Mayors say boosting infrastructure, regional collaboration key to economic growth

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 769 views 

Regional mayors participating in the recent second annual Invest Fort Smith Summit were (from left) Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst, Alma Mayor Jerry Martin and Greenwood Mayor Doug Kinslow.

Regional mayors joined in a panel discussion on collaborating to improve the Fort Smith metro, including doing more to improve regional infrastructure. The discussion was part of the second annual Invest Fort Smith summit held Sept. 19.

Alma Mayor Jerry Martin, Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, Greenwood Mayor Doug Kinslow and Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst shared their views on what is working in the region along with ways they hope to work together to improve it. The mayors agreed there are lots of things working for the region and a lot of that is due to the Arkansas River.

“We have an amazing asset called the Arkansas River. There is lots of land to be developed (in Fort Smith) along the river. There is a lot we can do with the river. It is a wonderful resource,” McGill said.

The river will be an integral part of the intermodal port the region is working toward and that port will be huge for the entire region, the mayors agreed. Combining river shipping with service from three major railroads represented and the completion of Interstate 49 and the area will be positioned as a transportation hub, they said. But even before the completion of the intermodal port, there is a lot going on in the region that needs to be touted.

“People are taking notice throughout the state. There’s a lot going on here,” Martin said.

Fort Smith, Alma, Van Buren and Greenwood public schools are routinely ranked as some of the best schools in the state. Add that to the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas College of Health Education, and the region is becoming well known for great education offerings, Martin said. He said a new commitment to workforce development from the schools will only make the education scene stronger.

“We are always working together. The flood showed that. That flood had us shoulder to shoulder working for this river valley. We are all working to get I-49 finished. That will affect the entire region,” McGill said. “I’m always saying that we are Fort Smith proud, but river valley strong.”

Hurst agreed that over the past 10 or so years there has been a change in mindset towards a more regional one. Cities in the region have begun to think of themselves as region, utilizing the river, and that mindset will move the region to becoming just as strong as Northwest Arkansas or other regions in the state.

“It starts with communicating and embracing our diversity. As we do that, we are going to connect. And as we connect, we are going to celebrate each other’s victories. And as we do that, we are going to grow together as a region. This is what other parts of the state have figured out a long time ago, and we now finally have leadership, here in our region who not only understands that but embraces that,” Martin said.

He said it is not just the mayors of Greenwood, Van Buren, Alma and Fort Smith who have made this commitment to regionalism, but it is the mayors of the surrounding towns embracing the fact that everyone has to understand the fact they have to work together.

“If we do (embrace that) and we continue that mind set, we’re going to be unstopped. If we don’t, we’re going to get left behind,” Martin said.

Some areas the region is looking to capitalize on are trails. Alma, Greenwood, Fort Smith and Van Buren have trail systems, and each city has plans to grow theirs.

“The trail system in the region can be a big attraction. Someday, it would be great to see bridge across the river that would allow pedestrian crossing. To be able to ride a bike from Alma to Van Buren across the river into Fort Smith, that would be great,” Hurst said.

Martin agreed, saying linking Alma’s extensive Lake Alma Wildlife Observation Trail to other trails in the region would be ideal. There has been talk of bringing in big events once the Lake Alma trails are complete, which is something that will help the entire region because those coming in will need places to stay and eat, he said.

“We really could see in the future a trail system that goes from Greenwood all the way to Northwest Arkansas in one of the most beautiful corridors in the nation,” Martin said.

McGill also said there have been talks of a fishery, which would impact the entire region.

“We have the water supply at Lake Fort Smith that we do believe has the capacity to produce water cold enough to put in a fishery that would really benefit Mountainburg, Van Buren and more,” McGill said, noting the nearest fishery is in northeast Arkansas. “If we can create that, we could attract many fishermen down to this area.”