Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from the Neumeier family.
Bill Neumeier, a longtime downtown Fort Smith restaurant owner and promoter who helped launch the Peacemaker Arts and Music Festival and other musical series, died early Monday (Nov. 19). The cause of his death was apparent suicide, according to the Fort Smith Police Department.
The FSPD report said Neumeier was transported to Baptist Hospital (formerly Sparks Health) “but they were not able to revive him.”
Neumeier was the owner of Papa’s Pub and Pizzaria and Neumeier’s Rib Room in downtown Fort Smith. He began his downtown business career with a hot dog stand and then a pizza wagon in 1988.
In addition to owning food businesses in downtown Fort Smith long before the area would see a resurgence, Neumeier was also active in bringing music to Garrison Avenue. He was instrumental in supporting the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival, and more recently worked with Trent Goins, CEO of OK Foods, and Jeff Gosey, the owner of two downtown restaurants, to launch the Peacemaker Arts & Music Festival.
The festival just completed its fourth year and has brought to Fort Smith the music of Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Grace Potter, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Rival Sons – just to name a few.
“We are committed solely to the production of this festival for charitable and educational purposes,” Neumeier, who was festival vice president, said in 2015 when announcing the new event. “Not only do we want to provide Fort Smith with a fun event, but we want to be able to give back to other organizations that provide much-needed help to our residents.”
Gosey said he and Neumeier have worked together more than 30 years to bring music to downtown Fort Smith.
“He was an inspiring guy. His love of music and bringing it to Fort Smith was unparalleled. He was our mentor when we started the Peacemaker. … We deferred to him on so much because he had the experience,” Gosey told Talk Business & Politics during a Monday afternoon interview.
Gosey said Neumeier was part of the early push in the 1980s by Bert Wright and Harry Schwartz to revive the downtown area. He said Neumeier worked with others to ensure “the torch has been passed” to others “to keep his passion for music and this place (downtown Fort Smith) alive.”
“Look at what’s going on today. Twenty and 30 years later look at what’s going on downtown. That’s all because of them, man, all because of those guys,” Gosey said.
Goins said he often referred to Neumeier as the “guru of Garrison.”
“I learned so much from Bill. He was definitely my mentor in the music business. Fort Smith lost a couple of great musical ears today,” Goins said. “And my heart goes out to his employees, his Papa’s and Rib Room family. His employees were like family to him, and he loved them all.”
Brandon Goldsmith said Neumeier recently stepped up to support a push raising money for New Year’s fireworks in downtown Fort Smith.
“Fort Smith will have an incredible New Year’s Eve party this year because of Bill. I sent out a (Facebook) call for sponsors on Friday. Bill stepped up and encouraged the other local restaurants and businesses to join together in what he called downtown diversity. In only two hours we were able to raise the funds needed because of him. Bill’s big heart and giving spirit exemplify the best of Fort Smith. His wonderful soul will be deeply missed,” Goldsmith wrote in a note to Talk Business & Politics.
The family issued this statement Monday afternoon.
Bill Neumeier, 54, died Monday after a decades-long battle with depression, according to his family. He was a long-time operator of Garrison Avenue businesses Neumeier’s Rib Room and Papa’s Pub & Pizzeria and helped establish both the Riverfront Blues Festival and Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival.
Neumeier started out with a diner, Coney Island, which opened in 1988. In 1990, Coney Island added a Downtown Pizza Wagon service. In 1994, the diner and its patio became Coney Island Beer Garden at the same location, 817 Garrison, becoming a popular place for live music.
In 1995, the Beer Garden hosted its first national touring act – Poppa Chubby. In 1996, Bill put up the Garden’s first “real” stage. Through his love of music and taste in bookings, he attracted an SRO audience. The crowds encouraged him to upgrade 817 Garrison Avenue as Neumeier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden in 2009, where he continued to serve his award-winning barbecue along with outstanding music. He moved pizza sales to 508 Garrison, establishing Papa’s Pub & Pizzaria.
Neumeier was also founder of the Riverfront Blues Festival, which he started in 1991 on a flat-bed trailer stage on the banks of the Arkansas River. Later, he joined with friends to establish the Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival, which began in 2015. He leaves a legacy of making Fort Smith known for outstanding festivals.
Also in 2015, Neumeier sold the 817 Garrison location and continued to operate Papa’s Pub & Pizzeria. He renovated 424 Garrison Avenue as a new Neumeier’s Rib Room, continuing to serve his popular barbecue. Naturally, live music began to happen on the Rib Room’s patio.
While he was widely recognized as a downtown fixture, Neumeier was a private person. He did many acts of kindness, often through some intermediary, but those who received them understood the deep concern he was wordlessly expressing. He will be remembered as a creative force for music, dining and culture, always supportive of progress that would make his hometown – and downtown – a special place.