Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority should consider ‘putting the brakes’ on development, CIP member says

by Aric Mitchell ( 2,753 views 

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) might consider “putting the brakes” on its speed of development, according to a member of the Fort Smith capital improvement plan (CIP) advisory committee for streets, bridges, and drainage.

Committee member David Armbruster, responding to a request from developers in the Chaffee Crossing district of Fort Smith to consider funding for Wells Lake Road improvements, said it “seems to me like maybe the trust needs to put the brakes on developing the land, and concentrate on what is available. Maybe increase some prices so they can have more funds available to put into projects (like Wells Lake). I read about all those sales. And I wonder, are those sales occurring because of price or demand?”

The question caught Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) President and CEO Kyle Parker off-guard at Thursday’s (Aug. 3) meeting.

“It’s both,” Parker said. “If you look at where the growth is, it’s going on in east Fort Smith. I mean, we keep calling it ‘Chaffee,’ but it’s Fort Smith. And that’s where this is. And if you look at where the building permits are right now, they’re out there. I can tell you surrounding our 228 acres which we certainly intend to fully develop, there’s no land available anymore to buy. It’s gone.” Parker said the land went quickly after the osteopathic medical college was announced in 2014 and a planned zoning development was approved in 2016, adding there is “tremendous development” going on from residential and commercial perspectives.

“I don’t know how to answer a question about, you know, ‘Why don’t you slow down developing something?’ That confuses me,” Parker said.

Armbruster responded that he has been “getting feedback from folks that say, ‘With all that land to sell out there, why is it the city has to contribute to the streets? They were given the land free.'”

Parker acknowledged the 7,000 acres of land that created the FCRA in 1997 were free, but the purpose behind the federal government’s land gift, which arose from 1995’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, was to develop the land “for the benefit of the respective cities which they sit in” — i.e. Fort Smith, Barling, and Greenwood — and that’s exactly what the trust has done.

Parker continued: “Those dollars (from land sales) have gone exclusively back to the infrastructure buildouts for everything they sell. They put in streets. They put in sewer lines. They help with the water lines. They partnered with the city of Fort Smith on multiple occasions. And at the end of the day, when they’re done with (sold out of) their property, any excess cash gets given to the cities. So their whole point is trying to develop and grow the respective cities of Barling, Fort Smith, and some land in Greenwood. That’s why they exist. Now is it the right price point? I can’t answer, ‘Should it have been $15,000 an acre or $50,000 an acre?’ I don’t know that. I can’t answer that. But I can tell you that every dime they’re getting ahold of, they’re giving back and into their respective cities.”

Armbruster contended the city’s 1% street sales tax fund must manage the 480 miles of asphalt streets within Fort Smith and the streets “are to last 30 years” — the tax will be up for renewal in 2025. “That means we need to be resurfacing about 15 miles per year. Over the last few years, we’ve been resurfacing about 5-8 miles per year, so there’s a good chance of us falling way behind.”

Armbruster worried the only way to assist with Wells Lake Road would be to reallocate funds from previously designated projects.

“I don’t mean to sound like I don’t have receptive ears to what’s going on out there. I just have some questions,” he said.

As one committee member acknowledged, Wells Lake Road has been “beat to hell” by the development that is going on at Chaffee Crossing, and there was some hesitance about allocating funds while heavy development is ongoing. But refusing to address the issue soon could cause massive traffic issues, Parker argued, especially as the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM), which opened to its first class of 162 earlier this week, expands and the future Arkansas College of Health Sciences (ACHS) gets going. Furthermore, ArcBest’s new corporate headquarters will add to those issues with an estimated 975 workers daily traveling the area.

A third party traffic study paid for in part by ArcBest, the ACHE, and Rod Coleman’s ERC, projects weekday travels amount to approximately 33,971 vehicle trips per weekday over the study’s three-year period. Beyond the three-year — and within 10 years — growth of residential and commercial developments will increase that number to 77,017 vehicle trips per weekday.

In 2020 — when construction is currently slated to begin to address the issue — the ACHE will support over 150 employees and will have more than 1,200 students on campus.

“Right now, if you’re coming out of Fort Smith, and you’re trying to get out there,” Parker said, “you have basically two points to get into Chaffee Crossing. You have Massard … then you have to come down Chad Colley. That’s where these studies were focused. There’s one road that used to be part of Veterans that was closed by the city of Barling. That closed road is at 900 cars per day right now. So when that actually gets taken away, those 900 cars are going to come down to Chad Colley and continue on down that way.” Parker told committee members he could “only imagine what’s going to happen when 975 employees at ArcBest” join with the ACHE traffic onto a two-lane road.

“It’s a real problem.”

Armbruster and fellow committee member Robert Brown commended the economic activity that is going on at Chaffee Crossing, but believed developers in the area and the trust itself should bear more of the responsibility.

“As I look at that whole area,” Brown said, “it needs to bear a significant portion of that cost, and yes, we should be providing the major thoroughfares — the Zero Street, Highway 45 — those major thoroughfares are our responsibility. But when we get to those artery streets, and you come say, ‘Hey we need this.’ Well, let’s add that to the cost of those lots out there, and let you share some of the burden to develop the area, instead of putting the burden on the north side of town which isn’t really benefitting other than more revenue in the city.”

Brown continued: “We want more revenue. We want the city to grow. We want better streets. We’re just talking, who’s going to pay for it? And I’m saying, share some of that cost with us.”

Coleman argued developers have shared “some of that cost” by putting in “a lot of money” to the trust through land purchases and improvements, which the trust in turn used for partnering with the city on a number of infrastructure projects.

“That trust money came from people like myself, ArcBest, and the school (ACHE).” Coleman said to his knowledge, his company, the ACHE, and ArcBest have invested more than $40 million each in their Chaffee Crossing developments. “So I don’t know if you’re asking are these three organizations contributing? We have not in the sense that we’ve written checks to the city; but we have in that we’ve all bought property from the trust and the trust has invested money, and we’re investing money out there to grow the city.”

Coleman also wondered if other non-public entities benefitting from improvements had “put in money.”

Also discussed by the committee were options to pay for potential Wells Lake Road improvements that did not come out of the 1% tax. A possible bond issuance was one possibility, but for Parker, “All I can tell you is the economic impact that we’re doing just in our planned zoning development alone … is $56 million per year in taxable revenue. So economically, you’re taking a penny out of each one of the things sold that are there. To me, the other alternative is create more reasons for people to spend money and collect more pennies.”