Fort Smith Board supportive of trail expansion, Steel Horse Rally

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 97 views 

A majority of the Fort Smith Board of Directors appear open to the idea of redirecting a portion of the city’s sales tax revenue for streets to help fund a plan to create a “continuous” and “connected” trail system in the city. The Board was also open to helping fund the inaugural Steel Horse Rally planned for downtown Fort Smith.

Both items dominated the Board’s noon study session on Tuesday, with Drew Linder using about 30 minutes to brief the Board on a plan developed by a citizen committee to add 35 miles to the city’s trail system.

Linder, a banker with First National Bank of Fort Smith, said the Trails and Greenways Steering Committee – with input from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Student Government Association – based their outline on trail plan the city adopted in 2004. The proposed plan would almost create a trail loop around the city. Linder said the committee’s primary goal was to develop a trail system that is “continuous and connected.” Cost estimates for the work range from $17.4 million to $9.6 million. (Link here for details about the proposal from the steering committee.)

The trails, Linder told the Board, should be referred to as “multi-use” because roughly one-third of trail users are walkers, one-third are runners and the other third are cyclists. Trails are developed and maintained by more cities, according to Linder, because they provide a health and wellness outlet, provide a basic transportation network for those who prefer to use a bicycle, and are becoming an economic development advantage.

“That’s the one that got me,” Linder said of the economic development aspect, adding that he believes trails are a “significant” part of job recruitment.

Bill Hanna, president and board chairman of Fort Smith-based Hanna Oil & Gas, said there is interest from area companies to provide some funding for a trail system. Hanna and Linder said a plan approved by the city with a dedicated funding stream will help encourage private-sector support and help secure matching grants.

Funding for broad improvement and expansion of the city’s trail network could come from a portion of the $18 million to $20 million collected annually through the city’s 1-cent street sales tax program. The tax, first approved by voters in 1985, has a sunset clause that requires voter approval every 10 years. The tax was renewed by voters in 1995 with 87.2% voting yes, and in 2005 with 66.3% voting yes. A renewal vote is planned for May 12.

The initial proposal suggested redirecting 10% of the annual revenue for trails, but a majority of Board members indicated they would support a 5% redirection. A 5% plan would provide the trail system around $10 million over 10 years. With private sector support and help from grants, several Board members, including new City Director Tracy Pennartz, believed the $10 million would be sufficient.

Several Board members, including Mayor Sandy Sanders, said it will be important to educate voters about an election in which a portion of the tax is used for another purpose. In an election, the ballot would first ask voters if they approved reauthorizing the tax for streets, bridges and associated drainage work. A second question would then ask voters to vote for or against a redirection of a percentage of the tax.

“The key is going to be approving the existing street tax as is,” Sanders said as part of a statement about his concern that redirecting a part of the tax runs the risk of voter rejection of the entire tax.

A redirection of the tax could delay a few projects, including the Kelley Highway extension to Riverfront Drive, the May Branch Drainage project and the widening of Arkansas 45 south of Zero Street.

The Board is expected to vote during its Jan. 20 meeting on how the street tax reauthorization is presented to voters.

Dennis Snow, president of The Steel Horse Rally Inc., made a brief presentation about the planned motorcycle rally in downtown Fort Smith. The group is asking the city for $84,000 to launch the event.

The Steel Horse Rally could see an estimated 5,000 motorcyclists and visitors in the downtown area May 1 and May 2. Snow praised the help of city departments in securing downtown locations for the event, and said a financial commitment from the city also would help raise money from potential corporate sponsors.

Outreach efforts to market and advertise the Steel Horse Rally are planned for Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and states bordering Arkansas. The Fort Smith Advertising & Promotion Commission has authorized $2,500 to help with such outreach.

Snow said a conservative economic impact suggests the 5,000 would spend $300 in the city, which would generate at least $450,000 directly and more considering an economic rollover effect of each dollar.

City Directors George Catsavis and Kevin Settle were supportive of Snow’s request.

“I think this will be a good deal for downtown Fort Smith,” Catsavis said.

Mayor Sanders disagreed, saying that giving the group the money could create a negative perception with voters at the same time the city is asking for renewal of the street tax. He also said funding the event would set a precedent that the city can’t afford.

Settle countered Sanders by saying the Board had made a commitment to do more to “support an event” that brought thousands of people to the city.

“This could be that event,” Settle said.

A vote on the funding request was set for the Board’s Jan. 20 meeting.

(The City Wire co-owner Michael Tilley is a member of the Steel Horse Rally board of directors.)