story by Ryan Saylor
A taste of Oklahoma City's Bricktown is coming to downtown Fort Smith with the news Tuesday (June 17) that Varsity Sports Bar and Grill has been sold to the company behind Oklahoma City-based Bricktown Brewery, according to the new owner who spoke at Tuesday's Central Business Improvement District meeting.
According to Managing Partner Buck Warfield of BT Concepts, Varsity will change names with the change in ownership and will temporarily close later this year was the new owner spends between $500,000 and $750,000 in renovations on the property along Garrison Avenue.
The Fort Smith location will be the first outside of Oklahoma for the company, which also has locations at the Remington Park Casino in Oklahoma City, as well as locations in Edmond, Shawnee and a location opening in mid-July in Owasso.
As part of the renovations scheduled to begin sometime in August — set to coincide with the closure of Varsity — the company will make several changes to the building on the corner of 4th Street and Garrison Avenue. Changes include adding an entrance on Garrison, as well as adding a concept similar to beer gardens on the west side of what is currently the pool room.
"As I stared at the footprint of the building, it became apparent to me that what is now an existing … west side pool room … it seems natural to me to punch through that wall to create that indoor, outdoor dining experience," Warfield told the CBID commissioners during the groups Tuesday morning meeting.
That outdoor space will include an area Warfield billed as a "music space," which is said has become an important part of the Bricktown Brewery developments.
"We'd like to relocate the planters (trees, bushes, etc.) and pour that and create a natural stage. It's just a perfect place for it," he added.
The expansion of the building to the west would include matching brick on the building addition, as well as replanting all landscaping currently in place. New landscaping would be added, as well as garage-like doors to allow the addition to have open air.
The changes also include the iconic neon Varsity sign that has been a fixture of Garrison since the 1990s coming down and being replaced with a similar sign for Bricktown Brewery. The company will also add, though a timeline was not necessarily presented, a mural to the side of the building advertising either Bricktown Brewery or Adelaide Hall, or possibly both, Warfield said.
Adelaide Hall will continue to operate on the second floor of the building at 318 Garrison Avenue, though Warfield said it would be advertised separately from the restaurant, adding that an exterior entrance will be added.
In all, he said staff at the restaurant would increase by about 125%, from its current 30 employees to more than 70 once renovations are complete and the restaurant re-opens sometime in October.
Warfield would not disclose a sale price from current owner Stacy Beal. BT Concepts is operating the facility, he added, and noted that staff would be retained even through renovations.
STREET CLOSURE PLANS
In other business, the CBID heard from City Administrator Ray Gosack about concerns regarding the closure of A Street in the downtown area. The commissioners had proposed closing the street in order to create a more pedestrian-friendly corridor to enhance development already in place in the area, as well as spur further development along the riverfront.
In a memo to the Board, the city administration presented a study from Oklahoma City-based Traffic Engineering Consultants that showed potential problems with traffic flow should A be closed, as well as turning B Street into a two-way street, versus the one-way flow currently present on A and B Streets.
Among the concerns by the engineering firm is a bottleneck that would be created along Riverfront Drive as a result of the street closure.
"Closure of North 'A' Street eliminates or reduces the capacity from a four lane street to a two lane street," wrote Steven Hofener, a principal at TEC. "Although the existing traffic is within acceptable limits for a two lane two-way street, the ultimate widening and traffic increase along Riverfront Drive will create a bottleneck at the proposed two lane, two way North 'B' Street section."
He also notes the head-to-head truck traffic in an urban environment that would be created by the closure, creating more "conflict points," as well as eliminating B Street's current parallel parking.
Gosack told the CBID there was also concern from prospective developers along the river that there was not enough vehicular access for employees and visitors, which would only be exasperated by the closure of A Street, largely driving decisions to locate elsewhere in town. Gosack specifically mentioned the proposed Fort Smith Public Schools Events Complex, which is slated to be built on airport property should a millage pass by a vote of residents next year.
CBID Chairman Richard Griffin was not pleased with the presentation made by Gosack and made his opinion known.
"There's a whole lot of things that can be done (to improve access)," he said. "You've got H Street, you got E Street, you got the Spradling possibilities. And all at once you guys are in here pushing us saying, 'This is a bad idea.' … Why the push back?"
Gosack said it was presenting possibilities to the CBID based on feedback from developers who have chosen to not develop along the river, adding that access has to be available for development to occur.
"If we don't provide adequate vehicle access, we're not going to realize the dream of riverfront development and the community is telling us they want to see riverfront development. So we are here to support development of the riverfront and having development along the riverfront is going to require having vehicle access so that employees, residents, customers, anyone who wants to get in and out of the riverfront can do so conveniently."
Gosack added as part of the discussion that a Kelley Highway extension is being evaluated since a developer mentioned it as a way to bring it to downtown, though there are no plans to do the extension at this time.
At this point, the CBID is moving forward with its original plans for pushing for closure of A Street near the river, though the plan could change depending on options presented to it by the administration and the direction the Board of Directors takes. The Board has ultimate say so with regards to the street closure.