A downtown Fort Smith building once a repair place for brakes, tires and alignments may soon be a recreation place with beer, tequila and atmosphere. Or alignments.
The former C&H Tire store at 1121 Garrison Ave. in Fort Smith has finally been sold by Jerry Hamel to City Director and commercial real estate broker Keith Lau. The 8,200-square-foot property and associated parking areas sold for $342,000. Hamel said he owned the property for around 30 years, and was willing to cut the deal with Lau because “I wanted him to be successful.”
“No, I’m not bittersweet about (selling). I’m happy. Look, I’ll be 78 in April. It’s time for me to go away,” Hamel said Monday (Oct. 17) during an impromptu meeting at the property with Lau and Bill Hanna, president of Hanna Oil & Gas and a member of the Central Business Improvement District.
“There are so many great things going on down here now. Like with the Steel Horse Rally. You have thousands of people coming down here because of what we did with the rally,” said Hamel, who helped financially support the motorcycle rally that completed its third annual event earlier this year. “And you have the art and the festivals. … I’m really just happy to be able to turn this over to the next generation.”
Lau first revealed plans for the building in May, and said Monday not a lot has changed but he will be flexible with the build out based on the needs of potential tenants. Conceptual art rendered by Shannon Reith of Studio 6 Architects includes plans for a restaurant, rooftop dining area and two additional lease spaces that will likely be retail. Lau told Talk Business & Politics there is the possibility of a second “speakeasy” style bar in addition to a bar associated with a restaurant. He plans an office for his company on the portion of the building facing Garrison Avenue.
Several potential tenants are on his radar, but “no one is on the hook,” Lau said Monday. He said the cost of renovations and prepping for tenants is estimated at $1.8 million.
“We’re starting now. Most of it will be whiteboxed, and we can do that in about six months … but we will wait on the right tenant for that (restaurant and bar),” Lau said. “That’s a critical piece and I want to get it right.”
Whiteboxing is the process of prepping a building for tenants. Lau said buying a building and then looking for tenants is the reverse of his typical development style. But because he believes downtown Fort Smith is “becoming a destination for more and more people,” he is willing to take a risk with the project.
“Usually I don’t do this. Normally I have a tenant that’s ready to go on something like this. But I wanted to get this building because I think it’s such a great building for downtown and the fact that there is so much energy down here now. So I wanted to get the building under control and then find the right tenants,” Lau said Monday as crews worked to remove automotive repair equipment.
Hanna said after Monday’s property tour he has faith Lau’s risk will be rewarded, and he also praised Hamel’s support of downtown Fort Smith.
“This is great. That’s all I can say. It’s just great and this absolutely needs to happen for Fort Smith,” Hanna said.
Parts of Fort Smith have seen development improvements, but the overall job market has struggled to regain its pre Great Recession level. The metro area set an employment record of 125,426 in June 2006. August 2017 employment stood at 117,029, down 6.7%.