Community input: Economy top threat facing Fort Smith

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 104 views 

The public got its first glimpse at the results from the city's Future Fort Smith Community Forum series and "Meetings-in-a-Box" on Thursday (Sept. 26) at the River Park events building.

According to Brian Traylor, a planner and urban designer with the city's comprehensive plan consultants Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), the goal was to discover the community's goals and expectations as the city looks to the next several decades.

"The over-arching goal of this process was to explore the community's values and expectations for the future of Fort Smith, leading to a Vision Statement that says: 'this is what we, the citizens want our City to be like in the future,'" Traylor wrote in a presentation to the nearly 30 individuals on the comprehensive plan steering committee who were in attendance.

In all, Traylor, who was leading today's meeting remotely by teleconference, said more than 1,600 ideas were presented with more than 600 priorities coming to the surface. In all, more than 400 residents took part in the public forums, held at such locations as Creekmore Park and the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center.

With such a large number of ideas brought to the steering committee and the consultants helping update the comprehensive plan, City Administrator Ray Gosack told those gathered that today was just the beginning as the list of priorities for the city's next decades begins to take shape.

"In the beginning, we began with a very wide funnel where anything within reason was possible or fair game," he said. "And now today, we're going to start narrowing that funnel down a little bit because we obviously don't have the bandwidth, the resources to focus on anything and everything that someone might bring up. So to bring some focus to the plan and some definition to the comprehensive plan, we're going to have to start narrowing that funnel down. Today is the first real step in starting to bring some real focus in what the comprehensive plan will look like."

The information compiled from the meetings was broken down into four categories – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. At the beginning of each section, participants at the forums were asked to respond to a question or series of questions to guide the conversation.

What present conditions of Fort Smith do we value? What are our most important assets? What community qualities and values do we share and cherish?

The top five strengths identified during various meetings held across the city were quality of life, education, culture/heritage/history, green infrastructure/environment and location/development potential.

"Our of these priorities that fall under the theme of quality of life, 33% related to the affordable cost of living, followed by 26% related to the level of safety in the area, 22% related to the character of the community, and so on," Traylor wrote.

What present conditions of our community do we characterize as problems requiring resolution? What negative aspects of our life here could we change?

Of all weaknesses mentioned, the top five categories were economy and workforce, government functionality, appearance/beautification, events/arts/entertainment/nightlife and downtown/riverfront/redevelopment.

"Most groups identified economic and workforce issues as significant weaknesses for the City of Fort Smith," Traylor wrote. "These discussions included concerns raised by residents regarding a lack of employment opportunities, difficulty retaining a qualified workforce in Fort Smith, and making a transition from the former manufacturing based economy."

What circumstances, conditions or trends should we capitalize on to make our community better in the future? How do we leverage such opportunities?

By far, redevelopment in downtown and along the riverfront outranked all other priorities, accounting for a fifth of all responses.

"Discussions within this theme included the opportunity for infill and re-use of vacant buildings, the potential to draw development along with the future U.S. Marshals Museum, and capitalize on the existing momentum already underway in the area," Traylor wrote. "Residents suggested rebuilding, refurbishing, revitalizing, and renewal of Downtown and the Riverfront, with denser living, and daily needs accessible within walking distance."

Other priorities included transportation/infrastructure, economy and workforce, destination/identity/tourism and location/development potential.

What potential challenges do we face in realizing the future we want? How will they impact us? How do we prepare for them – or prevent them?

Priorities were more evenly split in the threats category, with the economy and workforce ranking only slightly higher than attitude and perception. A close third was government functionality followed distantly by safety and demographic shifts.

"The economy was the most frequent theme to come out of community discussions about potential threats facing Fort Smith," Traylor wrote. "Many groups came to the consensus that there are not sufficient job opportunities, and that even more jobs may be leaving the area in the future. An inability to retain a skilled and educated workforce was also seen as a direct threat to the economy, with young people leaving Fort Smith. Many priorities expressed within this category are also directly related to current demographic shifts that many also saw as a potential threat; an aging population, loss of youth, and an increase in Hispanic population without an increase in jobs."

Senior Planner Brenda Andrews said the meeting, which was not originally part of the city's $340,000 consulting contract with WRT, was important to gather the committee to present the findings and "keep the momentum going."

As for how she reacted seeing several priorities appear in all four categories, Andrews said it should not confuse the public or the committee.

"In the beginning that was surprising that you may see the same topic on maybe all four things, or certainly three, but it was consistent in the riverfront. That was certainly one that I can remember that you might see on all of those and it makes sense," she said. "If you don't take advantage of something, or act on it, or develop it at its fullest, it may became a threat because just the lack of that asset that you have ignored could be a threat to our community in some way."

City Director Keith Lau also reacted to the list of priorities to emerge from the session, which also included a draft vision statement for the city of Fort Smith.

Lau said the mention of government functionality was something he and other elected officials needed to take seriously if the city was to move forward and accomplish the goals that come from an update of the city's comprehensive plan, adding that on the surface, it would be easy to say the $340,000 consulting fee paid by the city does not have value. But in the end, he believes the high price paid by the city will ultimately yield positive results.

"Why do we continue to do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results? Okay? So we've got this, right there it says on one of these 'government functionality.' Well, somewhere in there, this group, whoever they were, say we've got administrative obstacles and representation obstacles. Well, if I wake up as a director and I look at that and I see that, I say, 'Well, maybe we got some issues here.' And then it prompts me to do something and change, then there is value in what we're doing."

Traylor said an updated and possible final vision statement could be presented at an Oct. 21 comprehensive plan steering committee meeting, which will be held in the east room of the River Parks event building from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.