In the six months since Talicia Richardson was named executive director of 64.6 Downtown, things have been moving very fast in Fort Smith.
“Though it could be moving a little faster,” Richardson said in an interview Monday (Dec. 10) with Talk Business & Politics.
Richardson was hired following 2017’s approval of the Propelling Downtown Forward (PropelFS) downtown master plan, which Richardson helped organize.
The master plan seeks to create sustainable downtown growth through increased residential and commercial spaces, walkability, and more entertainment and cultural amenities. 64.6 is the group responsible for The Unexpected art project.
“We are known for The Unexpected, but we are trying to move forward. Art and activities are great, but people want to see these lead into an economic return on the investments. All this wonderful good can be bestowed on Fort Smith and really propel downtown forward,” Richardson said.
In October, 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.
Feedback from the event showed that an overwhelming majority of those attending and completing a survey on the event wanted to see it happen again and would refer a future event to a friend, Richardson said.
“They loved the format, but wanted to dig in a little deeper,” Richardson said. “There were some who wanted more information on what was for sale right now and what investments were available.”
64.6 Downtown plans to host a second summit in late spring 2019, Richardson said, but in the meantime, there is a lot to be done.
“Our riverfront is underutilized. We are beginning to see what all we can do there, but there is more we need to look at,” Richardson said.
She commended the building of the Riverfront Drive Skate and Bike Park, which opened in October, and said the park would serve as a catalyst for getting families to downtown.
“This could be a destination experience for that family that is a couple of hours away. They can go down to the expanded Greg Smith River Trail, visit the (Fort Smith) National Historic Site, go to the skate park. Then there is the 330 acres (the city recently agreed to purchase from Kansas Southern Railroad) for soft trails, and the U.S. Marshals Museum,” Richardson said. “We are creating a destination. Now we need activities that will make it more interesting for pop up business.”
She explained that perhaps businesses need to think outside the box, suggesting something like a kayak and canoe rental business could be something to have along the river.
“They might not have a store front downtown. Maybe they have a number you call and they meet you with the equipment in their truck,” Richardson said. “We need to be looking at, here’s an idea for a business that wants to be established, what can we do to make it happen?”
Another idea would be to use windows of currently vacant properties downtown — along Garrison and Towson avenues — to display advertisements for other business in another area of town.
“It could be a situation where the property owner has an agreement with a business to use your window. They would use advertising or dress the window, and that adds to the downtown shopping experience. Shoppers are not seeing empty store fronts. They are seeing activities. It’s a blank canvas, all of these different pieces coming together,” she said.
Richardson said the new Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine at Chaffee Crossing is a big part of developing downtown Fort Smith.
“It’s not just the students. It’s the spouses of the students that desire outdoor recreation,” Richardson said, adding that all of Fort Smith works in conjunction to make the city better for its residents. “It’s good for downtown, it’s good for Chaffee Crossing, it’s good for everything in between.”
Another link in the chain is downtown living and the amenities that come with that. The need for a grocery store downtown was mentioned more than once at the economic summit.
“We would love a grocery store,” said Richardson, who lives and works downtown. “What comes first — the amenities or the people living downtown? It makes it more appealing to investors to make the choice to move to a city (or area) if the vacancies are not high.”
Also on the 64.6 agenda for 2019 is promoting healthier living in conjunction with both Baptist Health-Fort Smith (formerly Sparks Regional Medical Center) and Mercy Fort Smith.
“We’re going to have the trails. We have the skate and bike park. We have investments like Ales for Trails supporting our downtown. There are so many opportunities,” Richardson said, noting mindful placement of sidewalks in the city is an important factor in this initiative.
Next week, new details will be unveiled related to permanent sculpture artwork in Gateway Park, which will be located at the eastern end of downtown Fort Smith at the intersection of Garrison and Rogers Avenues. As previously reported, bronze artist Spencer Schubert will design three sculptures of historic Fort Smith figures:
- Judge Isaac Parker – representing law and order in the late 1800’s, Judge Parker was an advocate for education and women’s rights;
- Mother Superior Mary Theresa Farrell – representing the establishment of healthcare in Fort Smith; and
- John Carnall – representing education in Fort Smith, of whom Carnall Elementary School is named.
All of these parts and pieces will bring investors to Fort Smith, she said.
“You go outside of Fort Smith and hear what people are saying about us. These are very positive things people are talking about. We want our city and all of us in it to start embracing the positive comments, to share the positive,” Richardson said. “There are a lot of people who love Fort Smith right now. We need to continue to grow that momentum.”