Plans for the coming Gateway Park were announced at Tuesday’s (Oct. 17) meeting of the Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID). The park will join 1300 Garrison Ave. and Harwood Park by removing the short section of South 13th Street (Harwood Drive) which divides the two properties.
It also will feature a large statue of Judge Isaac C. Parker, the city’s famous “Hanging Judge” who was a U.S. congressman for Missouri’s 7th congressional district for two terms before presiding over the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas — a position he held for 21 years.
Parker tried 13,490 cases during his time on the bench, with more than 8,500 cases ending with the defendant either pleading guilty or being convicted at trial. From the lower figure, Parker earned his nickname by sentencing 160 to death; only 79 were executed.
Parker was also an active community member, serving on a number of local boards, including the Fort Smith Public School Board. His health deteriorated in the 1890s and the jurisdiction and power of his court were reduced by Congress. In September 1896, Congress effectively closed the District Court for the Western District of Arkansas by removing its jurisdiction. Shortly after, on Nov. 17, 1896, Parker died of complications due to Bright’s disease. He is buried in Fort Smith.
THE GATEWAY PROJECT
The Gateway Park project will be managed by 64.6 Downtown, a local 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. They will initially own and develop and then transfer ownership of the entire park to the city. Rick Griffin, one of the lead organizers on the project, said he expects the park to be finished in less than three years.
Details are sparse on overall cost but it will be funded entirely by the private sector before being contributed to the Fort Smith Parks Department upon completion, according to Jim Spears, another of the lead organizers and former Division 3 judge of the Twelfth Circuit serving Sebastian County. Spears said the statue will be “impressive,” and pointed to the Bass Reeves statue on Garrison as an example of what to expect from the finished product. The Reeves statue, which Spears also helped rally support for, cost around $200,000.
64.6 Downtown was formed in 2015 to mobilize innovative and creative spaces, events, and activities. It is the group responsible for The Unexpected art festival, which just completed its third year of operations. Also helping on Gateway Park will be BancorpSouth, which donated Harwood Park to 64.6 Downtown for the project. The bank had previously constructed Harwood Park to honor Jim Harwood, one of its past leaders. In a joint press release, the company said it “sees this project as an investment in the quality of life in our community.” Local firm Studio 6 Architects, Inc. has donated all architectural design services on the project. They were founded in 1919.
The next steps are for 64.6 Downtown to form a sub-committee group that will manage Gateway Park. Their activities will include selecting the sculptor, design approval, fundraising, and overall management of the project.
The announcement comes on the heels of a combination bike/skate park that will soon begin construction at the original United States Marshals Museum site. That project is a public-private partnership that will cost approximately $1.1 million with around $600,000 of that being funded by private entities and $500,000 by the city of Fort Smith. It is expected to open on Memorial Day weekend.