New executive director, partnerships, and building entrepreneurs part of ‘Propelling’ downtown Fort Smith

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,804 views 

John McIntosh of 64.6 Downtown said the development group for the downtown Fort Smith area will be focused on hiring an executive director to help enact the Propelling Downtown Forward strategic plan developed by Texas-based Gateway Planning and revealed earlier this year to city stakeholders.

After several weeks of debate hinging on what to do with downtown truck traffic, the $258,000 plan received support from the Fort Smith Board of Directors, the Central Business Improvement District (CBID), and trucking interests throughout the city of Fort Smith (including OK Foods and ArcBest).

The plan is not “stagnant,” McIntosh told Talk Business & Politics in a recent interview, and it will require a leader with urban development experience to pull it off.

“We have an approved job description. Right now we’re working on three-year commitments for funding for that position. When we have those three-year commitments in the bank, or pledged, then we’ll start looking,” McIntosh said, adding that it would not take long to find the right fit. “It could be somebody local. It could be somebody from out of town. It will be a private sector job as they will be working for 64.6.”

In addition to an urban development background, “They need to have a background in dealing with city and state governments. They need to be aware of grant opportunities. In Fort Smith, they need to be able to build relationships. Relationships are very important in this area because it builds trust. Getting a well-rounded applicant like that would be a big winner for us.”

McIntosh would not say when the post would be filled, but said he was “predicting we’ll have somebody hired for that in the first quarter — maybe early in the first quarter, but certainly in the first quarter” and said to start watching for announcements sometime in February.

As far as what to expect from Propelling Downtown Forward in the year ahead, McIntosh said it was important to “move the needle” and to do it organically.

“Whatever can be done first successfully, that will be our approach. … It will be interesting. It’s a robust master plan, and there is a lot to it, and we’ve got to find some things early on that we can really execute with and get the confidence of the city and the confidence of the businesses downtown,” McIntosh said.

One of the most important things will be “working with the city and making sure we get the form-based code in place, and also get the director in place to go after a lot of other investments.”

Traffic is “always on the agenda,” McIntosh said, noting it was “not just truck traffic, but the best flow-through traffic in town.” He hopes that by working with the city, “We can make it safe and a little more walkable in some areas. I’m not saying it’s low-hanging fruit, but it’s really important, and we have to start addressing it right away.”

Plans to address truck traffic in particular received a setback in June when the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) determined cities did not have the power to restrict travel on state and federal highways that share city streets, but McIntosh did not seem discouraged by it.

“It is what it is. But now that we know what the playing field is, we can start making some recommendations on the plan and really dealing with the downtown stakeholders, dealing with the city directors, and dealing with the trucking industry, to see if we can come up with some solutions that make sense for everybody.”

McIntosh said he appreciated the trucking industry’s willingness to have a dialogue about the issue.

“This is not something that they can force on us or that we can force on them. We’ve got to work together. It seems like when we work together, we have better outcomes, so why not keep that approach? It’s big business for them. It’s important to keep their costs at a minimum, and it’s important for us to keep safety in mind downtown, and not just safety but some of the aesthetics. Loud trucks at some intersections are bothersome. Is there a plan to eliminate that? I wish I had it. But the only thing we can do is talk about it.”

McIntosh observed that downtown areas going through revitalization efforts experience upticks in people living, visiting, and working downtown, and when that happens, “it almost self-corrects.”

McIntosh continued: “The trucking industry wants to be safe and efficient, and if we get too crowded downtown and they can’t be safe and efficient, they’re going to find other ways just like we would. And maybe we can help them do that. Is that going to happen in 2018? No, but maybe we can get a good start on it.”

Bolstering activity means focusing on two key areas — businesses and residential areas. McIntosh said there were a half-dozen new businesses in 2017 he had noticed, but “We’ll probably triple that number with the developments on the north and south sides of Garrison, and on the 900 block of Garrison.”

