FCRA Chief: Chaffee Crossing in a different phase of development

story by Ryan Saylor

ArcBest's announcement of a new corporate headquarters at Chaffee Crossing, bringing with it nearly 1,000 jobs to Fort Smith, is just the latest big news to come out of what was once an aging U.S. Army Base.

Since the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was formed in 1997 to redevelop 7,000 acres of land returned to local governments by the military, the area has transformed from thousands of acres of empty fields, forests and unoccupied buildings into an economic bright spot in an otherwise rocky local economy.

Following the ArcBest announcement, FCRA Executive Director Ivy Owen said the authority was down to about 3,000 acres left for development, "just less than half."

Of that, he said about 25% of the undeveloped land, located in Barling and Fort Smith, was intended for residential development, while roughly 40% to 50% was targeted for commercial and retail development. The remaining land, he said, was intended for industrial development.

Just in the last year, Chaffee has seen a mix of all of those developments, with the announcement of a new 70 store shopping center along Arkansas Highways 22 and 59, the creation of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine and the construction of several large housing developments. An expansion of Umarex was also completed within the last year.

The area is also home to modern manufacturing facilities operated by Graphic Packaging and Mars Petcare. Unfortunately, Chaffee Crossing is also home to a modern manufacturing and assembly building owned by Mitsubishi that was never utilized for its purpose of wind turbine production. The more than 400 jobs planned with the Mitsubishi plant faded when economics changed within the wind energy industry.

Owen said FCRA is now transitioning into a different phase of development.

"I think there's going to be smaller scale developments just because, and particularly here at Chaffee Crossing, because of the configuration of our property now. We've sold a lot of large tracts and because of that, we now have a lot of smaller, specialized pieces of property."

He said the land available is suited for more high-end retail and specialized industrial sites like research and development labs or small-scale assembly plants "that didn't have to accommodate 1,000 employees."

As more land is sold and development continues, so does the need for upgraded roads and utilities. Owen said water and other utilities have now been installed for practically the entire 7,000 area and road projects have been following.

One road project underway is the H Street extension in Barling, which will lead to additional residential development by developer Steve Beam. The new shopping center will be south of the H Street extension, though Owen did not say whether any road projects are planned around the development.

Where Zero Street and Wells Lake Road meets near the site of the medical college and a proposed third Fort Smith high school, Owen has said repeatedly that a re-working of the intersection and relocation of Wells Lake Road would need to happen, as well as widening of Frontier Road. The project will take cooperation between the FCRA and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, though it still remains to be seen what will happen until the Fort Smith School Board holds an election in 2015 on whether to approve a millage increase that would fund the new high school.

The completion of McClure Road will no doubt help traffic flow near the ArcBest headquarters and likely spur further development. At the opening of McClure Road in November 2013, Owen said construction of the last mile of McClure to Wells Lake could take place following a large land purchase along the route. So far, no plans have yet been announced for an extension of McClure to Wells Lake Road.

As for other development, Owen said the public should see a mix of commercial properties the Chaffee Crossing area now lacks, including pharmacies, dry cleaners and convenience stores. He said the opening in October of a 6-mile stretch of what will eventually be part of Interstate 49 will have a positive impact on development.

"We've sold property in the last year and a half for (those types of businesses) and I think once that interstate opens and these two things break ground, as you say (the medical college and ArcBest), then those things will start popping out of the ground."

But bringing infrastructure like I-49 or McClure Road into the area to spur development does not come cheap. To complete the small section of McClure that opened last year, the city and FCRA split the $1 million cost. The I-49 stretch's final cost is expected to ring in at more than $95 million.

It is something often mentioned by advocates of downtown Fort Smith, who have made allegations that development at Chaffee is hurting the urban core of the city and any chance at development in the more than 100-year-old section of town.

As late as Tuesday (June 17), Central Business Improvement District Chairman Richard Griffin — himself the owner and developer of several downtown projects — during a meeting about the closure of A Street and the city's concerns about access to the river, commented that the city makes deals with developers and businesses looking to go in at Chaffee all the time and yet, he contends, no such deals happen for downtown development.

"We've had those cooperative efforts out east of town when things have gone in at Chaffee Crossing. 'We'll do this if the city will do such, Chaffee Crossing trust will do such.' It's not unusual."

Owen said he is a supporter of downtown and asserts that development at Chaffee has not been at the expense of downtown.

"If I were a property owner downtown trying to get my property developed, I would probably feel the same way. Not so much it's a detriment, but maybe Chaffee has an upper hand in attraction of these businesses. I've been trying to neutralize that feeling for a long time now because we're not competing with downtown or the older parts of town. Businesses come here because they want to be here. We have not recruited, as far as I know … to my knowledge, we have not recruited any business away from downtown Fort Smith that would have otherwise located down there."

He said the growth was going to happen somewhere and if the land at Chaffee had not been available for development, businesses would have found someplace else to locate.

Whatever cost there is to bringing businesses to Chaffee, Owen said it is offset by an improved tax base and the creation of jobs.

As for how much longer the public can expect the redevelopment authority to be in existence, Owen said it would likely take another eight to 10 years before enough of the property is marketed, sold and developed for the FCRA to wind down operations.

"We will fade into the sunset. Probably what will happen is that the existing employees by that time, they'll have enough pre-warning that that is going to happen that they can secure other jobs or the businesses out here may be able to hire some of those people. Or the city and the county might be able to hire some of those. But by that time, as we dwindle down in terms of assets, so will our staff. We won't need as much staff at the end of the 12 years as we do now."