story by Michael Tilley
The former Town Club building in downtown Fort Smith has been acquired by Smith Auto Group for the purposes of locating corporate operations with up to 20 employees in the building that has been without a permanent occupant since the club folded in January 2010.
John Smith Jr., grandson of the automotive group founder and now the head of Smith Auto Group, said in a Thursday (June 12) interview with The City Wire that the about 13,000-square-foot, two-story building will undergo minor renovations before housing “centralized” accounting staff and other corporate functions.
Smith Auto Group is a third generation, family-owned dealership that has been based in Fort Smith since 1938. The first location was in downtown Fort Smith. In 1963, the facility was moved to 1215 U.S. 71 South, “on the curve” at Towson and Zero. The group has a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership and a Nissan brand. The group has five dealerships, eight brands and around 160 employees.
“We are so happy to go downtown. … I am hoping we are the first of many more to move downtown,” Smith said, adding that the Town Club is near the car lot the Smith company first opened in 1938. “We are moving about a block away from where we started.”
First National Bank of Fort Smith has held the note on the Town Club for the past several years. Sam Sicard, president and CEO of the bank, said it was an added bonus to sell the building to a company that will put it to immediate use.
“We are extremely pleased to sell the Town Club to a buyer who will bring jobs to our downtown. Smith Auto Group has been a great community partner in so many ways and they will be a great addition to the downtown community,” Sicard said.
The auto dealer has made several moves since 1938, and in the past few years the company has invested around $15 million in the construction and ongoing construction of new dealership facilities in Fort Smith. A building for the company's Nissan dealership valued at $4 million was completed at 6520 Autopark Drive (near the Fort Smith Harley Davidson) in early 2012. A relocated Chevy-Cadillac facility, valued at around $11 million, is under construction adjacent to the new Nissan dealership.
In May 2012, Smith Auto Group acquired Jane, Mo.-based Hendren Auto Group, a move that more than doubled the number of dealerships owned by and brands sold by the auto dealer. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“Nothing’s been easy,” Smith joked Thursday when asked about the easy and hard parts of absorbing a new dealership while at the same time building new facilities.
He said the Northwest Arkansas dealership puts Smith Auto Group “in very good market. We feel very bullish about where we are, and there is a lot of growth heading north to Bentonville and Bella Vista.” He said one of the toughest parts of being in Northwest Arkansas is “trying to build our brand” in a region with many large auto dealerships.
“But it’s been a good move for us, it really has,” he said.
Smith admits that the Fort Smith market has been tougher in terms of auto sales, “but we’ve been able to grow, and it was through a lot of sweat and determination of the people who work here (Smith Auto Group).”
OTHER RECENT DOWNTOWN MOVES
Smith Auto Group is not alone in moving downtown. Steve Clark, founder and president of Propak, purchased the historic and white-tiled Friedman-Mincer building in May 2013 – also known as the OTASCO building – in downtown Fort Smith. With an acquisition and renovation estimate of about $2 million, Clark is in the process of converting the three-story, 24,000-square-foot building into offices for the about 40 employees of Propak. The company provides logistics, transportation and supply-chain management services.
On June 10, Fiery Moon Global announced plans to acquire the Masonic Temple in downtown Fort Smith from the Western Arkansas Scottish Rite Bodies. The facility, a three story concrete structure located at 200 N. 11th St. that includes an auditorium capable of seating 900, was initially listed for $750,000.
Fiery Moon, a media and event company, said the Temple Theatre, offices and dining area should be fully restored to their original grandeur and condition within 36 months.
“We are ecstatic to have found an existing site which will support our vertically integrated media and live event organization with all departments being housed in one location,” Fiery Moon Co-owner Dan Robinson said in a statement. “Not only have we found a building which meets our corporate needs, but to be part of restoring and maintaining a historic site is truly priceless.”
Officials with Fiery Moon did not disclose terms of the deal or costs of renovation.