Key Fort Smith area news in 2018 included a change in ownership of one of the oldest hospitals in Arkansas, the first Fort Smith Public School millage increase in 31 years, and a push to implement a short-term sales tax to fund completion of the U.S. Marshals Museum. In addition, local politics saw several shifts as a new mayor was elected and a public corruption scandal led to the replacement of a long-time state Senator.
• Baptist Health acquires Sparks Health System
Little Rock-based Baptist Health System announced July 18 it would acquire Sparks Health System from Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems (CHS). The deal closed in the fourth quarter of 2018. A transaction amount was not disclosed.
“I’m humbled to think of the opportunities we have for the state’s first hospital in Fort Smith to join Baptist Health, the state’s largest and most comprehensive health-care system,” Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health, said in a statement from Baptist.
Sparks hospitals and clinics in Fort Smith and Van Buren employ 1,574 employees and about 500 contracted staff and physicians, according to Alicia Agent, director of marketing & communications for Sparks Health System and Sparks Medical Center-Van Buren. In August, though, the Sparks network in the Fort Smith metro area will have 95 “employed providers,” Agent said, which includes physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses.
In 2017, Sparks Clinic saw just short of 200,000 patients in the clinics, and had an estimated 55,000 emergency room visits in Fort Smith and 22,000 emergency room visits in Van Buren. There are 48 Sparks locations in the Fort Smith metro.
Baptist Health first opened in 1921 as an affiliate of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. The hospital is now the state’s largest network with nine hospitals – Little Rock, North Little Rock, Arkadelphia, Heber Springs, Stuttgart, BH Rehabilitation Institute, BH Extended Care Hospital, Hot Spring County and Conway. The network also includes a 400-resident retirement village, and the state’s largest schools of nursing and allied health, plus wellness centers and a home health network.
• Voters approve $120.8 millage plan
Fort Smith voters said yes to a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, on May 22 with approximately 62% of voters — around 78% of whom were Republicans, according to the county’s voter turnout numbers — approving the 5.558 millage gain.
The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. The proposal calls for $10.365 million to secure the walls and doors of Barling, Cook, Morrison, and Woods elementary schools.
An additional $5.5 million would be allocated for improvements to access controls, alarms, lighting, and accessibility measures across all campuses. The Board previously agreed safety and security improvements would be priority-one for implementation. The new millage would allow these changes to be completed by the fall of 2019.
Other noteworthy items include a new $13.724 million Career and Technology Center featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing. The estimated completion date for construction is August of 2020.
• Ongoing expansion with the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education
Fort Smith-based the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, parent organization of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, broke ground May 19 on the Colleges of Health Sciences.
ACHE President Dr. Kyle Parker said the new college will house the doctor of physical therapy, doctor of occupational therapy, and physician’s assistant programs, “all of which is to serve the underserved.” The 66,000-square-foot facility-to-come will cost around $25 million, including construction, furniture, equipment, technology, and accreditation. It will result in 30 faculty positions with annual pay, on average, of $100,000 each.
The (ACHE) also broke ground Aug. 28 on an $11 million, 6.6-acre development across from the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM). Parker said the development known as Heritage Village will feature two residential/retail buildings comprising 86,000 square feet.
• Tax sought for U.S. Marshals Museum construction completion
Construction began in July on the roughly $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum in downtown Fort Smith along the Arkansas River. Just a few months later, the Fort Smith Board of Directors approved an election to see if voters would support a short term tax to raise up to $16 million to complete funding for the project.
Fort Smith voters will decide on March 12 whether there will be a nine-month, non-renewable, one-cent city sales tax to benefit the U.S. Marshals Museum. The United States Marshals Museum Foundation will pay the city’s cost of the special election.
“With only $17 million left to raise, it’s time to ensure the USMM legacy is established as an anchor for economic development and impact in Fort Smith, as well as a hub for civic literacy across the city, the region, and the nation,” supporting documentation for the request stated.
Museum budget figures place the total project cost at around $49.266 million, down almost $10 million from estimates two years ago. Fort Smith was selected in 2007 to be home for the national museum.
• Fianna Hills Country Club closes
Long a part of the city, the Fianna Hills Country Club in Fort Smith announced its closure at the end of December.
In an email to club members, sent Dec. 18, management said, “it is with great sorrow and regret that I inform you that effective Dec. 31, 2018, that we will be closing Fianna Hills Country Club permanently. If you have events scheduled in 2019, you may call Amber to assist you in relocating them. All functions between now and then will still be honored.
This is not the first time the club has teetered on closing. The club’s future looked uncertain in early 2014. After months of speculation, club officials announced it would stay open in May 2014.
Many club members were stunned by the announcement of the closing, but not all were surprised.
