Downtown development and raising expectations were at the core of discussions at the 2015 Compass Conference on Thursday (April 9) evening. Held at the historic Masonic Lodge in downtown Fort Smith, the unique venue provided a most-appropriate setting for the sixth annual event which focused on revitalization of Garrison Avenue.
Discussion during the event also included recruitment of new business, community engagement through unique festivals and events, and raising the bar for how Fort Smith is viewed throughout the state and by its own citizens.
Presented by The City Wire and title sponsor Arvest, the "Banking on Downtown Development" event brought together more than 125 business, civic and community leaders to hear from three of Fort Smith's biggest investors in downtown properties. These included Lance Beaty, Steve Clark and Rodney Ghan.
Owner of Beaty Capital Group, Beaty served as host of the conference, having recently acquired the Masonic Temple with plans to renovate it and open it up as an event venue. Prior to purchasing the Masonic Temple, Beaty successfully redeveloped the former Phoenix Village Mall property.
Clark is the owner of Propak Logistics. He is behind the renovation of the historic Friedman-Mincer building in downtown Fort Smith and is a member of the Central Business Improvement District (CBID). He also is a driving force in the recently announced “Festival of Murals” event planned for Sept. 6-13 in downtown Fort Smith.
Ghan, downtown property owner and developer, is renovating 822 Garrison Avenue, which is set to include a Jimmy John's on the first floor and rental properties above. He also serves on the CBID board.
THE PANEL DISCUSSION
The conference was structured to include a series of questions for the panel, posed by moderator Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. The discussion got underway with a few words from each of the panelists about their involvement in downtown projects and reasons why they opted to spend their money in that area.
"We talk a lot about our history and it seemed a bit hypocritical if we don't choose to invest in our history," said Clark. "You are not going to find a successful, thriving city that doesn't have a successful downtown."
He added later when asked why he invested in downtown: " I just felt like we had lost enough of our old buildings."
Referring to the Masonic Temple, Beaty expressed his desire to renovate a space that had played a part of his childhood.
"I remember visiting here as a kid. Based on our experience at Phoenix Expo, I knew we could take it, renovate it and really invigorate this building."
Ghan's words echoed the same enthusiasm.
"I am not from here, but coming over the bridge and seeing that sight is what sold Fort Smith to me and my wife. I just love it, which is why I am choosing to invest in the building and am making the move to downtown."
Allen then posed a series of questions related to downtown's potential for growth, as well as obstacles locals will need to overcome to see such progress come to fruition. Numerous comparisons were made between cultural business development in Northwest Arkansas versus the somewhat more stagnant economy that has plagued Fort Smith the last decade. Clark commented on how resistance to change and being unwilling to do the work to reverse the trend can contribute to the problem.
"Downtown plays a major role in livability and we can't just invest in it for history's sake. If we aren't prepped to do the things necessary to really revitalize downtown … fine. But, we can't get our feelings hurt when businesses and people choose to go elsewhere."
Providing quality housing and structuring the area for optimal "walkability" were also repeated topics in the discussion of ways the city can help overhaul downtown's image and attract potential business owners and residents. Beaty also cited the need for more support from city officials and leaders as a necessity for downtown development. Using examples of projects he has completed in NWA, he noted that leaders, including U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (then the Mayor of Rogers), were quick to ask what they could do to help.
"I haven't encountered that (offers of help from city officials) in Fort Smith. The endeavor of redeveloping downtown is the duty of much more than us three guys. We all need to come together as a business community if we hope to see real progress."
Talk also turned to the raising the level of expectation for Fort Smith and what its downtown and riverfront have to offer. Clark said when asked the difference between Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith, he always enters into a discussion of expectations.
"Part of the role investors play is raising expectations," said Clark.
He further noted that Fort Smith residents need to shake off their negative perceptions of downtown in order for the expectations to rise.
Allen then asked if panelists were optimistic, pessimistic or neutral about the future of downtown Fort Smith. All were in agreement that their investments into the region signified their faith in the area and overall positive outlook about Garrison Avenue.
"I am reasonably optimistic that we should be able to do as well as everyone else and believe that we need just need to look at investing into what got us here in the first place," said Clark. "Foundational elements of a city start here downtown and we need to build out from there.”
Allen then shifted the discussion toward factors hurting the downtown region, including a large number of vacant lots. Acknowledging progress that has been made in recent years, Allen asked members for their thoughts on what the next step or "leap" was. Ghan was the first to respond.
"We three have taken the leap, as we have chosen to renovate and invest in downtown," said Ghan. "As we do this, people will start to see the value in developing or doing business in downtown."
Ghan also pointed out the need to seek dollars to help who want to take the leap, but need help doing so.
"There are opportunities for grants to help give individuals, entrepreneurs the chance to make something downtown. We need to pursue these more and give young entrepreneurs the chance to do something great with these places."
The panel presentation was proceeded by the opening of the floor to audience members for questions. Audience members did not hesitate at the microphone, with several asking panelists about topics such as significance of the Marshals Museum, development of marinas along the river, and opportunities for engaging local youth and young adults.
"The youth are going to respond to the decisions today's leaders make," said Clark. "I wonder now why we don't have an event at the amphitheater every weekend. We need more than the few great ones we have every year. My hope is that when they see the new festivals and after they experience a few seasons of successful events, then they will be bought in, and 'wounds' will heal."
Beaty added that new events and venues, such as the Masonic Temple, would open Fort Smith up to other tourists and visitors.
"It is not just Fort Smith, it is Tulsa, Northwest Arkansas, and beyond," said Beaty. "We will draw the market to Fort Smith."
Following the audience questions, Beaty shared a little about the history of the Masonic Temple, as well as his plans for renovation and use of the venue. The 52,000 square foot property includes 900 fixed theater seats, with the space to bring in an additional 300 movable chairs. It will also have three separate banquet spaces. The Masonic Temple originally opened in 1929, just weeks before the devastating stock market crash. Over the years, the building, which includes more than 80 hand painted scenes and art motifs, has served in many capacities, most notably as a movie theater. Beaty plans to utilize the colorful theater to host comedy shows, concerts, and other performances following renovation.
"We expect to host between 36-48 shows annually," said Beaty.
COMPASS CONFERENCE AND REPORT
The annual conference is part of The Compass Report, which is the only independent economic analysis of Arkansas’ top three metro areas (Central Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Fort Smith region).
The report, produced and managed by The City Wire, measures four leading and four current economic indicators to provide a grade for a regional economy. Arvest Bank is the primary sponsor of the report, with Cox Communications and the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce signed on secondary sponsors.