Fort Smith chamber endorses sales tax redirection plan for trails

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 125 views 

The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce has endorsed a plan that would direct around $10 million in sales tax revenue during the next 10 years toward building and maintaining a citywide trails system.

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 Fort Smith Board of Directors approved Tuesday (Jan. 20) approved a May 12 election in which city voters will be asked to vote for renewal of the 1% sales tax for street, bridges and drainage improvements. Part of the ballot will also include a voter question on directing 5% of the tax collections toward the multi-use trail system.

A Trails & Greenway Committee, chaired by Drew Linder, an officer with First National Bank of Fort Smith, developed the plan that seeks to add 35 miles to the city’s trail system.

Linder told the Board during a Jan. 13 study session that the trails 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.

It is the economic development advantage that appeals to the chamber, according to chamber President and CEO Tim Allen.

“When you go after those (corporate) jobs, having those (trails) is almost the price of admission. … More and more of these companies want to know what is available in your city, and if they have a nice trail system where they are, you better have one also,” Allen told The City Wire.

In the chamber’s statement, Allen noted: “Recruiting and retaining companies and jobs to Fort Smith also means recruiting people and families to Fort Smith. It is crucial that we are both business-friendly and have the quality of place amenities that consultants look for as they explore potential sites for their clients. In order for Fort Smith to be competitive, we need to continue to seize opportunities that improve or enhance our quality of place.”

The statement also suggested that the chamber believes redirecting the sales tax revenue to trails would not harm the city’s infrastructure development and maintenance.

“The continuation of the existing roads tax will allow further improvements to city streets and drainage while the 5 percent reallocation will create a comprehensive recreation network that will benefit the people of Fort Smith,” the chamber noted.

Businesses already operating in the city may help with the trail costs. Bill Hanna, president and board chairman of Fort Smith-based Hanna Oil & Gas, told the Board during the Jan. 13 study session that there is interest from area companies to provide 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.

The chamber statement also directed those interest in learning more about the system to visit the Trails and Greenway Facebook page.

A group opposed to the 5% being used for trails has also created to Facebook page to push its message.