The Future Fort Smith group brought the need for better communication about projects completed and underway in Fort Smith to the Fort Smith Board of Directors during a study session Tuesday night (Jan. 26).
Future Fort Smith Committee Chair John Cooley said during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are companies and families across the country looking to move to areas that make the most sense, and Fort Smith needs to capitalize on that.
“We all agree that the city has done a really good job of keeping the (comprehensive) plan in front of city (leaders), but we are trying to figure out what next might look like. How can we fully activate this plan,” Cooley said.
But he noted the biggest issue now with the comprehensive plan is communication.
“We’ve got to find a way to empower and inform the public so we have got to spread some good news. We have got to show progress. We’ve got to pat ourselves on the back. This is a constant sales job, not just the comprehensive plan but the things we do,” Cooley said.
The Future Fort Smith committee works with the city on the city’s Comprehensive Plan. According to the city’s website, “The Future Fort Smith Comprehensive Plan is a document containing goals, policies, and actions that define and support a common vision and purpose. The Plan sets a direction that will be used by the City of Fort Smith to proactively manage future change.”
The plan was completed about six years ago and the committee was put into place to make sure the plan was not forgotten, Cooley said. In 2019, the committee updated the plan’s completion matrix. Cooley said one area that needs attention is the Future Fort Smith website located on the city’s website. That website could potentially be a draw to those considering relocating to the city, he added.
“The comprehensive plan has got to have a very prominent place in (the city’s new website),” he said, noting it cannot be situated in such a way that it takes three or more clicks to get to it.
“It’s going to have to be an eye-popping and splashy look to get to this document because if someone is going to come to it and search around, whether a citizen or someone from outside of the city or the state, how are we going to influence them to want to click more?” Cooley added.
The web page will allow the committee to better communicate with the public and ideally would include city department reports on the comprehensive plan; press releases concerning the plan or Future Fort Smith; links to other sites like the area school districts, to Chaffee Crossing, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, 64.6 Downtown and others; links to the Fort Smith trail system with maps of completed trails as well as proposed trails; frequently asked questions; and a volunteer portal, Cooley said.
“One of the other things we talked about: How do we show what we’ve done? We’ve got to have a list of completed projects. As we know not everything is moving dirt, but a lot of it is,” he said.
That would include before and after pictures of completed projects along with upcoming projects and initiatives that have been started or implemented. Cooley said a virtual tour of these projects would be helpful as well.
“As you know, we’ve got a (vote to extend the) ¼ cent sales tax that effects not only the fire department but certainly the parks department (coming up next year.) Why don’t we something that shows what that money has been spent on? So when we get to the point that we are going to have to try to sell people on renewing that, it’s already out there. … Let’s put that in front of them and show them what that tax has paid for,” Cooley said.
Along with suggestions for the web site, Cooley said communications in other ways was important as well. Here, he suggested more city-generated Future Fort Smith press releases and social media announcements along with brochures and other mediums.
“I think the biggest downfall is that we have not been able to capitalize on a lot of the progress that has been made. Since the Comprehensive Plan was created, there has been a lot of progress made in the community. But most people don’t talk about those things because we have not done a good job of showing them,” Cooley said.
Director Neal Martin agreed that the city has not done a good job of “selling” what the city has done. Since Shari Cooper, communications manager for the City of Fort Smith, started with the city in August, the city has been doing a good job of communicating via social media, he said.
“But I think we’ve got to ramp it up. It’s got to get bigger. We’ve got to see those things. No one is going to tell the story if we don’t tell it,” Martin said.
He and Director and Vice Mayor Jarred Rego said the city has a finite amount of time to convince the younger generations to stay and work in Fort Smith and help it grow and flourish and communicating to them what progress the city has made is key. Director Robyn Dawson said she challenged the city to work together with the planning commission and the Future Fort Smith Committee to better communicate with the public.
“We all need to be pushing this cart together instead of each pushing our own carts,” she said.