Fort Smith officials discuss riverfront development, suggest renovation at Kelley Park

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,408 views 

Crowds gathered JUly 2020 at the Peacemaker Festival at the Harry E. Kelley Park in downtown Fort Smith.

Replacing the Riverfront Amphitheater at Harry E. Kelley Park with a bigger venue could help draw more people to Fort Smith and to the city’s river, Fort Smith City Director Kevin Settle said during a board of directors study session Tuesday night (March 9).

“If we could replace that with an amphitheater with seating for 5,000 or so, move the stage over to in front of the river, so people could look at the river during events, we could have a really nice outdoor venue. It could be a nice performance facility on the river,” Settle said.

The board was discussing development on the river and what the city wanted to see happen with it.

City Administrator Carl Geffken said over the past five years, the city has seen the building of the U.S. Marshals Museum, the Riverfront Bike and Skate Park and the Greg Smith River Trail. The city also has purchased 312 acres on the north end of the riverfront area for a public-private partnership to build soft trails for mountain biking, hiking, etc.

“There is additional development on the horizon, and the city is investing in infrastructure to incentivize that development. The infrastructure includes water and sewer lines and the extension of Kelley Highway to Riverfront Drive,” Geffken said in a memo to the board of directors included with information on the study session.

Mayor George McGill said that there is interest in development by the river spurred by the new soccer fields in the area and talk of an RV park and new soccer fields by the river. Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID) commissioners approved a request Jan. 19 by Rick Griffin and Phil White to move forward with an RV Park on Riverfront Drive. The park will be located just south of 330 acres the city purchased from Kansas City Southern Railroad Company for soft surface trails.

Griffin with Griffin Properties in Fort Smith told the commission the proposed park would include 107 paved RV parking spaces, 12 tent spaces, a swimming pool, restroom facilities and a playground. It will have a park-like setting and also will include a manager residence that will have an apartment, office and retail space. Developers also hope to add a boat ramp that will allow access to the Arkansas River.

“There is a lot of interest happening. People are now starting to vote with their money. We’re seeing that happen. There is a robust discussion about … potential projects for the riverfront. Those discussions are very exciting to me. I’m just not privy to talk about them yet. There are very interesting, exciting projects that could go along the Arkansas River and along that corridor. It is not on the back burner,” McGill said.

Geffken said he thought the area had potential for a lot of development and the city would continue to look at ways to incentivize development.

Geffken also told the board the decision for the city to keep COVID-19 safety protocols in place in the city until May 31 will change to April 23.

Although Gov. Asa Hutchinson relaxed COVID restrictions, making them recommendations instead, the city announced March 4 it would extend existing COVID safety protocols for all city permits involving outdoor large venues through May 31, at which time, the city will re-evaluate the policy with regard to information and data on the pandemic. Geffken said in light of accelerated vaccinations schedules in the state, that time frame would only continue for another six weeks.

“We are listening to our residents. All of us have friends and neighbors who will want to be cautious, will wear masks and will social distance. … But at the same point and time there is that desire to get back to normal. We are just balancing one with the others,” Geffken said.

He said many events scheduled in May are voluntarily following guidelines, and he believes the citizens of Fort Smith are intelligent and will continue to observe U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for the COVID pandemic voluntarily.

“That doesn’t mean won’t change if we see a spike and we know there is a problem because people have not been taking precautions,” Geffken said, noting the city can reverse or modify its directive at any time.

McGill said his hope is that citizens and residents of the Fort Smith area will follow the guidelines in order to keep the area a safe area.

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