Mayor Sanders: Hopes in 2016 to build on ‘better self image of the city’

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 323 views 

A new year is a time to look ahead, but it’s also a time for reflection, and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders is doing a bit of both. In recent comments to Talk Business & Politics, Sanders pointed to the successes of 2015 as well as the opportunities they offer for 2016.

Topping the list of 2015 accomplishments cited by Sanders was the fiscal responsibility shown by city government in trimming $3.2 million in general fund expenditures. A $2 million annual shortage in the LOPFI fund for police and fire pensions has been a source of concern, and will continue to weigh budgeting decisions from City Directors, but the 6.5% cut from $49.4 million in 2015 to $46.2 million for 2016 was a significant step.

City-wide, Fort Smith added more than $127 million in major commercial building permits. For Sanders, one major advancement that will perhaps have the most impact on Fort Smith’s economic future is the opening of Interstate 49 through Chaffee Crossing.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) has already attracted a number of businesses and real estate developments to the area since 1997. That’s when it was placed in charge of overseeing redevelopment for land released by the U.S. Army from Fort Chaffee as part of a Base Realignment and Closure downsizing. There were initially 6,000 acres for sale, and that number is now down to 2,800.

The area boasts an $850 million economic impact, according to FCRA Executive Director Ivy Owen, and it has helped to create close to 1,300 jobs.

Another addition to Sanders’ list was the official groundbreaking on the Riverview Hope Campus for the homeless at 301 S. E St.

The estimated $4 million facility will assist an estimated 200 people per day, and will provide access to counseling, case management, medical and mental health services, basic education/GED classes, job training and placement services. Food, shelter, a worship center, bathrooms, showers, barbershop, laundry, storage and kennels will also be available.

Sanders also listed numerous recreational advancements for the city, including the completion of the Parrot Island aquatics facility, a downtown splash pad, and two new neighborhood parks. He cited the Greg Smith Riverwalk Trail, which will continue its expansion thanks in part to $695,000 in private sector funding (part of a $3 million goal).

In November, that particular trail received a $1 million matching grant from the Sam Walton Foundation. It is named in honor of the late Greg Smith, who championed community-wide development of Fort Smith’s trails system.

Smith, Sanders said at the time of his death, was a man who “gave of his own time, money and energy,” and “worked so hard … to give back to the community.”

Aside from trails, Sanders also touted the opening of two new softball fields at Ben Geren Park, field improvements at Martin Luther King Park, and continuing improvements to downtown streetscape projects as well as new construction on the softball complex at Chaffee Crossing.

He also commended the Fort Smith Convention Center for a second consecutive record-setting year for total revenues, coming in at just below $710,000.

Private sector support was also a major accomplishment for the city in 2015, Sanders noted, and the effects are likely to continue playing out in the year ahead.

“Numerous existing industries invested in improvements and expansions as well as new entities locating in Fort Smith,” Sanders said, citing the first ever Fort Smith Marathon; the Unexpected Mural Project; the Peacemaker Music and Arts Festival; the Steel Horse Rally; and a number of new restaurants, housing additions, and churches as evidence.

2016 GOALS
• Online sales
While it isn’t a decision the city can make directly, Sanders also said he will continue to support Congressional efforts “to enable the City to receive taxes due from on-line sales,” a move that could generate at least an additional $400,000 per year to the city’s coffers. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, is one of several members of Congress pushing for legislation that seeks to ensure tax collections by state and local governments aren’t negated or diminished by online transactions.

• Recreation
In addition to continuing expansion of the city’s trails system, Sanders hopes Fort Smith can continue with the design and construction of new soccer fields on the 51 acres along Riverfront Drive. He is also hoping to see the softball complex at Chaffee Crossing finished and put into service. There will also be a continued push for city cleanup and beautification.

• Maintenance
At the forefront of city maintenance efforts will be continued compliance with the estimated $480 million consent decree for violations of the Clean Water Act. Fort Smith will work to meet those requirements, said Sanders, and will also focus on “sidewalk repair and new construction” as well as “continuing to focus on the Comprehensive Plan.”

The city will continue to convert city fleet vehicles to CNG when feasible, he added, and there will be a push to “support development along the riverfront and continue downtown revitalization,” with emphasis on “street overlays and reconstruction” as well as “projects to alleviate drainage problems.”

In his parting thoughts, Sanders said that a year from now, he hopes people will have “recognition of all the good things happening throughout the city.”

“There is a better self image of the city and a more positive feeling from citizens, and I really hope that more people will recognize the vitality and progress that is being made,” he said.

Talk Business & Politics also reached out to Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman regarding major projects for the year ahead. Freeman said those details would be locked down by the time he gave his State of the City presentation in mid-February, but he could not issue further comment at this time.

“We are addressing flooding, levee, street issues and the daily operations at the present so it is a slow process,” he said.