Summit panel discusses operating in downtown Fort Smith, need for more retail

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 630 views 

A panel of developers and business owners who have been there, done that shared Thursday (Sept. 19) the experience and advice on how to invest, develop or operate a business in downtown Fort Smith with less than $500,000 in capital.

The panel discussion was part of the Second Annual Invest Fort Smith summit, and was held in the West Room at Riverfront Park. The summit was conducted by 64.6 Downtown.

Phil White, founder and former CEO of General Pallets and downtown investor and developer; Justin Skinner, owner of Historic Holdings; Clifton Culpepper, small developer and investor; and Beth Price, owner and operator of Belle Starr Antiques joined in discussion of how to start a small business and succeed, moderated by Rham Cunningham, founder of Things to Do in Fort Smith.

Each of the panelist shared their experiences of starting business in downtown Fort Smith while sharing what they liked about living in and doing business in the area.

“I think the best part is that it is walkable and you know your neighbors,” Skinner said. “Everyone looks out for everyone down here.”

The cost of rent or buying property downtown as compared to other areas of town is also a big draw, Price said.

“You are going to spend a lot less on place downtown that you will somewhere down Rogers Avenue. That can really help you when you’re starting out,” Price said.

Price started her business with $8,000 in her savings account in 2010, spending about $5,000 of that on startup costs. The business first began in a building she leased from Richard Griffin. In 2017, she was able to purchase a building once home to an upholstery business but had sat vacant since the 1970s at 410 N. B St.

“You know to start, I didn’t pay myself. Everything I made, I put back into the business. I hired my first employee in 2013, three years after I opened. But that’s a big part of it, you have to invest yourself,” Price said.

Using Price as an example of what is needed to start a new business downtown, White said, someone wanting to open a business needs to have, along with a vision, a strong commitment and a willingness to put in the hours. He also pointed out that a good business model, cash flow and the ability to find the right property to fit particular needs were key as well.

“You need something for sustainability. You need to know the first year will be the roughest year you will have and be prepared for that,” White said.

The panelists agree that downtown needs more retail, as well as a grocery store and maybe an outdoor outfitters or healthy living business, movie theater and fitness facility.

“I would really like to see more retail. We have an amazing stretch of restaurants and entertainment venues, but we need more for people to do during the day to get them to spend time down here. Local retailers lend to the culture here. The mom and pop shops give us the flavor,” Price said. “We all support each other down here. There is already and existing family who want you to invest.”

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, supported the need for more retail in the downtown area, which he noted was the largest by area in the state. With 2,871 people living downtown and 9,231 working downtown every day, there is a need for more amenities, he said.

“You have over 10,000 daytime people downtown each day. They need business to serve them,” Jebaraj said, adding that the highest demand for business in that area includes retail, movie and amusement, hotel and lodging and eat and drink. “Yes you have a lot of restaurants, but we would like to see more to be able to serve those down here.”

According to 64.6 Downtown, objectives of the summit were to discuss downtown growth, regional trends, and possibilities within downtown Fort Smith.

“Invest Fort Smith seeks to pull together those interested in starting, expanding, or renovating a business, creating development, or those who wish to stay up-to-date and informed on what is going on in downtown. These opportunities are defined in the Fort Smith downtown masterplan, Propelling Downtown Forward, #PropelFS,” noted the 64.6 Downtown statement.

The event was geared toward property owners, developers, small business owners, banks, non-profits, construction, architects, realtors, and public officials.

“We wanted to be a convener of the people that were interested in downtown Fort Smith, but also the infill between downtown Fort Smith and Chaffee Crossing, because that’s just as important to the community,” said Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown.

The event aligns with the Propelling Downtown Forward initiative directed by 64.6 Downtown. 64.6 Downtown is a nonprofit founded in 2015 by Fort Smith entrepreneur Steve Clark with the purpose of creating vibrant spaces in downtown Fort Smith that further economic development. It’s responsible for the Garrison Commons downtown pocket park and The Unexpected, an annual event bringing urban and contemporary art to Arkansas.

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