Fort Smith Board changes course on microbrewery issue, media blamed for misunderstanding

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 228 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Nov. 17) backtracked on its controversial decision to disallow microbreweries, microwineries, and microdistilleries from commercial-heavy (C-5) zones.

At a Nov. 3 meeting, the Board overrode a unanimous decision from the city’s planning commission to allow the zoning after preachers from two congregations in the Ninth Street area complained about potential violations of “ethical and moral” principles if the businesses were allowed.

City Directors André Good, Don Hutchings, Tracy Pennartz, and Kevin Settle voted against the C-5 designation, while Directors George Catsavis, Keith Lau, and Mike Lorenz, voted for it as a “conditional use,” which means that a business owner would have to present a plan and work to mitigate concerns from area residents to win final approval. Lau and Lorenz warned the four “yes” votes at the time that the decision wasn’t “business friendly” because developers often pick locations based on the ease of zoning regulations.

Ultimately, the Board’s decision to restrict microbreweries and related businesses to just the historic district (C-6) and industrial (I-1, I-2, I-3) zones sent applicant Fort Smith Brewing Company back to the drawing board to find a new location.

‘LOSING MILLENNIALS’
Brooke Elder, a co-owner of FSBC, appeared before the Board on Tuesday to let them know she and partner Quentin Willard had formally terminated their intent to buy the Ninth Street property in question, and had done so the day after the Board’s initial decision.

“We don’t want to cause problems that are going to affect the entire city,” Elder explained, adding that the Board’s proposed amendment to allow zoning for microbreweries in C-6 and industrial zones wasn’t helpful because industrial was already allowed and was a better fit for larger scale businesses while C-6 properties were either “super expensive” or would “cost just as much as the new expensive buildings” to repair.

Elder continued: “The last thing I wanted to let you know is that our target market is 25- to 50-year-olds. We found that out through research, through websites, Facebook, talking to the community, and people who’ve called us personally. I’ve spoken to at least one Board member, maybe more, I can’t remember, about you wanting millennials in town because they are leaving. It is a fact. They are leaving. Our target market may be 25 to 50, but the majority of them are millennials, and they have been causing an uproar because of two weeks ago when this got put down for C-5, so I just wanted to remind you of that and let you know that if you want millennials, they are speaking. And my question to the Board tonight is, are you willing to listen?”

The Board listened, adding C-5 “conditional use” to the amended ordinance, passing it 5-2 (Good and Settle dissenting) before moving to a final vote, which carried 6-1 (Good dissenting).

MEDIA BLAME
Before the amended ordinance won final approval, Good took a moment to lambast the media for its reporting on the issue, including a Talk Business & Politics column entitled “Fort Smith’s new ‘two preacher’ policy” by columnist Michael Tilley.

While Good did not mention Tilley by name, he did single out the article.

“In my opinion, a lot of (the controversy) is how the media portrayed the Board and its stance,” Good said. “I don’t think one person up here is against microbreweries as was stated in some social media. This isn’t, ‘the Board doesn’t want this’ or ‘the Board doesn’t want that.’ We have people outside of this business to listen to as well. We have our constituents, the people who live there and currently have businesses there. We’re not not for your business.”

Good said he’d been in contact with Willard and that “it seemed as though he understood the issue and was not pointing his fingers or doing what a lot of people did, calling directors hypocrites and talking about a ‘two-preacher issue.’ That’s all media play. That’s not us. We’re here to do a job. We assist more than businesses here. Businesses didn’t get me elected. The citizens on the north side did.”

Good said he looked at it as a “spot-zoning issue,” and that the Ninth Street area needed to be reclassified from the C-5 designation that it’s carried since 1962.

“The area has changed since 1962,” he added, mentioning “three churches, an elementary school, a lodge, and a funeral home” nearby. “It’s not an industrial area.”

FSBC FRUSTRATION
Contrary to what Good mentioned about Willard’s understanding, the FSBC co-owner was openly frustrated with the Board’s decision on Nov. 3.

“It doesn’t make sense because bars can be allowed in a C-5 area already,” Willard said immediately following the vote. “The biggest thing, that is the most concerning thing, is two churches, which make up a very small percentage of the community we want to move in to, affected the entire citywide decision. And so, that’s the most disconcerting thing, that something like that can affect the entire city and the potential for young businessmen moving here.”

This was a sentiment Director Lorenz echoed Tuesday night.

“Regardless of how the media reported it,” he said, addressing Good, “it’s discouraging to people, who are in business, because it’s a simple item we’re adding to the zoning code. You can have a bail bond office or a bar or a tavern permitted there today. We don’t have this discussion. There is no notice to anybody. You go in there and open it tomorrow. Those uses and many others are permitted and could happen tomorrow. … And to me, a brewery attracts a better scale of clientele than a bar.”

OTHER BUSINESS

In other items Tuesday night, the Board authorized the issuance of $33.64 million in bonds for water and sewer refunding and construction. The issuance provides for sewer system improvements.

Also, the Board authorized the issuance of up to $55 million in Industrial Development Revenue Bonds on behalf of Dixie Consumer Products, LLC, for expansion of the company’s existing facility at 4411 Midland Boulevard. The expansion is expected to create 15 jobs and modernize part of the facility’s production equipment.