With commercial tenants bringing in customers and design underway on space for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, The Bakery District in Fort Smith is preserving history while providing a space to bring more people and commerce to downtown.
The Bakery District, at 63 S. Sixth St. in what was the 1920s-era Shipley Baking Co., celebrated its grand opening in June. Boasting two tenants – Fort Smith Coffee Co. and Bookish, both of which opened their second Fort Smith locations at The Bakery District – and one food truck, Tasty Burger, the transformed bakery also has a stage and sound system that can accommodate bands, lecturers, movie screenings and other entertainment events. Bill Hanna of Hanna Oil & Gas, owner of The Bakery District, said they think they will be able to expand the number of food trucks located in the courtyard.
The historic baking facility still has its original brick and mortar walls but has been retrofitted with updated sound, lighting, and HVAC systems. The interior has been redesigned to host a coffee lounge/roastery, a catering kitchen, a beer garden with a bocce-ball court as well as indoor/outdoor event space, the company’s website said.
“Our courtyard can host a number of food-trucks, bocce-ball tournaments, shuffleboard, ping pong and countless other activities,” the website said.
The 5,800 square foot outdoor patio offers seats and views of the murals painted by internationally renowned artist Hilda Palafox, who covered the bakery’s pair of 30-foot silos during the 2019 Unexpected Project.
Three event center rooms of various sizes are available for weddings, meetings or events.
According to the website, phase two of the Bakery District’s development will include office space on the second floor and residential apartments next door.
“We are in the process of doing design work of phase three, which will accommodate UAFS for a couple of programs,” Hanna said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics, noting that design work should be finished soon, and they hope to get the project out for bids by the end of year.
UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley said the UAFS area in the facility would not be an event space, but more of a professional development type space.
“It’s important for us to have a presence in downtown. We have the Blue Lion of course, but it is a really limited venue for events and activities,” Riley said.
UAFS has the Family Enterprise Center, “which serves as a regional catalyst for the bedrock of our community, the family in business,” and the Center for Business and Professional Development, which provides customized training/consulting for area business and industry and professional development opportunities, the UAFS website states. The university is looking at housing both of those in The Bakery District space.
“Those have very different missions and goals, but those are both organization centers within the university that are geared towards people who are not coming to the campus every day,” Riley said.
After looking at space available at the facility, Riley said they came up with the possibility of leasing the space and using downstairs space for large seminar spaces that can be broken into a couple of smaller spaces, which could ultimately (in a time when there does not have to be concern over social distancing) seat about 100 people with tables and chairs so they could have writing surfaces. Then upstairs, the university could have office space, work space, open spaces in case they want to do maker space upstairs.
“We might do 3-D printing. We could do professional development training. … Ultimately means not taking away those classroom spaces and large meeting room spaces on the campus, which frankly I’m planning on needing for the growth we are going to have on campus over the next few years,” Riley said.
Riley said the idea of having space in The Bakery District is attractive because it allows the university to take some things off campus and put them where they really belong, where they will be most accessible to anyone who is external to the campus, not a normally registered student, faculty and staff. It allows them to locate these things where people are really confident and comfortable and also has “a ton of synergy with the other things happening (downtown.)”
She said the idea of those taking advantage of the UAFS organization centers can also go to Bookish or get coffee is a big draw. She also likes that the space will allow the university the ability to host bigger events in the space and expand its footprint in the city. Riley said UAFS owns design plans for the area they hope to lease, but things are still early in the planning stages and nothing has been approved by the University of Arkansas system and no lease has been signed.
That UAFS was planning to occupy space in the facility was a big draw for Sara Putman, owner of Bookish, when it came to opening a second location of her locally-owned bookstore. The second location occupies a small nook in The Bakery District next to the Fort Smith Coffee Co. It is located in the public space with public bathrooms and access to the future UAFS area.
Because it is a public space area, design took a little thought. Fortunately for Putman, The Bakery District custom designed and built the bookshelves and cabinetry she needed because they had a very specific look they wanted to keep in the space and the shelves need the ability to be locked when the store is closed but the public space is still open. That and the ability to bring inventory from the other store to stock the shelves, kept startup costs very low for the store, Putman said.
“It was almost how can I not do this?” she said. “If I want to stay alive and I want to have people gathering, even if in small groups, I really had to give it a shot. If I really do believe that books are powerful and they change lives and they create culture and unity, then I need to be right where people are.”
Hanna said they are still working on ideas for the catering kitchen at the district, and there are “lots of things we are working towards.”
“There is another building attached to the bakery, Parker Plaza. We are doing design work for it right now. We’ll start construction when the design is right for that one. That will be phase four,” Hanna said.
Initial plans called for Parker Place to have four condos on the second floor with retail and working space on the first floor. That area will allow for more tenants, but planners are trying to be careful, Hanna said.
“There are multiple phases. We do it as we can afford it,” he said. “It’s a concept that Fort Smith hasn’t had. We don’t want to go too fast and give them something they don’t want.
“We’re excited. It’s been fun,” he added.
A $2.7 million building permit with Petree Construction was issued in April 2019 for the first phase of the project, which is owned by Bill Hanna of Hanna Oil & Gas. The Central Business Improvement District first approved plans by Studio 6 Architects for KMW Properties to turn the former bakery into an events center in June 2018.