The 900 block is a multi-use complex being developed by CBID commissioner Phil White, owner of General Pallets. It will include a “high-end lounge, perhaps some other downtown retail, certainly apartments to live in, and maybe a restaurant in there and some other things that have to do with lifestyle. When that happens, it could bring another eight businesses downtown in one block. Across the street, the 906 Garrison building — that upscale cigar and wine bar — is going to be very nice. (The old) C&H Tire (building) will probably bring another two or three businesses to Garrison on the east end. The east end is going to really explode in 2018 with new businesses and more people downtown.”

On living downtown, McIntosh said the area has been “almost at 100% occupancy” for the last five years, “but I think we’re going to see a major housing development occur in downtown, started and planned in 2018 and roughly finish in 2019. That could bring another 60 or 70 residents to downtown — almost double what we have now. I think in the spring of 2019, we’ll have a good idea. Everybody is running the numbers right now and looking at concepts, and it’s not just local. We have some outside developers who are looking at downtown. We have property available now, but I’m not sure we’ll have property available in five years.”

McIntosh also hopes the developments on both business and residential sides — as well as The Unexpected’s fourth year, slated for the fall, and an increasing number of events in downtown Fort Smith — will spur entrepreneurship.

“I think to stimulate entrepreneurship you need activity or activation. So when a young person sees interest in downtown — sees activity, sees a welcoming reception, and people to mentor and help start a business — it happens organically. I don’t think you say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to open two new businesses downtown.’ It happens by people who are interested, and when they’re interested and they come seeking help, it’s a lot better than us trying to drag somebody in.”

As an example of this theory in motion, McIntosh used the example of Pie Scout, a pies-by-the-slice business out of Oklahoma City. McIntosh said the owner, who will sell dairy and non-dairy pies out of a small trailer in the Garrison Commons park and through orders and events “wanted to do things in downtown Fort Smith and be involved in the community because she saw what was going on.” Pie Scout is slated to open in early 2018 and, while for-profit, will donate portions of sales to nonprofit organizations throughout Fort Smith.

Aside from the pies, Garrison Commons will see increased activities for the city’s “budding” musician community, McIntosh said, noting that he intends for the park to have “a lot more music programming starting in the spring.”

“It’s a great place for live music, so we’re working with a couple of groups. There is a musician colony in Fort Smith growing of young professionals who are really good at their craft. We want to give them a venue that’s affordable, safe, fun, and public. I’m being aggressive in reaching out to them. I’m not going to let them lay back. Oftentimes, they just want to be offered a venue and offered some contacts. I’d like to have band showcases in Garrison Commons, and give every new band in town an opportunity to play there, so we’re going to make it available.”

McIntosh’s “channel” to the Fort Smith musical community is Eric Williams of Garrison Music.

“I’ve had this conversation with Eric about helping me do that. And sometimes all it takes is for someone to say, ‘What will it take to get you to do this?,’ and they’re jumping on board.”

“The Commons,” as McIntosh calls it, will see increased food truck activity in 2018 as well thanks in large part to OG&E’s efforts to move the electrical work underground starting in January.

“That will make it much easier for a food truck to come in and out. So I’m looking at a permanent location for a food trailer in there, and also to have Pie Scout in and out, and sort of have a farm-to-table feel. Those are discussions we’re having, and they’re happening because they see activity downtown. And hats off to OG&E for recognizing the need and being a good partner. It’ll be safer and more attractive and will serve both sides of the alley with good access to power that will be underground.”

Also in the first quarter, possibly January, 64.6 Downtown will roll out a membership group for young professionals — similar to what is known in the world of entrepreneurship as a “mastermind group” — to fill a need expressed to it by young professionals hoping to get involved in the downtown area and meet their peers. McIntosh said the membership fees were not locked down, but it would probably be around $50 per year.”

