to the Pavilion Shopping Center and was re-zoned to residential (Residential Attached and Residential Multi-Family High Density, RM-4).
Bailey said he had no estimate of what the development would cost to construct, though renderings of the planned apartments show what appear to be high-end apartments not commonly seen within the Fort Smith region.
Another amendment to the Master Land Use Plan included a request at 1412 South 34th Street, where City Administrator Ray Gosack said a planned gated community would be erected on property owned by the Cancer Support House, though Bailey clarified that Rick Griffin would be the developer of the property, which will include five duplex structures he described after the meeting as being "very nice."
"The duplexes, I don't know what amenities they're putting into those, what it will cost."
The remaining three amendments to the zoning map all dealt with private businesses:
• Re-zoning 3900 and 3920 Rogers Avenue from Transitional (T) to Commercial Light (C-2), which would allow a salon and spa business to locate at the existing property;
• Re-zoning 5400, 5401 and 5451 Phoenix Ave from Industrial Light (I-1) to Commercial Heavy (C-5), allowing a liquor store to build at the site as well as plan for future development of the properties; and
• Re-zoning 8201 and 8205 Veterans Avenue from Not Zoned to Industrial Light (I-1) for the development of a contractor's office.
The only contentious issue of the meeting was a resolution concerning the placement of a cell phone tower in Carol Ann Cross Park, an issue that also came before the planning commission but was primarily a parks issue since the tower would sit on park land.
City Director Philip Merry urged his fellow Board members to table the issue or vote no, in order to explore other sites for the 170 feet tall communications tower.
Following a discussion among the Board, Merry ended up being the only dissenting vote on the resolution.
Bailey said even though he was not sure whether the small projects that came before the Board Tuesday were a sign that a shift was happening in Fort Smith's economy, he said projects in the works — such as the redevelopment of the Fianna Hills Country Club — were the true sign that developers are ready to open their wallets again and move dirt, thereby creating jobs.
"I think there for some time, we were seeing after the economic downtown from 2008 and forward, that there was a lot of hesitancy to jump in and spend money. (People) really didn't know what was going to happen with the economy, so I think investors were a little bit hesitant to invest. Developers were a little bit hesitant to put their own money into it. So I think it's a good sign that on that scale, that there is interest from those that are in the development business wanting to do things. Thinking out there, getting property ready. Moving forward. Testing the waters. …I think that is a good sign."
In other business, the Board spent over an hour in executive session conducting a performance review of Gosack. Following the conclusion of the performance review, Mayor Sandy Sanders said Gosack's next scheduled performance review would be conducted in July.
This was Gosack's sixth performance review since 2011, though City Director Pam Weber has declined to say why she requested the review at the last City Board meeting in January.
Merry also declined to discuss the contents of the meeting, saying that it would violate protocol. Asked specifically what items were discussed, Merry again declined to provide specifics.
"We had our discussion. Things were dealt with."