Steve Clark, head of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics and the energy behind the “Unexpected Project” that resulted in the murals festival in downtown Fort Smith, has received the 2016 Jack White Leadership Award from the Leadership Fort Smith program.
It’s the top award given by the program, and is considered a premier leadership award given by any organization in the region. The award was presented to Clark Thursday (May 12) during the 2016 Leadership Fort Smith graduation banquet.
White was employed by OG&E for 35 years, and when he died unexpectedly at the age of 57, was the Arkansas manager for OG&E. In that job he was responsible for the 70,000 to 75,000 customers the Oklahoma City-based company then had in Arkansas. The Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce said this of White after his passing: “This quiet leader was highly regarded by business, civic and political leaders across the country. In his travels throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas and the Nation, Jack was a priceless and professional advocate and cheerleader for the Fort Smith Region.”
Clark has been a successful businessman and entrepreneur with ventures around the country. Propak has warehouses, transportation and other operations in North America, and focuses on being a “supply chain partner” in the areas of retail, automotive, manufacturing, and packaging. The company employs more than 1,500 people. He also founded Noble Impact, a partnership with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service that combines education in entrepreneurship and public service.
But in Fort Smith, Clark is best known for his concept to create a murals festival in the city, leading the push for successful charter approval for the Future School of Fort Smith, and renovation of the historic Friedman-Mincer building (also known as the OTASCO building) on the eastern end of Garrison Avenue. The building is now the Propak corporate headquarters and home to about 50 employees.
Possibly his most visible effort, and one that may have drawn the most positive attention to Fort Smith in recent years, was the murals event. Clark founded and funded the “Unexpected Project,” the umbrella title for the annual Festival of Murals that brought international urban artists to downtown Fort Smith. The inaugural September 2015 event resulted in several large murals painted or created on walls in downtown Fort Smith. Part of the festival included partnering with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in the opening of the university’s new Windgate Art & Design building.
Sam T. Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, introduced Clark at the banquet, and said Clark has done so much for Fort Smith in the past few years that it has “changed the way we think about ourselves.”
Clark moved to the area in 1976 and remembers as a child coming with his family into Fort Smith across the Garrison Avenue bridge every Sunday to attend church. During his speech at the banquet, he said crossing that bridge was almost a “romantic process,” and now he realizes that downtown “represents the heartbeat of who we are and what we are.”
“It was always special to us when we crossed that bridge,” Clark said in an interview before the banquet. “So maybe that’s why I have so much interest in the avenue … to see it come alive. … I believe the Unexpected will disrupt, in a positive manner, the city’s perception of itself, what we all see for ourselves.”
‘STAND UP’ FOR FORT SMITH
Clark is “cautiously optimistic” about socio-economic growth in the Fort Smith region, but says the region has more to do to live up to its potential. He said “passive attention” from the business community and local government leaders “won’t solve the needs” of the area and won’t drive what he says is a passion needed to successfully pursue “grand visions.”
“We need to know, ‘What does the best version of ourselves look like?’” Clark said in the pre-banquet interview. “What does that look like and then how do we make that happen? Look, I’m not big on telling people what to do with this (murals and other projects). It’s all about leading by example.”
He said Fort Smith in recent decades floundered because “at some point we began to settle.” He disagrees with those who say the city doesn’t have the resources to reinvent itself as do other communities, telling the leadership graduates that “we can match creativity and intellect” with “any city.”
Clark, who thanked his wife Jamie for putting up with his crazy ideas and schedule, also said his efforts are geared to create opportunities for all residents, not just those who are white or rich. He challenged the leadership graduates to have the same goal. He also challenged them to “stand up” for Fort Smith, and avoid focusing only on problems the city may face.
“Engage, engage, engage,” Clark told the crowd. “It’s to easy for the smug criticism.”
Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Clark shares with White a “visionary style.”
“The Jack White Leadership Award is a special honor each year. First, it’s driven by nomination, so the recipients have to prove their leadership in the trenches. Selecting Steve Clark as the 2016 honoree was the obvious choice to so many,” Allen said in a statement sent to Talk Business & Politics. “Secondly, similar to Jack White’s unflappable, visionary style, Steve has truly put his money where his mouth is and led by example. His transformation of the Freidman-Mincer building on Garrison and assembling the team that brought the mural festival to Fort Smith shows without a doubt that he’s willing to make things happen that benefit everyone.”