The Bedwell Building at 22 N. 7th St. in downtown Fort Smith may be coming down soon after 80 years, but at least two Central Business Improvement District (CBID) commissioners aren’t happy about it.
The facility, also known as the Lennox Kidd & Trout Garage building, was approved for demolition by the CBID at a special meeting Tuesday morning (May 2), allowing property owner Stephens Production to make way for added parking spaces in the shop that was once used as an automobile showroom and garage. However, the vote affirming did not come without dissent as CBID members Steve Clark and Richard Griffin made impassioned rebuttals to Stephens’ claim that it was not “economically feasible” to repair the building.
“When I think about what almost happened to Friedman-Mincer (the new headquarters of Propak) with many of the same terms, I’m sorry, folks. I just think we could do better, and I’d rather have a building than a parking lot,” Griffin said.
He continued: “We strive for the highest and best use for this quadrant of the city, and we’ve come a long way since the 1996 tornado. It’s taken a lot of risk by a lot of people with a lot of money, and it’s beginning to pay off. This is the hub for a lot of things now that it didn’t used to be. You (Stephens) came to us with a demo, and we approved it contingent upon some things. And I guess it got in your craw because it was remote to the area.”
Michael Callan, a former president of Arkansas Oklahoma-Gas (AOG) who now represents Stephens Production, took issue with Griffin’s assessment.
“I resent the implication that it got in our craw,” Callan said. “We went back and looked at the practicality of it and the economics of it. If you want to keep this upright and professional, that’s fine. If you want to say it got in our craw, that’s inaccurate. We looked at what our obligations were to the city of Fort Smith. We asked for a simple demolition of a building that cannot be economically restored. So, that’s what our application is. If the CBID does not want to approve it, that’s understandable. That’s what your role is. But let’s keep it what it really is, and that is we’re looking at what our obligations are on our existing property that has absolutely nothing to do with the Bedwell building property. So if you want to tie a condition to our existing property, so be it. That’s fine. You won’t get an argument out of me. We may go to the next level and see if we can get some relief somewhere else. But let’s keep it what our application is. Let’s don’t extend it to other pieces. You don’t want us to demolish the building? Then vote don’t demolish the building.”
Griffin did, but it was not enough. Still, the CBID chairman found a kindred spirit in Clark, who, as owner of Propak Logistics, invested around $3 million to save the aforementioned Friedman-Mincer. That building was caving in when Clark’s designers and contractors got ahold of it. In November 2016, the remodel won the 2016 Award of Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a Commercial Building from the Preserve Arkansas organization.
“My opposition to this,” Clark said, “is born out of this particular district downtown being more a team sport than any other area in this city. That building could be restored to a point where an agency of some sort could be attracted to it. It could be an innovation center. It could be restored in a manner that it could actually add to downtown.”
Clark cautioned once the building is gone, “it won’t be built back.”
“You could do your own studies to know there are critical masses of structure downtown in which a tipping point is reached. I’m not saying or suggesting this in itself is the linchpin, but what I am saying is that with the protection of the critical mass of property and real estate downtown, we’re in a real transitional point down here. So the demolition of anything — even if the roof was falling in — demolition sends a message contrary to that in my opinion.”
Clark added he believed in a property owner’s freedom to do with their property what they wish but noted “to own property downtown carries a different kind of responsibility at this stage in our history than perhaps it ever has. So I would much rather Stephens in its resources bring that building to a place where we could be having receptions celebrating the investment that Stephens has made downtown in addition to the building and property that it already owns. I’m not trying to stand in the way of free enterprise and growth and expansion, but I do think — and it will be difficult for me to change this position for a while — that our structures downtown are to be protected and celebrated as opposed to demolished.”
Callan noted that Stephens is not committed to ownership of the property and that “if somebody wants the property to refurbish and restore the building, we will entertain anything.” However, “We drill wells. We don’t restore buildings. And I appreciate your point. That’s just not the business that we’re in.”
But to Clark, “If each of us made decisions on our existence downtown based on the business that we’re in, then none of us would have done what we’ve done.”
Officially, the Bedwell Building is considered a “non-contributing structure” to the Garrison Avenue Historic District by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. A representative from the program informed Fort Smith Planning Department officials in 2010 that exterior applications of “Dryvit” pushed the building into non-contributory status in 2010.