The roar of bulldozers and construction equipment has become a common occurrence at Chaffee Crossing during the last several years and according to Ivy Owen, executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, citizens have not seen anything yet.
"When I got here in 2007, the only thing that was here was a road bed," he said of the area, which includes what will become Interstate 49. "The prospects of (I-49) getting build then wasn't very good. The funds weren't there.”
But with the expected completion of the highway by the middle of next year and the announcement of several new projects, Owen said the future is bright for the development to the east of Fort Smith, with the sound of construction equipment not being a nuisance, but instead being a sign of progress.
"People are going to start seeing a lot of businesses coming out of the ground. We've sold a lot of property in the last two or three years," he said. "Now that people are going to see the interstate done, buildings are going to start coming up. We've had a lot of announcements of groundbreaking."
Among the large projects to be announced, started or completed so far this year are the following:
• Atlanta-based Phoenix Metals Company announced plans to invest $12 million in a new 65,000-square-foot metal processing operation at Chaffee Crossing that could employ up to 40 with an average wage of $15 per hour on March 31;
• The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department moved their District 4 headquarters from a location on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith to a larger, brand new facility at Chaffee Crossing;
• Plans for a new 70-store shopping center at the intersection of I-49 and Arkansas Highways 22 and 59 was announced on July 2, which could bring hundreds of jobs to the area;
• Construction has begun on a new 500-unit apartment complex near the intersection of Massard Road and Chad Colley Boulevard. The complex will be known as The Reserve at Chaffee Crossing; and
• Umarex and Walther Arms, Inc., announced they would share a campus in Fort Smith, housing the expansion of Umarex operations and North American headquarters for Walther, makers of the iconic James Bond pistol.
"Things are going in a great direction," Owen said.
And while the anticipated completion of the stretch of interstate is expected to make a big impact on development in the area, he also pointed to easing of lending policies at not just large, national banks, but also smaller local banks.
"The economy is up, the trend is there, banks are loaning money. Two years ago, you couldn't beg a dime out of a bank. Now local banks are loaning money. Developers are loaning for these (commercial, industrial and housing) developments."
As the area continues to grow, with several housing developments underway in addition to the Reserve at Chaffee Crossing, Owen said the demand for schools will go up, as well, with both Fort Smith Public Schools and Greenwood Public Schools seeing an increase in student enrollment.
With the vast majority of development taking place within the Fort Smith district, Owen said it was only a matter of time before the district would start looking at the placement of a third high school, likely at Chaffee Crossing.
But according to Zena Featherston, director of communications and community partnerships at Fort Smith Public Schools, a new high school at Chaffee is far from certain.
"There is still a lot of work to be done to determine without a doubt that there will be a new high school at Chaffee Crossing," she said. "It is going to require the continued efforts of the school board as they explore the possibilities of a new facility and it is going to take effort to establish the appropriate schematics that we have to have so we can apply for partnership money. Until we know whether or not or how much partnership money we will be eligible for from the state, we have to wait on those things to happen before we can approach the possibility (of a new high school) 100%."
In Featherston's estimation, a groundbreaking is not likely for another three to five years.
"We are hopeful that in fact we will be able to do that in the next few years and we are moving toward that goal, but it's not 100%. There are a lot of factors that have to work in favor of that development."
Even if a new high school is not a certainty, Owen said other possibilities are.
"The land swap with the military is still going forward. We signed the (contract) with the Corps of Engineers and the National Guard for two parcels – 200 acres we're giving to the military and we're getting 520 in return on the south side of Custer Road. To me, it's great for both parties."
The property given to the military, Owen said, would likely be used for base housing while the property given to the FCRA would be available for industrial development.
"To us, 522 acres can easily be used for industrial. It's right across from our industrial properties. That would be our first choice. They predict, the Corps predicts, (completion of the land swap) in a year to 18 months. I think it will be sooner than that."
But the biggest, most watched project of them all is still the I-49 project, which was halted following a lawsuit from a property owner who said the general contractor on the project had trespassed on his property.
District 4 Engineer Chad Adams of the AHTD said he was unable to comment on the lawsuit, which was settled yesterday for undisclosed terms.
"We have a contract with that contractor (APAC Tennessee) who had some sort of agreement with the property owner to get material off of (his land)."
With the lawsuit settled, work that has been halted for months will finally begin again, though Adams timeline for completion of the highway differs from Owen's estimate of mid-2014.
"Yes, I'd say the middle to late part of 2014," Adams said. "It's a working-day contract, which means we charge time when conditions are conducive to construction. Usually rain is what impacts the schedule."
He said since construction was halted for a number of months, the contractor would be charged for the delays.
"We still expect the contractor to provide the services we contracted them for."