The Fort Smith region has witnessed its share of ups and downs over the years, and 2017 was no exception with plant closures, manufacturing expansions, job announcements, school announcements, city government PR nightmares, and continued growth in the downtown and Chaffee Crossing districts leading the way.
After reviewing the year’s headlines, Talk Business & Politics presents the top 10 stories of 2017.
10. U.S. Marshals Museum ‘lives within its means,’ stays on pace for 2019 opening
In October 2016, the United States Marshals Museum (USMM) announced Sept. 24, 2019 as opening day after several years of challenges. In 2017, it built momentum through more than $5 million in increased fundraising, bringing U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy to speak on its behalf at a fundraising event April 20, and announcing design changes to reduce construction costs by more than 50%.
In October, nearly one year after the opening day announcement, CDI Contractors announced plans for a “virtual opening” in the first part of 2018, allowing visitors to “view” the museum as it will be in finished form through VR goggles from the site’s existing building pad. On the same day, USMM President and CEO Patrick Weeks told Talk Business & Politics the project’s planned $58.6 million budget allowed for a $25 million building, but when 2016 estimates came in, it had “priced itself out” at $33.8 million, prompting budget cuts “to make sure that we’re living within our means.” Weeks said the museum has $20.5 million more to raise, but the building is on pace to hit the September 2019 date, and it will keep its iconic star shape and be around 53,000 square feet between the walls.
9. Fort Smith School Board hires superintendent, moves forward on ‘Vision 2023’ plan
After 12 years on the Fort Smith School Board and a turbulent 2015 and 2016 amid Southside High School’s Rebels mascot change controversy, former Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl stepped away from her post, leaving it to Fort Smith attorney Greg Magness, who took over in September.
One of the last acts Dr. Mehl helped bring to fruition was the hiring of Fort Smith Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker, whose Vision 2023 plan rolled out in December to map out the next five years of growth and priorities for the district. Brubaker officially will complete his first year on Jan. 18. Over the course of 2017, his administration has continued the district’s committal to workforce development by engaging citizens and leaders of the business community on the Vision 2023 plan.
8. Phoenix Investors buys former Whirlpool plant
In February, Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Phoenix Investors — through Phoenix JCR Fort Smith Industrial Investors LLC – bought the 1.136 million square-foot former Whirlpool plant for $3.25 million. The company, which manages around 17 million square feet of commercial and industrial space in 22 states, plans to seek numerous tenants to operate out of the large space.
Phoenix Investors President and CEO David Marks told a crowd of about 60 people gathered for a change of ownership ceremony on April 20 that Fort Smith will be the fourth former Whirlpool plant the company has “repositioned for redevelopment.” He said the company has had success in finding new tenants for former Whirlpool plants in Illinois, Iowa, and Tennessee. That same day, Marks said Phoenix Investors would be planning to spend $10 million “in the next 6 to 9 months” to open and brighten the inside with white paint and new lighting.
7. Manufacturing ups and downs
Whirlpool’s eventual closure in 2012 after shedding thousands of jobs dented Fort Smith’s manufacturing reputation. While some of the ripple effect continues to play out, the city has enjoyed its share of successes in recent history, with the announcement of PRADCO’s 60-job expansion punctuating a busy 2017 that also witnessed Mars Petcare moving forward on its $72 million commitment at Chaffee Crossing (announced in December 2016).
In November, Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen announced the city was the frontrunner in a bid to bring Silgan Plastic Food Containers Corporation’s new manufacturing facility to Fort Smith, a move that could help compensate for Trane’s decision to close its Fort Smith facility.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show an estimated 17,700 manufacturing jobs in the region during November, which is virtually unchanged since January 2015, but well below the 19,200 six years ago in September 2011 and well below the peak of 31,200 in June 1999.
6. The recycling problem
The city of Fort Smith acknowledged it was sending most of its recycling to the Fort Smith Landfill over a six-month period (November 2016-May 2017) in a May 2 press release due to the lapse of an agreement with Clarksville, Ark.-based Green Source Recycling Center. Green Source revealed to Talk Business & Politics the agreement had lapsed in June 2016.
Further investigations found the city had started trashing most of its recycling materials in October 2014, much longer than originally indicated. Fort Smith Sanitation Director Mark Schlievert, who inherited the problem when he took over on April 18, 2016, was terminated over the incident. Fort Smith’s recycling program resumed on June 26 after an agreement was reached with Third Rock Recycling.
