A new college some call an economic “game changer,” a long list of leadership changes, and continued growth in the regional home sales market were some of the top Fort Smith regional headlines in 2016.
Following is the list of 10 top stories as determined by the staff of Talk Business & Politics.
• No. 1: Osteopathic College opens
The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine opened in August, and is prepping for 150 students in the inaugural class set for August 2017.
The college is part of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE), which was created with primary support from The Degen Foundation, a Fort Smith-based philanthropy created with some of the revenue from the 2009 sale of Sparks Health System to then Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates.
• No. 2: Fort Smith fills most vacant positions
Most high-level vacancies in Fort Smith city government were filled in 2016. The string of departures began with the abrupt resignation of the late former City Administrator Ray Gosack, who had been with the city for 16 years. The position was filled in May 2016 by Carl Geffken.
Fire Chief Mike Richards announced his retirement in September 2015. He was followed one month later by Human Resources Director Richard Jones. Ten-year Sanitation Department Head Baridi Nkokheli was fired in December. Police Chief Kevin Lindsey announced his resignation in March after he made racially insensitive remarks over the city’s minority hiring deficiencies. Fort Smith Utilities Director Steve Parke, who endured frequent scrutiny from the Board of Directors, retired April 1. Only the utility director position remains open.
• No. 3: Fort Smith Public Schools leadership changes, mascot issue
Fort Smith Public Schools Superintendent Benny Gooden, one of the longest serving superintendents in Arkansas, announced in April he would resign effective June 30.
Gooden had been the target of those critical of proposed school facility expansions, changes in school mascots and proposed charter schools. The controversial and often emotional process to change the “Rebel” mascot at Southside High School began in late June 2015 with a School Board committee vote. The Fort Smith Public School Board then voted 7-0 on July 27 to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song that has been associated with the school since it opened in 1963.
Gooden’s surprise resignation was followed in May by that of Jim Rowland, the legendary athletic director at Fort Smith Public Schools. Dr. Doug Brubaker, from Mansfield, Texas, was hired Dec. 15 to succeed Gooden.
• No. 4: Fort Smith metro economy improves, region still lags other state metro areas
Fort Smith’s metro jobless rate was 4.2% in November, better than the 4.9% in November 2015, but the regional economy continues to add jobs at a slower pace than most other state metro areas.
The number of employed in the Fort Smith region totaled 115,703 in November, up just 0.5% – or 578 more jobs – from the 115,125 employed in November 2015. The number of employed in the area is down 7.75% compared to the high of 125,426 in October 2006.
By comparison, Central Arkansas had 4,603 new jobs (up 1.37% compared to November 2015), Northwest Arkansas had 5,796 (up 2.32%), and the Jonesboro metro had 2,422 new jobs (up 3.05%).
• No. 5: U.S. Marshals Museum gets a new boss, sets new opening date
Patrick Weeks was hired in June as president and CEO of the U.S. Marshals Museum. He replaced Jim Dunn, who moved to a fundraising role.
In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the estimated 50,000-square-foot national museum. The museum is to be built on 15.9 acres along the Arkansas River that was donated by the Robbie Westphal family.
In October, the museum’s executive board set Sept. 24, 2019 as its official opening day to coincide with the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service. The museum Board on Dec. 13 approved a budget and timeline to raise $30 million in the next few years and begin dirt work in July 2017.
• 6. Home sales up in the region
The Fort Smith metro region saw overall gains in 2016. Through the first three quarters of the year — the last reported numbers — there were 1,655 homes sold in Crawford and Sebastian counties, a 2.41% increase from the previous year’s 1,616. Sales volume increased 10.5% to $241.964 million from $218.946 million in 2015. The hike in overall sales volume is directly linked to a near 6% increase in average home prices in Sebastian County this year over last. Prices in Crawford County were up 12% from 2015.
Existing home sales made up the lion’s share of the Fort Smith metro housing market but rising new home prices hoisted up values overall. The average home price in Sebastian County was $147,610 through September. In Crawford County the average sales price through September was $127,032. Both markets were boosted by several higher-end deals.
• 7. New schools emerge in Fort Smith, Van Buren
Future School of Fort Smith opened in August as the city’s first public charter school to an initial enrollment of 65 10th graders. The school will add two more classes in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years with the goal of graduating its first seniors in May 2019.
Also, Fort Smith Catholic High School announced plans to build at Chaffee Crossing with a target opening day in the fall of 2018. The school will start with 50 10th grade students and add 50 more each year with the goal of graduating its first seniors in May 2021.
Finally, the Van Buren School District announced the Arkansas River Valley Virtual Academy (ARVVA), a K-12 public charter school set to open to grades 4-8 for the 2017-18 school year. The goal of the charter is to add grades each year until it is K-12 with a capacity of 325 by the 2021-2022 school year.
• 8. Downtown Fort Smith and Van Buren development
64.6 Downtown invested $258,000 of mostly private donations in a contract with Dallas-based Gateway Planning for a strategic development plan for the city’s riverfront. Gateway met with the community in a public stakeholders meeting in September and plans to present a final draft to city officials in a meeting on Jan. 31, 2017.
Likewise, Van Buren Original is a private group working with MAHG Architecture on a strategic development plan for the city’s historic district. The group is in the process of bringing public and private sectors together to capitalize on opportunities while hosting small projects through “tactical urbanism,” an umbrella term used to describe a collection of low-cost, temporary changes to an environment to improve local neighborhoods and city gathering places.
• 9. Notable deaths
The loss of community leaders and one of our own made 2016 harder to bear, starting with Patricia Brown, co-owner of Talk Business & Politics and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, who died following a long battle with cancer in November. She was 59.
Fort Smith bid farewell to former City Administrator Ray Gosack, who died on Oct. 21 from complications of a sudden illness. He was 58. Gosack served with the city for 16 years before resigning abruptly in July 2015.
In January, Fort Smith and the state as a whole lost attorney Brad Jesson, former Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice, who died at age 83 about two weeks shy of his 84th birthday. Jesson was an early supporter of an unknown Dale Bumpers who would go on to be governor and a U.S. Senator.
Also, Fort Smith businessman, cattle rancher, and quiet philanthropist David McMahon died at 84. McMahon, along with wife Mary Ann, owned and operated Belle Point Beverages, a Budweiser distributorship located in downtown Fort Smith, and Belle Point Ranch near Lavaca.
• 10. Hail storm creates activity for building sector
On April 29, a surprise hailstorm hammered Fort Smith, launching a string of roof repairs totaling in the millions of dollars and counting. The single-day event continued to see heavy permitting through the end of the year. A Talk Business & Politics report from July pegged the number at $19.84 million, boosting what was, to that point, stagnant building activity for the Fort Smith metro.