Fort Smith city directors passed an ordinance at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday (March 17) that will allow members of the board to attend meetings by electronic means through June 30 because of health concerns regarding the COVID-19 virus.
The city’s municipal code requires board members to be physically present to be considered attending a meeting. The passed ordinance amends the code to allow members to be able to attend through a telephone call or video conference. The mayor, city administrator and city clerk would still be required to run the meeting from a central location open to the public, City Administrator Carl Geffken said.
“This would allow us to practice safe social distancing so that we are not all nine sitting in rather close quarters,” Geffken said.
Six board members voted for the ordinance with Director Lavon Morton noting the ordinance would be temporary. Director Keith Lau was not physically present at the meeting. After the ordinance passed with an emergency clause, Lau was connected to the meeting through a mobile phone for the remainder of Tuesday’s meeting.
Early in Tuesday’s meeting, Director George Catsavis asked if the city had plans to mandate business or restaurant closings or a curfew. Geffken said the city could only do that if there was a state of emergency and he did not see Fort Smith doing that. Board members also asked the city to look into waiving late fees for utility payments. Geffken said that was being considered, and the city had decided to cease utility shutoffs for at least the near future.
The board also approved an ordinance establishing temporary entertainment districts in downtown Fort Smith and the HUB at Providence in Chaffee Crossing. The ordinance will allow the possibility for temporary entertainment districts in both those areas through special events permits.
The 2019 Arkansas General Assembly adopted Act 812, which makes it lawful for cities to designate “entertainment districts” where patrons can walk outside a bar or restaurant with an open container of alcohol for public consumption. The act intends to “promote hospitality and tourism by establishing areas of a city or town that highlight restaurant, entertainment, and hospitality options,” stated a July memo on the districts from Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman.
The act specifically allows for the consumption of alcohol in public when it is consumed within the parameters of a designated entertainment district. Though the act allows for public consumption of alcohol outdoors in these districts, it does not “relax or supersede” laws or regulations dealing with alcohol including public intoxication or minor in possession of alcohol.
There can be permanently designated and temporary districts in a city, Dingman said.
Both districts have to be mapped by city ordinance, but temporary districts would only be activated during special instances. The entertainment districts, according to the act, should be in a “contiguous area” in a part of the city “zoned or customarily used for commercial purposes” where there are restaurants, taprooms, taverns, entertainment establishments, hospitality establishments, music venues, theaters, art galleries, art studios, tourist destinations, distilleries, dance clubs, cinemas, or concert halls.
The ordinance would set specific boundaries for the districts and states they can be activated through the city’s special event permit process, which specify the event, duration and specific hours the district would be active.
The two temporary entertainment districts identified in the draft ordinance are downtown Fort Smith, which include various city parks and areas used for special events, and The Hub at Providence at Chaffee Crossing. The draft ordinance also sets rules for operating the temporary districts. Dingman said he had received positive feedback from those with downtown interests and stakeholders on the proposal.
City ordinance requires applications for a special event permit to be made a minimum of 45 days prior to the event. The time needed to make provisions for the event vary by event, said Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker. Directors also passed an emergency clause so the ordinance goes into effect immediately in order that the Steel Horse Rally, set for May 1-2 in downtown Fort Smith to apply for a permit.
Director Robyn Dawson, who was the only director to vote against the ordinance, asked that a committee or subcommittee be formed to determine who would be eligible to apply for the district to be opened. Director André Good said that committee would need to include the Fort Smith police chief.
Director Neal Martin asked if the ordinance could be amended at a later time if it was determined that the entertainment districts caused negative issues for the city. Dingman said depending on what if any problems arose, the board could amend the ordinance to add rules that would address problems. He added that if the problems seemed too large, the board could repeal the ordinance.
“It is going to be a good thing for downtown,” Good said.
Mountain Home was the first Arkansas city to establish an entertainment district in 2019. An open container zone is permitted between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and midnight daily within the boundaries of the district, which is centered on its downtown area. Other cities in the state, including Little Rock, Hot Springs, Texarkana and El Dorado, have created entertainment districts.