CBID hears bicycle rental plan, moves forward with downtown Fort Smith district assessment

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 628 views 

More bicycles could be coming to downtown Fort Smith in early 2020. Griffin Hanna, acting as an agent for Fort Smith businessman Bennie Westphal, requested a variance for the Central Business Improvement District at its regular meeting Tuesday (Nov. 19) to install two 20 foot by 8 foot metal storage containers for use as a bicycle rental facility at 417 Riverfront Drive.

The CBID Design Guidelines for the riverfront area prohibit metal buildings or buildings with metal facades. Those guidelines allow metal exteriors provided it does not exceed 20% of the gross wall area. Hanna told CBID board members the buildings would be painted by Fort Smith muralist Melody Smith. One mural would include a map of the trail system. The containers would sit on the site where Westphal had his gas well, Hanna said.

“That well has since been plugged and he is in the process of removing all the well site and material. We would like for him to keep the well pad, meaning that gravel that was on the location,” he said.

The containers would then house a bike sharing hub that would rent out bicycles, scooters, rollerblades and skateboards, Hanna said.

A bike share program began at the riverfront Nov. 1. The Fort Smith Board of Directors approved a three-year contract with Zagster Inc. on June 16. According to the contract, the city will pay $18,000 a year for the program. Zagster will provide bikes and equipment. Bikes will be rented through a mobile app on a user’s smartphone, according to city records.
Hanna said the bike hub would not compete with the Zagster program.

“We hope to collaborate with them. … We are trying to add something to the riverfront that kind of activates that trail system,” Hanna said.

FUTURE SCHOOL COLLABORATION
The container business would be located very close to trailhead at the Riverfront Park and is also near the Riverfront Skate and Bike Park. The goal of the bike hub includes a collaboration with the Fort Smith Future School. Through the school’s internship program, two or three students would manage the hub, Hanna said.

“It’s going to be on these Future School kids to come up with the business plan. They have to figure out exactly what the hours of operation will be. They will have to try to understand supply and demand, what works and what doesn’t work. It’s supposed to be a real fun way to try to get these kids involved in the community and activate the riverfront in the process,” he said.

The start-up cost for the business will be around $20,000, Hanna said. The containers will be a “temporary structure” with no electricity to the buildings or sewer or water lines added. The containers will use solar panels to generate what power is needed, he said.

“It’s a very much a grassroots effort, getting the shipping containers out there. It’s not supposed to be a big money maker but something to get kids to understand how business is ran. What we decided to do is do all the build out, get the city approvals and get the site ready,” he said.

Because it is temporary, a permanent structure can be built if the business is successful and the containers could be moved to a different location, such as Chaffee Crossing, in a few years, Hanna said.

The CBID board unanimously approved a variance to allow the containers to be used. Hanna will now have to go before the Fort Smith Planning and Zoning Commission/Board of Zoning Adjustment with a variance application. The proposed site for the metal containers is in a Planned Zoning District that requires a minimum of 80% high-quality materials on facades. Shipping containers are 0% high quality material, Hanna said. That variance application will be considered at the planning and zoning commission’s Dec. 10 meeting. If the variance is approved, the containers would be placed at the area around the first of the year with the bike sharing hub opening for business around Jan. 15, Hanna said.

DISTRICT ASSESSMENT
In other business the CBID board agreed to proceed with drawing up a petition for assessment on property within the district. The board voted Aug. 20 to proceed with plans for property assessment within the district, a move they hoped would allow the board to do more things to improve the downtown area of Fort Smith.

According to state law, there are two types of assessments that can be levied against real property inside a city’s improvement district – a project/improvement-specific assessment, levied to fund a “specific ‘plan of improvement,’” or a supplemental annual assessment to be used for ongoing operations or maintenance activities, Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said in a memo to the board dated Aug. 16.

Bill Hanna, CBID board chair, said the Fort Smith CBID is one of the few in the state not funded by an assessment. Based on property valuations as of July 28, each 1-mill assessment on properties within the CBID would amount to $38,834.47 in annual operating revenue, Dingman said. An 8-mil assessment would mean approximately $310,657 in annual funding for the district.

Before an assessment can be levied, more than 50% of property owners in the district must sign a petition agreeing to an assessment. The CBID board would then present that petition and the plan to the Fort Smith City Board of Directors. Dingman said under the state law if the CBID has the required signatures on the petition, the city’s BOD would be compelled to approve the assessment as an ordinance.

The board plans to use monies garnered from an assessment to fund an ambassador program that would hire off-duty police officers as part of a Safety and Security program for downtown. That program would cost about $136,000 annually, according to a proposed operating budget. The assessment would also fund a Green and Clean project that would include streetscape maintenance and landscaping, which could incorporate care of flowerbeds as well as pruning and possible replacement of trees, cleaning and repairs to benches, lighting and trash receptacles, litter control, conversion of lights along Garrison Avenue to LED and more, Dingman said. A final cost projection for the Green and Clean program was not available Tuesday.

Board members also had questions whether not-for-profit organizations owning property in the district, such as churches and Baptist Health-Fort Smith, would have their property assessed. A “significant” amount of property in the district is owned by not-for-profit organizations, Sam Sicard, board member noted. That question will be posed to an attorney when the petition is being drafted, the board decided. The answer could affect the amount of the assessment. The board is leaning toward an 8-mil assessment.

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