5. Fort Smith hires new police chief
Former Fort Smith Police Chief Kevin Lindsey resigned in 2016 over racially charged remarks he acknowledged making after receiving scrutiny over the city’s poor track record for minority representation. City Administrator Carl Geffken hired Nathaniel Clark to take the post at the end of 2016. Clark’s first day on the job was Jan. 9, 2017. Clark not only is the city’s first African-American police chief, he is one of few black police officers to work for the city’s department. (Some estimates have the “all-time” number as high as 12. The city is 200 years old.)
Clark requested the power to hire from outside the department, but ran into opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police and civil service commission, setting off tension between the commission and the Board, one of whom — Director Andre Good — called for the commission’s disbanding. A divided Board approved expanding the commission in 2018 while the FOP has led an effort to unseat sitting Board members over the dispute and other criticisms.
Also, an internal audit Clark requested of his department when taking over found “discrepancies” in the handling of funds. A final audit report is pending.
4. Fort Smith area business leader Dr. Jerry Stewart dies
Dr. Jerry Stewart, the former CEO of Cooper Clinic who held numerous leadership posts in the region ranging from Fort Smith Public School Board to the creation of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, died Dec. 26. He was 81.
Stewart, a pulmonologist, was a 1980 graduate of Leadership Fort Smith. His community leadership and service included the Fort Smith Public School Board (1986-1994), chairman of the Fort Smith United Way, member of the executive committee and chairman of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, president of the Leadership Fort Smith Alumni Association, chairman of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, president of the 188th Fighter Wing/Fort Chaffee Community Council, and chairman of the Fort Smith Regional Airport Commission. He also served on numerous state and national medical association boards, including as president of the American Lung Association of Arkansas.
Stewart is widely credited with stabilizing and growing then Fort Smith-based Cooper Clinic from a physicians group of about 50 doctors to a group that would grow to around 130 doctors when he stepped down as CEO in 2005. Before his retirement, the clinic employed more than 600 people and operated from 25 locations.
3. Mercy buys Cooper Clinic
Cooper Clinic, once one of the largest physician-owned clinics in Arkansas, was acquired by Mercy Clinic-Fort Smith — owned by St. Louis-based Mercy — with news of the potential deal first breaking on Sept. 7. Mercy issued a statement Oct. 19 saying the boards of both groups voted to move forward on the deal. Potential terms of what will be a private transaction were not disclosed.
Mercy includes 44 acute care and specialty hospitals, more than 700 physician practices and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,100 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy Clinic also has 600 advanced practitioners and supporting staff in more than than 300 offices. Cooper Clinic, independent and physician-owned, has been in operation more than 97 years and has physicians who practice in 25 specialties.
2. Momentum continues in downtown Fort Smith
Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics owner Steve Clark moved his company’s headquarters to the historic Friedman-Mincer building in 2016. He also spearheaded the 64.6 Downtown movement, which launched The Unexpected art murals project two years earlier.
The event will be held for the fourth consecutive time in the fall of 2018 after racking up millions of views on social media. In 2017, The Unexpected partnered with the Peacemaker Music Festival, joining other downtown-focused events like the Steel Horse Rally.
Meanwhile, 64.6 Downtown helped bring together the city’s planning commission, Board of Directors, Central Business Improvement District, and trucking interests on a strategic plan — authored by Dallas-based Gateway Planning — to transform the downtown area into form-based zoning while addressing downtown truck traffic issues. Downtown business owners mobilized into the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association.
Also, CBID commissioner Phil White launched a renovation of the 900 block of Garrison Avenue; Fort Smith Board member Keith Lau moved to acquire the old C&H Tire building for commercial development; and a number of new businesses opened.
1. Students begin first year at Arkansas Colleges for Health Education, second college announced
On July 31, the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) opened to its first class of 150 students at its inaugural facility, the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM). The day capped a process three years in the making to bring a top-tier health college to the Chaffee Crossing district.
But the day was preceded by an even more significant announcement — that ACHE would open its second college, the Arkansas College of Health Sciences (ARCHS) in 2020 and that it would be investing $21 million in development plans that call for more than 1,900 types of housing and 30 categories of retail, including apparel, department stores, grocery stores, home furnishings, jewelry, pharmacy, and liquor stores.
Restaurant-wise, the development will feature 10 categories, including pubs, full-service, limited service, and specialty foods. Altogether, ACHE’s development is expected to create annual taxable revenues of $56 million.