Propak’s Steve Clark: Fort Smith must focus on becoming ‘best version,’ stop apologizing for itself

by Aric Mitchell ( 7,317 views 

Dunder Mifflin Paper Company was “your paper solution in a paperless world” on the U.S. version of the sitcom The Office.

For Steve Clark, founder and CEO of Propak Corp., Fort Smith was running the risk of becoming the industrialized version of that in the aftermath of Whirlpool’s departure. “I joked with a lot of friends that Fort Smith is the Dunder Mifflin of Arkansas cities,” Clark told the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association (FSDBA) in opening remarks at the group’s Aug. 9 meeting. “When Whirlpool left, we sat around for a while thinking that maybe that wasn’t what was really going on. That maybe we had just fallen asleep, that it was a bad dream, and that it would all take care of itself.”

But at some point, Clark added, you have to wake up. “Once you cross the bridge intellectually that there is no cavalry coming to save us economically, you’re going to have to fight a little harder and do the things for yourself that maybe historically you waited on others — the city, civic leaders, whatever — to do for you.”

Clark’s address Wednesday night to the FSDBA from Propak headquarters in the historic Friedman-Mincer building downtown urged stakeholders in Fort Smith’s future to take charge of building the city they want. It’s what led Clark to start 64.6 Downtown, the nonprofit group responsible for bringing The Unexpected art festival to downtown Fort Smith for the last three years, attracting more than five million eyeballs on social media as well as national and international media attention.

It has also been a symbol of the growth taking place along the city’s riverfront in large projects like the Greg Smith River Trail, the Steel Horse Rally, and the Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival.

“When people ask me why I do The Unexpected, my answer is, ‘Because that is the kind of city I want to live in.’ If you want to live in a city that has trails, that celebrates the arts or music or anything that makes the city rich in culture — if you’re waiting on someone to do that, stop. Find a way to get engaged. Plug in.”

Clark commended Oklahoma City as an example of what is possible when citizens take charge of building their city from the ground up. The city has a tax focusing entirely on amenities, Clark said. “I’m not a guy who says tax yourself, but I am saying what Oklahoma City did was pass a tax that was used exclusively for amenities. And they built the city they wanted to live in.”

Clark stopped short of proposing such a tax-based solution for Fort Smith, but pointed out “there is no magic money laying around.”

Steve Clark (right), founder and CEO of Propak Corp., addresses the audience at the Aug. 9 meeting of the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association.

“If we want things to be the way we want them, we have to do it ourselves. And if you don’t want it, that’s fine. Just don’t get your feelings hurt when the jobs don’t come here. Because what’s happening in this economy is people move to where they want to live, and then they find the work they want to have. So the chicken and the egg scenario? In this economy, amenity comes first, not the job. Amenity. You can not like it, but it doesn’t change the truth.”

Responding to a number of questions, Clark addressed the frequent comparison between Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas. Fort Smith — Arkansas’ second largest city — has seen stagnant jobs numbers and comparatively anemic growth over the last few decades compared to its neighbors to the north.

Clark believes what Fort Smith is missing is “the willingness to believe in ourselves and say, ‘You know what, we can do this. We are doing this.'”

“A lot of times when people ask me what I think the difference is between Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas, I answer that it’s expectation.”

Northwest Arkansas, Clark said, has a naturally higher “transient population” because of Wal-Mart.

“And what I mean by that is people coming in from all over the world who get there to work and go, ‘Where’s your bike path? What do you mean you don’t have a bike path? We need a bike path?’ And what do they do? They get a bike path.”

“Here — because we’ve just kind of been here a long time and what worked for us just works — we don’t even question why trails and amenities are important. We didn’t have them before. But I’m telling you … we’re going to have the opportunity as a community over the next several years to decide as a community if we’re willing to invest in ourselves to add amenities to the city,” Clark said.

Taking the “us versus them” mentality to task, Clark argued the economy has “no value in isolation.”

“We don’t have that luxury,” Clark said. “They’re not just our neighbor. They’re our trading partners. People drive up there every day from this city to work up there. Some drive every day to work down here. For the longest time, I would listen to people complain about the drumbeat of the north drowning out everything we’re doing. We don’t have a Wal-Mart headquarters. We don’t have that. And so instead of spending a whole lot of energy on why we don’t have that, I’m not interested in being them, and I don’t think you should be either.”

Clark said that instead Fort Smithians needed to be interested in “being the very best version of us.”

“We don’t have to be brought to cool. We are cool. We just forgot that along the way, or we simply focused on Rooster Cogburn and forgot there’s so much that occurred here that was brilliant before that, after that, and since,” Clark said.

He continued: “I do a lot of business up there. I’m sure you guys do a lot of business up there. I don’t want to move there. I could. Many of you could. But this is where I live, and I want this to be the best version of this that it can be. And why not? We’ve got the second largest city in the state of Arkansas; we’re still the manufacturing base; we have a university here. We have talent beyond talent. And I just kind of feel like I’m tired of apologizing for who we are.”

One person asked Clark to address the importance of the city’s heritage versus what type of city it will become. “Heritage,” Clark said, is a word that makes him nervous whenever he hears it.

“Whenever I hear, ‘Protect our history,’ it makes me a little anxious,” he admitted. “Our history is well-documented, and there are certainly elements to be proud of and there are elements to be ashamed of. But our history is not in jeopardy. It’s our future that is in jeopardy.”

Clark shared an anecdote in which a “well-intentioned” citizen told him The Unexpected was a “travesty.” When he engaged as to why the person felt that way, they told him, “It’s not our heritage.”

“Whose history are we talking about? Are we talking about late 19th Century white guy history? Are we talking about Native American history or African American history or rich trader history? We haven’t hung anyone here in a long time. Someone explain to me how empty storefronts on our main street is a testament to our history.”

Clark said he balances the past vs. future question by reminding himself that when people say history, “they’re also saying ‘sentimentality.’ ‘This is not how I remember it.’ And it forces people to close a chapter at some level intellectually and emotionally on what was and what will be. And I’m very respectful of that. But we do not have the luxury to rest on what got us here for what takes us forward. So while I respect our history, I have no intention of living in it.”

Clark pointed out that Fort Smith’s “DNA … is entrepreneurship,” and that’s what it should embrace going forward.

“We were a frontier outpost city. You didn’t necessarily aspire to get here. You ended up here. And you ended up here because there was opportunity for you here,” Clark said.