Top 10 Fort Smith metro stories in 2019

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,282 views 

Flooded homes in Fort Smith. (photo courtesy of Austin Collins)

Record floods that displaced hundreds of people, significant school construction, continued downtown Fort Smith improvements and new faces in high places were some of the top headlines in the Fort Smith area during 2019.

1. Record flooding
Record flooding hit the Fort Smith area in late May, shutting down river traffic and flooding hundreds of homes and businesses.

The flooding along the Arkansas River (McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, or MKARNS) covered more than 2,100 parcels of land, and flooded more than 500 homes and businesses in Fort Smith alone. The river crested May 29 in the Fort Smith area at 40.26 feet, surpassing the all-time highest river level of 38.1 feet set in May 1945.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in late May that flooding along the river had stopped commercial barge traffic on the Arkansas River at a cost of $23 million a day to the state’s GDP.

In the aftermath, Hutchinson put an estimated price tag of $100 million on the flooding in terms of repair costs to public infrastructure and private losses all through Arkansas. In late June, Hutchinson appointed a task force to make recommendations regarding the state’s levees and requested legislative approval for $10 million for immediate repairs after the historic flooding.

2. School expansion, renovation
The Fort Smith Public School District began work on more than $64 million in new construction and renovations that were part of the millage increases package approved by voters in 2018. Fort Smith voters approved a 5.558 millage increase for Fort Smith public schools in 2018. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million.

A Southside High School project will include a 12-classroom freshman center addition and new competition gym with seating for at least 2,300 and an integrated storm shelter, along with a new standalone storm shelter, and cafeteria renovation with a construction budget of $35 million.

Similar renovations at Northside High School include a 12-classroom freshman center addition, a new secure entry that will lead to new administration offices, a new competition gym with seating for at least 2,300, and cafeteria renovation with a construction budget of $29 million. The millage work also includes creation of a Career and Technology Center and renovations at the district’s elementary schools.

3. New chancellor
Dr. Terisa Riley began July 1 as the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor, making her the first female in that role.

Riley previously worked as senior vice president for student affairs and university administration at Texas A&M University at Kingsville, and was one of four candidates to visit UAFS as part of the search for a new chancellor. At the time of her hiring, UAFS had 5,840 students and 914 faculty. Her starting salary was $290,000.

During her April 4 campus visit, Riley said the university should consider a marketing and branding campaign that better tells the institution’s story and extends the messaging reach.

4. Good economic numbers
Despite record flooding earlier in the year, and a regional economy that remained lackluster through the year, there were positive signs for the region.

Building activity in the Fort Smith region ended 2019 ahead of 2018 thanks to a flurry of building in Fort Smith in the final 30 days of the year. The region ended the year with $238.752 million in permitted building activity, a 3% increase from 2018’s $231.78 million and a 13% increase from 2017’s $210.844 million.

2019 enplanements out of the Fort Smith Regional Airport – Arkansas’ third largest commercial field – totaled 95,670, up 5.7% from the 90,501 in 2018. December enplanements totaled 8,277, up 4.17% from the 7,945 in December 2018.

Hospitality tax collections in January-October were up 8.1% in Fort Smith and up 3.7% in Van Buren.

5. Not so good economic numbers
2019 was another year in which the Fort Smith regional economy struggled to add new jobs. The Fort Smith metro jobless rate was 3.4% in November, up from 3.3% in November 2018, with the region seeing only marginal changes in the size of the available workforce and the number of employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

BLS data showed 114,805 jobs in the metro area in November, just 20 jobs more than 114,785 jobs in November 2018. The November tally was higher than the 114,673 jobs in October. The November employment also is down 10,621 jobs from peak employment of 125,426 in June 2006, a drop of 8.46%. Following are the past six years of annual average employment per month in the region.
2018: 114,870
2017: 115,156
2016: 115,579
2015: 114,411
2014: 112,705

6. U.S. Marshals Museum tax rejection
Fort Smith voters on March 12 rejected a one-cent, nine-month sales tax that would have raised an estimated $16 million for completion of the U.S. Marshals Museum. At the time, the museum had raised enough money – $35.5 million – to pay for construction of the facility, which began in July 2018. The remaining funds were needed to build the exhibits and “experience” of the museum.

