Historic downtown Fort Smith theatre set for $8 million in renovation work

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 4,632 views 

Architect drawings are viewed by those attending Monday’s (March 25) announcement at the Propak building in downtown Fort Smith about renovation of an historic theatre in downtown Fort Smith.

The New Theater in downtown Fort Smith will return to its former glory and usher in a cultural revolution in the near future, according to project directors.

64.6 Downtown announced Monday (March 25) that renovation of the historic theater would move into the construction phase in October with expected completion by December 2020 or January 2021, said Talicia Richardson, 64.6 Downtown director. Demolition and remediation is underway.

Total renovation costs are expected to be around $8 million “and climbing,” John McIntosh, project manager, told the crowd of around 75 who gathered at the Propak headquarters for the announcement.

The Beaux Arts building was built in 1911 by the Bollar Brothers of Kansas City, hired by Fort Smith Resident George Sparks, who was inspired by a visit to the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway in New York. At the time of its opening and for decades to follow, the theater hosted some of the biggest names in Vaudeville and acts of the time, including George Arliss, Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw, Mary Astor and Shirley Temple.

Rendering of the stage area of the planned New Theatre project in downtown Fort Smith.

The theater, located at Ninth N. 10th St., underwent many renovations over the years and was adapted to a movie theater in the 1940s. It has been vacant for decades. Richard Griffin and the Griffin Family trust donated the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1999, to 64.6 for renovation and a new life. The renovation will turn the theater into a regional hub for performing arts, music and dance, Richardson said.

“When we talk economic development or when we talk about jobs, everyone wants jobs,” said Steve Clark, founder and chairman of 64.6 and CEO of Fort Smith-based Propak. “What we must understand in this economic environment is we must have something else. Those something elses are amenities that keep and attract those who want to be here.”

“It is not just necessary to appreciate the arts. It is imperative. We must do so,” he added.

Renderings submitted by Studio 6 Architects of Fort Smith show the theater and adjoining office space will encompass over 26,000 square feet, Richardson said. The New Theater Performing Arts and Education Center will be a theater, rehearsal and support spaces, office and meeting spaces and education spaces.

The lobby gallery will open to below, and theater balcony seating will have 221 seats. In total there will be over 600 seats available in the theater, Richardson said. There will be modern sound and lighting. There also will be a green room, star rooms, dressing rooms and storage areas. There will be a large stage and fly area and an orchestra pit, as well as a bar and catering area and access to Garrison Commons Park.

Rendering of the outside of the planned New Theatre project in downtown Fort Smith.

CDI Contractors are the contractors for the project.

The Young Actors Guild, which has donated to the new performing arts center, has committed to stage its 2021 season of events in the New Theater, Richardson said. Talks are ongoing with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the Fort Smith Symphony, Western Arkansas Ballet and the Future School of Fort Smith for possible collaboration, Richardson said. The objective of the project is to promote, create and inspire artistic excellence among young artists through professional performing arts education while driving cultural economic growth in the community, Richardson said.

64.6 Downtown will manage and operate the facility. Once open, the facility is expected to employ three full-time and around a dozen part-time or contract employees. The operating budget is expected to be $90,000 to $100,000 annually, McIntosh said.

“It’s an excellent example of the vision of downtown Fort Smith represented in Propel Downtown Forward, Fort Smith’s master plan,” Richardson said of the project.