The Fort Smith Board of Directors has approved an appeal that reverses a Planning Commission denial of a conditional use for a technical or trade school at Central Mall, 5111 Rogers Ave., that will become a truck driving school.
The appeal, approved at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday (May 11), will allow CDL Academy to conduct truck-driving training in the parking lot of the mall that was used for Dillard’s overflow parking in the northeast portion of the mall parking lot adjacent to South Waldron Road.
The planning commission denied two conditional use requests from the truck driving school. On March 9, the planning commission denied a request to conduct the training in the southeast portion of the mall parking lot adjacent to Rogers Avenue and on April 13, the commission denied the request for the training on the northeast portion of the parking lot. Both requests were denied by a vote of seven against and zero four.
Both the mall property owners and Dillard’s management granted approval for the school using the portion of the northeast portion of the parking lot, said Dennis Sights, CFO of CDL Academy. Scott McDonald, general manager of Central Mall sent a letter stating the mall granted the school access to that portion of the parking lot. The school administrative offices and classrooms are located inside the mall.
“This is an empty parking lot at a mall that has seen better days. I applaud the efforts to bring in use and a purpose to this vacant quadrant of asphalt,” said Director and Vice Mayor Jared Rego. “The empty parking lot isn’t providing quality jobs with opportunities for growth. The empty parking lot isn’t working hand and hand with the United Way, Project Restore Hope and the 100 Families Initiative to give a diverse collection of students a better life. The empty parking lot isn’t adding one iota of productivity or positivity to the hearts and minds of the community, and the empty parking lot isn’t going to represent hope for a better life or the reward of a skill learned and education earned.”
Max Avery, an agent for the Class A CDL Academy, said in his appeal to the planning commission’s denial that the school, which recently moved to Fort Smith from Arkoma, would use the parking lot for pre-trip inspections and backing training. According to Sights, the training will not impede any traffic in the area, nor block any access roads to and from the mall; cones will be used to separate the area of the parking lot being used; and trucks will run daily from about 9 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m.
“We have helped multiple citizens of this city to be able to begin a new successful career in the trucking industry, including securing state funds for people in the HOPE Campus Shelter to come through CDL School and graduate with their CDL, as well as getting placed with a trucking company to begin their career,” Avery said.
Sights said students completing the four-week course offered by the school were almost guaranteed immediate employment upon completion, making between $40,000 and $75,000 in their first year. Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton has said it’s projected the trucking industry will need to hire an average of nearly 110,000 drivers per year to keep up with demand over the next decade.
The Board of Directors approved the appeal, five to one, with the condition the approval is only good for the remaining 20 months of the school’s lease agreement between the mall and the school. Sights said they had no problem looking for another location within the city for the school at the end of their lease, saying those months would give the school time to grow and plan.
Director Robyn Dawson suggested the appeal, saying she wanted to keep the school in Fort Smith and was supportive of all they were doing for the city and its residents but wasn’t convinced the mall was the best place for the school. Director Kevin Settle opposed the request for training in the parking lot.
“Here we are in the center of town, and we’re going to put a truck school. There are going to be trucks on two of the major thoroughfares, Waldron and Rogers avenues. It’s really about what we are going to do with the properties in that area. The property owners around that area have a say because their properties are going to be … potentially devalued because there is a trucking school on a parking lot that is trying to attract new business to that area… This is really about the message we are sending to the future of this city,” Settle said.
The only citizen objection to the request to have the truck training in the parking lot when it went before the planning commission was from Fort Smith attorney John Alford, who represents the property owner at Quarry Shopping Center at 4900 Rogers Ave.