In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the national museum. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in September 2015 on a site near the Arkansas River in downtown Fort Smith, and museum officials initially hoped to have the facility open by late 2017. The goal is to open the museum late 2020, museum officials have said.

7. 64.6 Downtown efforts
64.6 Downtown, an organization founded by Propak CEO Steve Clark, continued its work in 2019 to improve downtown Fort Smith. Following are just some of their successes in 2019.

• The New Theater in downtown Fort Smith will return to its former glory and usher in a cultural revolution in the near future. 64.6 Downtown announced 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.

• The Levitt Foundation listed 64.6 Downtown as one of 20 recipients of the 2020 Levitt [Your City] AMP Grant Awards on Dec. 20. 64.6 Downtown was chosen as finalist in October. Online voting from Nov. 1-20 made them a winner. Winners receive up to $25,000 in matching funds to produce free outdoor concert series featuring a diverse lineup of professional musicians.

• A bronze statue of Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker is situated in the point of the new Gateway Park in downtown Fort Smith. The sculpture joins two other statues – John Carnall and Mother Superior Mary Teresa Farrell. Carnall, born in 1818, was an early leader in the Fort Smith Public School system, and Farrell, who arrived in Fort Smith in 1853, was instrumental in bringing healthcare to the region. The $750,000 project is a private/public partnership, with the park being built with private funds and the city covering the cost of sidewalks, street lights and moving a water line. It was an initiative of 64.6 Downtown.

8. A new police chief
Following a nationwide search that yielded 28 applicants, City Administrator Carl Geffken announced Sept. 27 that Danny Baker will fill the vacancy left when former Chief Nathaniel Clark resigned March 24. Baker has served as the interim chief since April 8.

He said his first priority as the new chief would be to stabilize the department and work to fill its ranks, noting the department still had several vacancies. Baker leads a department comprised of 164 uniformed officers and 54 civilian personnel. An Eastern Oklahoma native, Baker is a law enforcement veteran with 22 years of service – since September 1997. He has served with Fort Smith Police for 18 years.

9. Interest in county, municipal judicial elections
A combination of retirements and new districts drew 13 candidates to six county and judicial races in Sebastian County. Following is a list of the judicial positions and candidates.

Sebastian County Circuit Court, Division IV
Greg Magness
Phil Milligan
Sebastian County Deputy Public Defender Rita Howard Watkins

Sebastian County Circuit Court Division V
Gunner DeLay

Sebastian County Circuit Court, Division VII race
Dianna Hewitt Ladd
Judge Sam Terry

Fort Smith District Court, Division I race
Administrative Law Judge Amy Grimes
Judge Jim O’Hern

Fort Smith District Court, Division II race
Joshua Bugeja
Sebastian County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jason Hunter
Sebastian County Deputy Public Defender Wendy Sharum

Fort Smith District Court, Division III
Judge Claire Borengasser
Michael Pierce

10. FCRA leadership change, lawsuits
Daniel Mann began his new role as executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) on Aug. 16. Mann was chosen as the new executive director July 19.
The position was left vacant when the board voted Feb. 21 that Ivy Owen was no longer able to fulfill his responsibilities as executive director due to health issues, and because of that he would no longer be employed by FCRA. Owen would later file a wrongful termination lawsuit against the FCRA. That action was settled out of court.

A lawsuit was filed May 17 in Sebastian County Circuit Court against the FCRA concerning a land use change that plaintiffs said would harm the walk and shop concept of the historic area presented in the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority’s master plan. The filing said the FCRA decision to allow non-conforming businesses into the area was “arbitrary and capricious,” and was for the benefit of specific land owners rather than the public as a whole; and “taking with no public purpose is invalid.” The court would eventually dismiss the suit, and the Fort Smith Board of Directors would change the zoning to allow previously non-conforming businesses to remain. The issue could continue into 2020 if the plaintiffs decide to appeal the court decision.