Fort Smith-based ArcBest, a shipping and logistics company, announced Friday (May 7) it will make a $1 million investment in the Peak Innovation Center, a regional career and technology center in Fort Smith.
Fort Smith Public Schools’ Peak Innovation Center, scheduled to open in August, will be a regional career and technology center with a focus on innovative instructional strategies within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines. Fort Smith voters in May 2018 approved a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, raising the millage rate in Fort Smith from 36.5 mills to 42 mills. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. The millage plan included a new $13.724 million career and technology center, now the Peak Innovation Center, featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.
Students attending the center have been promised to receive a hands-on approach to career-focused curriculum and programming taught by University of Arkansas at Fort Smith faculty as an extension of the Western Arkansas Technical Center.
ArcBest Board Chair, President and CEO Judy McReynolds said ArcBest has a history of innovation in its industry and a continued focus on new technology and a data-driven approach. That along with its culture of giving back to the community is why it felt compelled to make a strong investment in the future workforce of the Fort Smith region.
“We believe this gift will help support the Peak Center and the career and technical education that will be delivered there, and it will help address the need to expand the number of qualified job candidates in our region,” McReynolds said. “Ultimately, the Peak Center will provide an important resource to help students of all backgrounds develop career paths, create a stronger local talent pool and support economic growth in the region. It’s a win-win-win.”
With the commitment, ArcBest will be the named sponsor for the Community Room/Maker Space located near the entrance of the Peak Center. The 10,000-square-feet multipurpose area will be located toward the front of the building and will be be an innovative space for student career expos, community events, student competitions, meetings and training events, student-centered industry days, and more, said Dr. Gary Udouj, director of career education and district innovation for FSPS.
“The ArcBest Community Room will … be a staple space of the Peak Innovation Center,” he said.
Education programs at the center will be available to approximately 43,000 total students from 22 regional school districts; these programs will equip career and college-bound students with real-world skills so they can secure high-paying jobs and/or pursue higher education in their chosen fields.
Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the reason the Peak Innovation Center is so important to the region is because it gives the area an edge that other areas do not have. He said every community, chamber of commerce and economic developer across the country has land, incentives and amenities. But it takes more.
“What separates communities from the pack is having a future school that can teach the future workforce. That is how you separate. It’s always been about workforce, and it will continue to be about workforce. That’s how we are recruiting companies and bringing them to town and retaining our companies,” Allen said. “That’s the key to winning economic development. The students that will be our future, you and I will never know them … but I will guarantee that all the students will know that ArcBest stepped up when necessary and made the commitment to teach the future workforce.”
The Peak Innovation Center is being constructed from a donated facility at the intersection of Zero Street and Painter Lane in east Fort Smith. In February 2019, the estate of William Hutcheson Jr. donated the former Hutcheson shoe manufacturing building at 5900 Painter Lane to be the Peak site. The 181,710-square-foot building that sits on almost 17 acres at the corner of Zero Street and Painter Lane saved the district at least $3 million that had been budgeted to buy an existing building for the career center.
FSPS has received numerous gifts and grants for the center. Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Mercy Fort Smith announced Feb. 8 a collaboration to invest $1 million – $500,000 each – in healthcare science programming at the center. In January 2020, Gov. Asa Hutchinson pledged $2.1 million in state funding from the Office of Skills Development (OSD) of the Arkansas Department of Commerce to be used for advanced manufacturing equipment for the center. It was announced in September 2019 that FSPS will receive a $1.4 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) to help build the center. In June 2020, the Gene Haas Foundation announced a $1 million grant for expansion of the computer integrated machine lab at the center.
After renovations, the facility will be 160,000 square feet with the availability for future expansion on the 17 acres, the district has said. Phase One learning space will be approximately 80,000 square feet with a facility and equipment investment of $20 million, according to the school district.