story by Ryan Saylor
Property within and near a once dying Fort Smith mall is once again getting another injection of capital and jobs.
The former Phoenix Village Mall was purchased in January 2009 by Fort Smith-based FSM Redevelopment Partners and transformed into a site that now boasts more than 1,100 employees with various businesses and tens of millions of dollars in payroll.
According to FSM Redevelopment manager Lance Beaty, the company plans to invest in transforming additional square footage across the street from what is now the Shared Services Center that services Sparks Hospital and its corporate cousins owned by Community Health Systems.
"We are in the process of doing our plans for additional construction and development at that site," he said. "That would include development of the two parcels at Phoenix and Towson, as well as a tract across from our site on Phoenix. We are in the process of cutting that out and designing the refurbishment of that project."
The building being refurbished is across Phoenix from the Shared Services Center (the former Phoenix Expo Center) and will eventually house Beaty's RSVP Event Rentals Business. RSVP grew out of the Expo Center that was closed when the Services Center leased the Expo space.
The move allows RSVP to house the showroom, office and warehouse storage facility in one location versus its current situation which includes some off-site storage, Beaty said. In all, the new facility will have about 22,000 square feet of space, "so we'll take a significant portion of it to expand that operation."
EXTERIOR WORK PLANNED
Plans also call for development of the remaining 172,000 square feet of space at the former mall, which is 45% occupied by tenants including the Shared Services Center and Sykes' inbound call center that provides services for a financial company. Beaty said beyond finalizing plans for the final 172,000 square feet of space, he and his partners also are working on improvements to the exterior of the site.
"We are designing parking lot improvements, landscape improvements and buffers across the 14 acres of parking that we have," he said. "It's 14 acres, or some 1,700 spaces."
In all, Beaty said FSM Redevelopment Partners would likely spend about $5 million on the improvements to the site.
"You have to take into consideration that we'll be developing buildings in the two out parcels and $1 million on parking and landscaping," he said. "It doesn't take long (to see the numbers add up). But we've got some tenants who have made long-term commitments, so we want to make it what it should be."
Among those is the Shared Services Center, which was projected to have a $21.5 million payroll after opening and has maxed out the space it has leased from FSM Redevelopment, according to Beaty.
"I think we built that out for 650 cubicles, if I'm not mistaken. And I think they're at capacity with the number of work stations they've installed," he said.
As a result of the size of the Shared Services Center, Beaty said other businesses are starting to be attracted to the retail space available on-site.
"It drives the need for additional services from dry cleaners to convenience stores. We're starting to see that now. It's taken some time, but we're starting to see it."
NEW SERVICE CENTER, SYKES JOBS
Shannon White, vice president of Community Health Systems — the parent company of Sparks Health System and the Shared Services Center — said in an e-mail that the company was planning for expansion in the near future.
"Approximately 475 employees provide such specialized services as patient pre-registration, insurance verification, billing and insurance follow-up. We have a great group working at the SSC and have maintained a turnover rate that is significantly lower than the national industry standard. We have added employees this year and expect to continue growing our employee base with the potential to add 100 or more jobs over the next 18 months."
She said having the space Beaty described has enabled the company to continue growth at its new location.
"We are fortunate to have space within our location that can accommodate a significant expansion," White said.
The other large tenant at the former mall site, Sykes Enterprises, is also experiencing an expansion of its operations, according to Director of Operations Chris Melton.
"We do have some growth from the end of last year of 250 employees to now over 600 and will be at 750 plus at the end of the year," he said. "We've had some substantial growth in 2014."
When the company originally opened its Fort Smith facility in May 2011, it was a small operation performing work for an unnamed financial services company. Since that time, Melton said Sykes has been servicing three "separate verticals in Fort Smith." Verticals, he said, could also be known as lines of business.
To accommodate the growth, he said Skyes has expanded from 40,000 square feet to more than 60,000 square feet and expect to use the additional space to house more employees next year.
"I'd say that we'll be shooting for 1,000 plus employees," he said, meaning the site could add more than 250 employees in 2015.
With the Shared Services Center and Sykes nearing capacity within each company's leased facilities, Beaty said it was the right time to start planning and developing the expansion.
But he said a timeline for completing his $5 million in improvements will still depend on the business environment.
"It's driven by business and general economic circumstances," he said, "but (it is) planned for completion in the next 18 months."