Changes are on the way to Harry E. Kelley Park in downtown Fort Smith and it could mean more shows and booze.
A unanimous vote by the Fort Smith Board of Directors on June 4 paved the way for the park to become more of an entertainment venue able to more readily compete with venues in other cities across the region.
Originally, the park along the riverfront, which is home to an amphitheater utilized for large events such as Blues Fest and other smaller music events, was limited due to an agreement between the late Ms. Gordon Kelley and the city of Fort Smith.
The original restrictions stated that the city could only lease the park for 21 calendar days to non-profit promoters. Stipulations were also in place that limited alcohol consumption to "certain areas north of the Harry E. Kelley boundary or more plainly the first sidewalk north of the stage," according to a memo by Jayne Hughes, a city employee who serves as a liaison between the city and the Central Business Improvement District.
With the Board’s vote, the city is now able to lease the park with no restrictions on the number of days and for-profit promoters are now able to be a part of the mix of performers, according to Hughes. Vendors with valid alcohol permits will also be allowed to sell adult beverages, she added.
The decision to amend the agreement, which actually goes against Ms. Kelley's wishes, was made by her heirs about a year ago, Hughes said.
"They had talked to me some time ago about wanting to do that and felt like it would be better economically for the community if we could open it up to for-profit promoters."
She said many out-of-state promoters have expressed interest in the riverfront area, but have been restricted until now.
But she said the time to make the change had come due to other venues, such as the Arkansas Music Pavilion, making moves to better establish themselves and possibly taking market share away from Fort Smith.
With the changes in place, Hughes said she and the parks department would begin talking to promoters about bringing their for-profit events to Fort Smith. It's a situation she said would be a win-win for the city and downtown businesses.
"It just means more people, and more people means more money being spent," Hughes said. "If we have more people and more money being spent, that's good for the economy."
As downtown has continued to develop, it is better positioned to deal with an influx of visitors from the region and possibly from out of town on big concert nights, which could near a capacity of a little over 9,500 guests at the park's amphitheater, larger than the new AMP location to be built at Pinnacle Hills in Rogers.
"If they come downtown ahead of time, eat at the restaurants, shop for a while, people come in from out of town, stay in hotels, it works out to our benefit," she said. "The larger the artist to perform at the (Harry E. Kelley) Park, the more people who will come in."
Asked whether the city had waited too long to make adjustments to the agreement with Kelley's heirs, Hughes said it had not. Even though more music venues have gone into place at locations such as Choctaw Casino in Pocola and the AMP in Northwest Arkansas, she said Fort Smith is still well-positioned to play in the music game.
"I think it will take time for us (to grow) because it has been years (that we haven't been aggressively competing), so it will take a few years at least for us to get that word out," she said.
One area where Hughes expects little competition is from music festivals in neighboring counties, such as Wakarusa or Thunder on the Mountain in Franklin County.
"There are a lot of people my age who won't got to a Wakarusa or a music festival. There's a lot of people that don't want to go and camp and do that thing. Those are great events, but I'm not concerned about that (taking business away) at all," she said.
Even with the move to for-profit events, Hughes said an objective for her is keeping ticket prices reasonable so the majority of residents in the Fort Smith area are able to attend events in the park.
"It's about working with the promoter and finding the right mix as we go through this," she said.