Fort Smith Parks Department, philanthropists team up for next portion of citywide trails system

by Aric Mitchell (aric.mitchell@gmail.com) 525 views 

“Slowly, but surely” might best describe the public-private partnership between the city of Fort Smith parks department and the Friends of Recreational Trails (FORT).

In July 2015, FORT — led by First National Bank of Fort Smith President/CEO Sam Sicard and Hanna Oil & Gas President/CEO Bill Hanna — offered the city $3 million in private donations for a plan to connect the city’s 35 miles of trails. Additionally, First National Bank would provide a $3 million loan to the city at 0% interest for the first five years.

It was an offer most couldn’t refuse, but according to Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director Doug Reinert, the realities of trail building put the city in a situation where it had to.

“What happened is the construction was slower than the loan itself,” Reinert told Talk Business & Politics. “They thought it would accelerate the construction of trails. But the logistics, the design, the construction, the bid-letting process, and all those things were moving way slower than the loan would be used.”

Reinert continued: “It doesn’t matter how much money you have to put towards anything. The money’s not going to make anything go faster because you still have the legal process to go through to make sure things are done properly.”

The terms might have proven preventative, but it established a stronger public-private partnership between the city and FORT. Since the initial offer, the fundraising group has amassed $2 million in pledged private donations and now has $500,000 on hand.

The group’s goal is to help the city accelerate the 35-mile interconnected trails system. On the public side, the city has used a temporary 1/8-cent sales tax, which sunsets at the end of 2022. The item will likely be up to voters for renewal in the latter part of 2021. Since 2013, the tax has been responsible for $7.576 million in capital improvements.

The efforts have resulted in the connection of 4.1 miles of the city’s trails system with the next 1.5 miles slated to begin construction on Aug. 1 — dubbed the “Rice-Carden Extension,” or “Greg Smith River Trail Phase III (final).” The extension is expected to be complete by November, Reinert said, and will connect Greg Smith River Trail from its current end on Riverfront Drive to Fort Smith Park. FORT’s hand in this will include a $500,000 donation, according to group chairperson Drew Linder.

The amount will follow a previous Greg Smith River Trail donation FORT made for $190,884, which was used to pave the trail’s levee section. On the city side, a $224,000 federal trails grant from the highway department was also used on the project. Along with a $50,000 donation FORT previously made to the Blue Lion Bikeway “sharrows” project, the fundraising body has contributed approximately $740,884 to the city’s trails program to date.

The city expects to have spent $3.876 million in capital improvements by year’s end with an additional $3.7 million estimated from 2018-2022.

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