“It’s been a shock. We knew there was a big possibility last year, but we thought things were OK,” said Catherine Young, president of the Fianna Hills Women’s Golf Association. “We understand they are not running in the black, that it is losing money every month. Young people don’t golf anymore. They are taking their kids to all the things they have to do, there isn’t time for golf.”
It remains unclear how the closure will impact home and land values to the hundreds of homes that surround the course and adjacent areas.
OTHER NOTABLE HEADLINES
• Historic mayoral race
Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, walked away from an Aug. 14 special election as the city’s new mayor and first African-American to hold the position in the city’s history.
McGill held on to a substantial early voting lead against opponents Wayne Haver and Luis Andrade. Haver, the long-time Southside High School principal, was a late entrant into the race. When Tuesday’s first tallies rolled in, McGill had 63.7% of the vote to Haver’s 27.26% and Andrade’s 9.04%. McGill finished with just under 57% and 4,313 votes to Haver’s 33% and 2,503 votes, and Andrade’s 10%, or 763 votes.
• Sen. Jake Files sentenced to prison, Mat Pitsch wins special election to replace
In January 2018, State Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, resigned his seat after pleading guilty to wire fraud, money laundering and bank fraud in a scheme that involved him steering legislative funding to a construction company he owned. Files was sentenced in June to 18 months in federal prison by U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III, who called Files’ transgressions an “egregious” violation of public trust. He reported to prison on Aug. 2, 2018 and must pay restitution of $83,900. Files also received three years of supervised release following his prison term.
After his resignation, several local politicians ran for Files’ remaining term and open Senate seat. Eventually, the new state Senator to represent the Fort Smith area was Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith. Pitsch’s professional experience includes working as CEO/president of McCourt Manufacturing, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, economic developer for the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and leading the effort to build an intermodal facility in the metro area.
• Downtown Fort Smith
64.6 Downtown, the group behind the Unexpected Festival and other efforts to revitalize downtown Fort Smith, named Talicia Richardson as executive director of the Fort Smith-based nonprofit. The job search became a focus after 2017’s approval of the Propelling Downtown Forward (PropelFS) downtown master plan. The master plan seeks to create sustainable downtown growth through increased residential and commercial spaces, walkability, and more entertainment and cultural amenities.
One of the announced projects for downtown included The Gateway Park. They will initially own and develop the park, and then transfer ownership to the city. The park will include statues of Judge Isaac Parker, John Carnall, and Mother Superior Mary Teresa Farrell. Carnall, born in 1818, was an early leader in the Fort Smith Public School system, and Farrell, who arrived in Fort Smith in 1853, was instrumental in bringing healthcare to the region.
64.6 Downtown also 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. Developing downtown Fort Smith is more about hitting “doubles and singles” than home runs, with the area’s future “pretty vibrant, pretty exciting,” according to Bill Hanna, one of three panelists participating in the opening discussion of Invest Fort Smith. Steve Clark, founder of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics and founder of 64.6 Downtown, said the “combo” of developments from 1996 until now have created the inertia that is now present. He also said the inertia is partially a result of people in the city realizing that “no cavalry is coming to save us,” and the citizens have to “fight a little harder to make things happen.”
• Expansion announcements
There were several multi-million dollar expansions and new construction in the region during 2018. Those included a the beginning of work on Silgan’s The Silgan’s planned $38 million new can manufacturing plant in Fort Smith that will create 150 new jobs; a $16 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion at Bekaert’s wire product plant in Van Buren expected to add 40 jobs; and a 40,000-square foot, $14.2 million Razorback Operation Center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.
• Corporate job concerns
Uncertainty about the future of Golden Living jobs in Fort Smith became somewhat less clear in April when real estate firm CBRE said it had been hired to sell or lease Golden Living’s 318,000-square foot office and former corporate headquarters building in Fort Smith.
Concerns about the corporate jobs have been around since Beverly Enterprises, the predecessor to Golden Living, was acquired by San Francisco-based Fillmore Capital in 2006 in a $2.2 billion deal. The large campus in Fort Smith was completed in the late 1990s as the corporate headquarters for Beverly Enterprises. Golden Living then employed about 900 in Fort Smith. Employment in April was down to around 400, according to Golden Living spokeswoman Kelli Luneborg-Stern.
• UAFS chancellor departure
Dr. Paul Beran stepped down Aug. 31 as chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to take on a new job as executive director and CEO of the South Dakota Higher Education Board of Regents. Beran became the chancellor in July 2006. During that time, UAFS transitioned more fully from a two-year college to a master’s degree-granting regional university.
• Untimely death of downtown investor, promoter
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 Nov. 19. The cause of his death was apparent suicide, according to the Fort Smith Police Department.
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. Neumeier was also 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.