Panel: More could be done to build on momentum in Fort Smith

by Michael Tilley ( 711 views 

With attitudes turning positive about the future of Fort Smith, it’s time for regional governments, businesses and organizations to take action to build on the momentum and better insulate the regional economy from future downturns.

That was was the consensus of a five-person panel discussion that closed out Tuesday’s (Oct. 30) Invest Fort Smith summit held at Temple Live! in downtown Fort Smith. 64.6 Downtown partnered with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce to host Invest Fort Smith, a one-day summit designed to build awareness of downtown economic development opportunities.

The panelists were Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas; John Jeter, director of the Fort Smith Symphony; Jackie Krutsch, executive director of development for the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education; Rep.-elect Jay Richardson, D-Fort Smith; and Patrick Weeks, president and CEO of the U.S. Marshals Museum. Roby Brock, CEO of Talk Business & Politics, served as panel moderator.

Several topics were covered during the one-hour discussion, with the strengths, weaknesses and future of the Fort Smith metro being the focus of most of the hour.

Jeter said he has been in Fort Smith for 22 years, and in the past five years he has seen real change, especially in downtown Fort Smith. And while the growth is “slower than maybe what we’d prefer” he does see a change in attitude.

“It’s the attitude that, maybe, is finally starting to change, that yes, we can do some cool things in Fort Smith,” Jeter said.

Jebaraj, an economist, said with a strong economy now is the time to invest in revitalization, especially in downtown Fort Smith. He said investments that diversify the economy would be preferred to help ease negative impacts of the next economic downturn. He also said his wife is from Fort Smith and their visits to see her parents used to consist of going to their house and then back to Northwest Arkansas. But the trips now include visits to downtown Fort Smith.

“You can see the bones of something really good there,” he said, adding that the ”murals here are probably the best in the state.”

The murals are courtesy of The Unexpected, an event that just completed its fourth year in which artists from around the world bring their urban art to downtown Fort Smith.

To build on those bones, Jebaraj ventured into the controversial topic of truck traffic in the downtown area. The topic was also part of a panel discussion earlier in the day in which downtown property owner and developer Bill Hanna said something has to happen to “quiet downtown.”

Jebaraj said addressing the truck traffic and making the downtown more walkable is a key to bringing more retail and residential dwellings to the area.

“You really don’t want to see 18-wheelers on your downtown drag. … You don’t want to pause your conversation for five minutes while a truck passes,” he said.

Krutsch said the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education may be located in east Fort Smith in Chaffee Crossing, but students with the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine and the planned Arkansas Colleges of Health Science are a good market for downtown businesses and events. Osteopathic students will number around 650 when all classes are full, and the health science students will number 330. Students are from all over the country, and faculty hails from 17 states, Krutsch said, adding that the staff and students have partners and spouses who are well educated and some who have money to invest.

“You have seven years of opportunity to help these students fall in love with the area,” Krutsch said, adding that the medical students are in the process of building families and careers and may want to live in a downtown urban area.

One of those opportunities will be the U.S. Marshals Museum, which is set to open in September 2019. The morning of the Invest Fort Smith summit, crews poured 17,000 square feet of concrete for the 50,000-square-foot structure. Weeks said they still have around $18 million to raise for the $50 million project, but he’s confident the money will be raised.

“We still have a bit of ways to go with the fundraising, but the momentum is there,” Weeks said.

He also said preliminary numbers from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock suggest the museum will draw 125,000 visitors a year, with a majority coming from more than two hours away. He said the visitor count is higher than previously expected because of the rise of downtown events like The Unexpected, the Steel Horse Rally and the Peacemaker Festival. As to a weakness, Weeks said he is impressed with downtown investments made in the past few years, but there are others in the community who have the means to get involved.

“We need more visionaries. We need more people to step up into the fray,” Weeks said.

Richardson said the city and community needs to do more to “ride the momentum of downtown.” It’s been interesting, he said, to see other communities coming to Fort Smith “to take ideas back to their places.” However, Richardson also expressed frustration about the need for more investors and greater speed in bringing ideas to fruition.

“The passion to grow downtown is here … but we’re moving too damn slow. To me that’s the opportunity,” he said.