In addition to a $3 million interest free loan from First National Bank of Fort Smith, business leaders in Fort Smith seeking to improve the city’s trail system have raised $695,000 toward a $3 million goal, according to a statement issued Tuesday (Nov. 17) by Friends of Recreational Trails (FORT).
On May 12, Fort Smith voters in a special election rejected a plan that would use a portion of the city’s one-cent street tax for trails and greenways work. The plan would have directed $10 million to trails and greenways over 10 years from a 10-year tax that would generate an estimated $200 million. Fort Smith voters said yes (80.16%) to extending the street tax, but 55.69% rejected the trails and greenways funding.
A Trails & Greenway Committee, chaired by Drew Linder, an officer with First National Bank of Fort Smith, developed the plan that sought to add 35 miles to the city’s trail system. The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Smith Regional Council endorsed renewal of the tax and the portion for trails and greenways.
Even before Fort Smith voters rejected a plan to use portions of the city’s one-cent street tax for trails and greenways work, area business leaders who supported the work said they were working to raise private sector money for the trails. The $695,000 in commitments comes from Arvest Bank, Hanna Oil & Gas, Littlefield Oil, Mercy Health, Walther Arms and Weldon Williams & Lick.
“Businesses and the private sector in Fort Smith have come together and endorsed the idea of grassroots support for the proposed trails plan,” Bill Hanna, FORT Committee member, and president of Hanna Oil & Gas, said in the statement. “We’re pleased to announce the first pledges today.”
Mercy Health said the effort fits with its wellness efforts.
“With Mercy’s ongoing focus of bolstering the health and wellbeing of Fort Smith, it made perfect sense for us to support the trails effort in this creative way,” Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Fort Smith, said in the statement. “We’re proud to help and encourage Fort Smith residents to get into shape by joining us and building these trails.”
Linder said Tuesday that FORT has coordinated with the Trails and Greenways committee of the city’s Parks Commission to determine the best place to direct the private sector funding. He also said the group worked with city officials in an effort to follow city easements, thereby reducing costs and possible delays.
The first set of priorities includes extending the Greg Smith Riverfront Trail by paving the Rice-Carden levee trail, with the plan eventually pushing for the trail to connect to Fort Smith Park. A second priority is an about 7 mile segment in the Chaffee Crossing area that would connect to Chad Colley Boulevard and track near several Chaffee developments, including the Arkansas Osteopathic College that is under construction and the softball fields also under construction.
“We are working with them (Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority) on this, and they’ve been very helpful … and we are in talks about a possible cost sharing,” Linder said.
After the failed vote in May, business leaders lobbied the city to use more of its capital improvement budget for trails. The result was a five-year plan that increased trail funding from $3 million to $6 million. And with the $3 million the private sector hopes to raise, the total gets close to the $10 million that would have come from the tax proceeds. However, the trails and greenways committee has said a robust trails network will need an investment of more than $17 million.
Prior to the vote, the Greg Smith Riverfront Trail was awarded a $1 million matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Work on that trail is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Also, in recent days the Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield’s Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas granted $150,000 to the city’s work on the Rice-Carden levee trail.
Linder said he was not discouraged when voters rejected the trail tax . He said public and online surveys suggest a high demand for trails.
“To me, the vote wasn’t about trails, it was about how to fund them. … This way it will take a little bit longer, but yes there is optimism and I think we are picking up momentum,” Linder said Tuesday. “I think it will be great for our community to have this. I’m still committed to it.”