“We want it to be affordable, but we want people to have their own skin in the game, and a little operating budget in case they want to do something as a group,” McIntosh said. “I get two or three calls a week that are ‘What if?’ calls, which I love. So in January, we’re forming a group of young professionals that are going to be an ad hoc committee of 64.6 Downtown — twenty-somethings probably, though we’re not limiting it to that. We’ve had a handful reach out to us and say, ‘How can we get involved?,’ which really makes us happy. We’ve had some formalized meetings, and we’re working on a membership application. We’re going to put this group together and let them be connected to downtown Fort Smith. It could be good for volunteering, pitching their ideas for new activities, but as much as anything, we want to create a forum for people in town who want to be active to meet each other. When you have a forum for that, good things happen.”

McIntosh continued: “I think the thing that’s important for this group is that they don’t want to meet someone who is just like themselves.”

The initial “ad hoc” group “will have varied backgrounds, “but the two things they will have in common are they want to be involved in downtown, and they want to meet other young professionals in their age group that aren’t just like them. They’re looking for that variety pack, and that creates opportunities. If we are successful in allowing that group to grow organically over a two- or three-year period, there will be some businesses pop out of that. There will be some relationships that occur that are longstanding. It’s just like a class that’s around. You pick out two or three favorite people that like you or that you want to be like, and you create those friendships. That’s healthy for the entire community, and it’s really healthy for downtown.”

McIntosh said there would be a press release on the group “early next year” and that “We’re hoping to have 50 or 60 members throughout the year.”

“We’re going to be there to mentor, we’re going to be there to guide and give them ideas. Listen, I’ve got enough projects in 2018 and 2019 that are already in my head or on the books that we can keep them busy right out of the box,” McIntosh said, noting that it would be “totally different” from the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association.

“This is a group of young professionals. You don’t have to work downtown to be in this group. You just have to be in the area, and most of the people that are already involved don’t work downtown. They just like to be downtown,” McIntosh said.

Finally, McIntosh shared his hope that Chaffee Crossing and downtown Fort Smith could move closer together in 2018.

Tensions directed at Chaffee Crossing — not from 64.6 Downtown but from others in the community — boiled over in an August meeting of the streets, bridges, and drainage capital improvements plan advisory committee. However, in keeping with his “work together” tone toward the trucking industry, McIntosh said that while the “heartbeat of Fort Smith is always going to be downtown, the improved tax base that Chaffee Crossing brings, the land that they have for employers, the land that they have for housing — they’ve done a fabulous job in creating an area that people want to be in. It’s affordable, and it’s friendly development. There will be a community out there that keeps growing for the next few years even when they run out of land because you’ve got people living there and people working there. It’s Fort Smith tax base. It’s awesome.”

McIntosh commended Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) Executive Director Ivy Owen and his team, adding, “I admire what Ivy’s done, and I admire what that Board has done.”

“It’s so much better than what it was — a bunch of empty lots. Now it’s commerce, and there are a lot of people who enjoy living out there. I think it’s been really good for Fort Smith.”

When asked if there had been discussions about how the two groups (64.6 Downtown and FCRA) could work together, McIntosh emphasized, “Yes. Yes. Yes,” though he could not reveal specifics because “we don’t know what it looks like yet.”

“The good news is both entities are talking about it, and when the right thing or things come along, we can do it. There’s nothing keeping us from doing it. Our admiration for Chaffee is real, and I hope their admiration for what we’re doing downtown is real, and there could be opportunities.”

McIntosh continued: “There may be people looking at Chaffee Crossing for a new business or a small factory that might be better suited to be downtown. When the Propel executive director starts to reach out to businesses that may be interested in Fort Smith, it may be better for those businesses to be in Chaffee. We need to be talking. It gives the Chamber more options when they are looking to bring a business downtown. There is going to be opportunity on the north side of downtown for businesses and housing in the future, and we all need to be working together. The Chamber, 64.6 Downtown, the city itself, and Chaffee. We need to know that that’s an area that can be developed to the best use of that property, and dialogue really helps. Ivy has more experience developing big areas than anyone around here, and he’s got evidence of success. We’d be crazy not to have this dialogue with them.”