The City of Fort Smith is considering using the Blue Lion facility in downtown Fort Smith as a meeting space for the Fort Smith Board of Directors and other city commissions and boards.
The University of Arkansas has leased the facility at 101 N. Second Street in Fort Smith as the Blue Lion at UAFS Downtown since 2012. They paid an initial payment of $15,005 and make monthly payments of $5,410 in a 15-year lease to own agreement with the Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID), which owns the building, city records show.
At the CBID board of trustees’ regular meeting Tuesday (March 16), the subject of the city taking over the lease from the university was discussed.
“The Blue Lion is a property that CBID owns, financed through First National Bank, leased to the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. We are midway through (that lease). Approximately half of the building has been paid down,” said Bill Hanna, CBID board chair. “The university no longer has a need for it, and the city has recognized that they can utilize the building. Our thought is that they simply take over that lease, which is a lease to purchase after the term is up and the bank would continue on the same terms that they financed all along.”
Assistant City Administrator Jeff Dingman said the city attorney is working on an assignment of the lease from the university to the city that would need to be approved by the city and university. The agreement would then require CBID approval.
“Ultimately, what we want is for downtown spaces to be utilized and occupied and functional. So I think we achieve that (with this assignment of the lease),” Hanna said.
The city now holds its board of director regular meetings at the Fort Smith Public School’s service center on Jenny Lind Road. The board of directors has in the past held its study sessions at the Fort Smith Public Library. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has used the Fort Smith Convention Center’s exhibit halls for board of director study sessions and regular board meetings. Many city boards and commissions also have been using the convention center for meeting space during the pandemic, Dingman said.
“Going forward, we started looking at other rooms in the convention center that might be a permanent place for the city to have its public meetings and for boards and commissions to have their public meetings in a regular meeting room. As we were looking at that, we were looking not at the exhibit hall space, but looking at other meetings areas in the building,” Dingman said. “But we have contracted the management of the facility, and we’ve impressed upon the management group that we are interested in them doing what they can to maximize the revenue in the building.”
The Fort Smith Board of Directors unanimously approved a contract to allow Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG) to manage the Fort Smith Convention Center beginning Jan. 1. The contract has an initial 3-year term, with options for up to seven subsequent one-year terms. The city will pay a management fee of $8,500 a month, subject to annual CPI adjustment, plus commission on food and beverage sales. There also will be possible performance and sales commission incentives. Dingman said OVG is willing to accommodate the city with their meetings but doing so would not necessarily be the best option for the convention center.
“If we’re using that space on four Tuesdays of the month, it’s hard to sell that space as a revenue generator,” Dingman said.
As the city continued to look for a home for its public meetings, the idea of the Blue Lion came forward, he said.
“The Blue Lion is already set up as small performance area, but it can certainly be utilized as public meeting space. There is a stage area and pretty big room for the audience to sit and attend public meetings,” Dingman said.
The city has to set up audio/visual equipment before each meeting, whether at the convention center or other locations, in order to livestream the meetings. City leaders want a permanent location where they can keep the AV equipment permanently set up and ready.
“A meeting space for the city’s public meetings is the primary purpose (for leasing the Blue Lion). There is more space than that in the building. We have looked at other uses in terms of office space for the A&P Commission staff and stuff of that nature that could utilize portions of it, but that is not the primary use,” Dingman said.
If the lease agreement is approved by all parties, it would still be a bit before the city’s public meetings would be held there. Although Gov. Asa Hutchinson has relaxed COVID restrictions, making them recommendations instead, the city has said it will extend existing COVID safety protocols through April 23.
The Blue Lion venue began as the entertainment venue Second Street Live. At the time UAFS officials acquired the property in 2012, they said the building would allow the university to expand its arts programs. The facility opened in early 2010 at a cost of more than $2 million. Renovations to the building began in November 2009. The building, first constructed in 1890, has roughly 20,000 square feet divided evenly among the first floor and a basement. CBID lease revenue for the venue is about $6,000 a year, CBID records show.
UAFS entered into an agreement in late 2020 with The Bakery District in downtown Fort Smith – which is owned by Hanna – where it will move its Center for Business and Professional Development and the Family Enterprise Center, both of which are now housed in the Flanders Building on the UAFS campus. The newest regional office of the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, which will be a joint venture with UAFS and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The UAFS facilities there are expected to be open and operating by this fall. UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley said it is important to UAFS to have a presence downtown. In 2020, she said the Blue Lion was a limited venue.
The UAFS provided this statement: “As a university it is incumbent upon us to continually assesses the needs of the institution, its students, and the greater community we serve. Our institutional priorities to serve these groups are reflected in our move to the Bakery District, where we will work with the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Center and several existing campus programs to develop a comprehensive business development hub in Fort Smith.
“Though the decision to approach the CBID about ending our lease agreement for the Blue Lion was difficult, we know that space was not used by the university enough to warrant the expense. By investing instead into the Bakery district, we will be able to bring our business development services to the region in a space where they make the most sense, where family business owners, entrepreneurs, and small business leaders can form synergistic relationships and grow together to benefit the River Valley.”