Building donation to save Fort Smith schools $3 million on career center

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,660 views 

The former Hutcheson shoe facility in east Fort Smith has been donated to the Fort Smith Public School District for use as the career and technology center planned under the district’s capital improvement plan. That plan was funded by a voter-approved millage increase.

The 181,710-square-foot building that sits on almost 17 acres at the corner of Zero Street and Painter Lane will save the district at least $3 million that had been budgeted to buy an existing building for the career center.

Fort Smith voters on May 22 approved the school millage increase, the first in 31 years, raising the millage rate in Fort Smith from 36.5 mills to 42 mills. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements.

In addition to safety work, the millage plan included a new $13.724 million Career and Technology Center featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines. The facility should open in 2021.

The building and land was donated by the estate of William L. Hutcheson Jr.

Hutcheson, who died Feb. 18, 2017, and his father opened several shoe stores in the 1950s. They were acquired in 1963 by Walmart Stores, with Hutcheson becoming vice president of the growing retailer’s shoe division. Hutcheson was promoted within Walmart and oversaw the integration of Canadian stores acquired by Walmart. He retired from Walmart in 2000 at the age of 78.

“This generous gift will enable generations of our kids to develop the ‘viable plan, applicable skill set and creativity’ called for in our Vision 2023 Strategic Plan,” Fort Smith School Board President Susan McFerran said in a statement.

School Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker said the building size and quality makes it a good fit for repurposing as a career center.

“This will be a fantastic site for our CTC. It’s been very well maintained. We could not be more excited about this,” Brubaker noted. “We are very grateful to the Estate of William L. Hutcheson, Jr., for this tremendous gift to the students and future of Fort Smith. This donation will accelerate our efforts to create a premier CTC that will provide students with the resources and needed to develop career goals as well as the knowledge, skills, and creativity that they will need to achieve them. This facility will also serve as a laboratory for the development of innovative and engaging instructional strategies in the areas of science, technology, engineering, art, and math, which will have a positive impact on the educational experiences of all FSPS students for many years to come.”

Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen said the center could be a key part of developing a better regional workforce.

“In Fort Smith we’re in the same situation the rest of the nation is, and that is we need more people and we need them to have more skill sets. I see the career center as being the pipeline,” Allen told Talk Business & Politics.

Jason Green, vice president of human resources for ABB in Fort Smith and a vocal proponent of the millage plan, said the career center will be a “game changer” for career and technical education in the Fort Smith region.

“We’ve always said a program like this needs state-of-the-art equipment and state-of-the-art facilities for our students to learn in. … So to have a facility of this size, it will be that kind of place for many, many generations to come,” Green said, adding that the center’s goal is to provide students a “viable career plan with relevant skill sets.”

He also said a modern career center is needed to make it attractive to today’s technology-focused students and their parent.

“It will be a place where kids will want to go and learn,” Green said.

He also stressed that the Fort Smith Public Schools works to collaborate with other regional workforce programs, especially those managed by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.