Peak Innovation Center opening pushed to January; project also over budget

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,248 views 

Fort Smith Public Schools Peak Innovation Center will not open in August as originally planned, according to a presentation by HOAR Program Management (HPM) of Dallas, the project manager for the district’s millage-related construction projects.

Peak Innovation Center 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 was estimated 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. 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.

Scott Ditto with HPM told the FSPS board of education at a regular board meeting Monday (June 28) that the project would not be completed in time for the fall semester, which will start Aug. 16.

“In our last meeting, we showed that we were going to try to do a partial occupancy on the building on Aug. 16. At this point, it has been decided that we are not going to probably do that. We are going to move forward and try to get the entire project done before we occupy the building. … It felt like it was a better option not to have students walking around and have construction workers crossing the main hallways trying to get both sides done,” Ditto said.

The new occupancy timeline is expected for the start of the spring semester, Jan. 4. The original construction timeline on the facility was 470 days. The new timeline has yet to be determined, Ditto said.

Zena Featherston Marshall, FSPS executive director of communication and community partnerships, said delays have been caused, in part, by material availability and shipping delays that are “issues on all kinds of current construction projects nationwide.” Those national delays are in part because of the COVID-1 pandemic and in part because of a historic winter storm that hit the region in February. She said other delays came from planning, design and permitting.

Also, program changes based on stakeholders who have made monetary pledges to Peak have included required changes in classes and other components, Ditto said.

“Manufacturing requirements, health (program requirements) … caused a little of our delay there. It didn’t affect that terribly much. But the permitting process was also elongated because of those changes,” he said. “Also the highway expansion has utilities involved in it, coming through our property, and we are going to need those for our use before it opens.”

The school board voted June 14 to sell 3.36 acres of Peak property to the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) in order to widen Highway 255. Deputy Superintendent Martin Mahan said at the time this negotiation had been ongoing for two years. The sale price was noted at $180,525 at Monday’s meeting.

Marshall said the Peak programs will begin on schedule in August, though they may have to begin at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith if necessary and then move to the Peak Building.

Rachel Rodemann Putman, associate director for strategic communications at UAFS, said UAFS developed dual contingency plans in the event of “construction delays or unexpected shifts in instructional modality for courses” offered at Peak.

“First, the university has reserved space to continue offering in-person courses on our main campus until the Peak Innovation Center is completed and ready for occupancy. Classrooms, laboratories and experiential learning sites are ready for students who have registered for in-person courses, and our regional high-school students should not face delays in learning from their UAFS instructors,” Putman said. “Additionally, UAFS professors are prepared to provide virtual classes and assignments as needed should circumstances require the university or its school partners to pivot to remote instruction.”

Students attending the center have been promised to receive a hands-on approach to career-focused curriculum and programming taught by UAFS faculty as an extension of the Western Arkansas Technical Center.

“UAFS has long been proud to be a nimble, adaptable institution, and throughout the pandemic we have invested heavily in our ability to deliver courses to our students no matter the circumstance. Our faculty have trained in online course delivery, we have made significant investments in technology to deliver courses online, and we are certain the high school students of the River Valley will continue to be well served by the Western Arkansas Technical Center and UAFS,” Putman said.

Along with not being on schedule, the Peak project is coming in over budget, FSPS Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski said. He also noted overall the millage-related construction projects are coming in budget neutral.

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. Fort Smith’s ABB, NEMA Motors Division, announced May 24 it would contribute $1 million to the project. ArcBest announced May 7 it will donate $1 million and the center’s Community Room/Maker Space 10,000-square-feet multipurpose area will be named after the Fort Smith-based shipping and logistics company. 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.

Ditto said Tuesday of the funding donated for the center, while the EDA grant and the monies from the sale of the property to ARDOT went to construction costs, monies from the state and ABB are for equipment only. Of the $1 million from the Gene Haas Foundation, 70% goes to construction and 50% of the funds from Mercy and Baptist go to construction, he said. The funding from ArcBest is for the community room only, and $750,000 from the Windgate Foundation is for a visual arts program, he said.

Of the $22.15 million total funding, which includes the $13.7 million set aside from the millage funds for the center’s original 55,000 square-foot estimate, $17.5 million is allocated to construction, Ditto said. He said HPM had received final guaranteed maximum price information from the project’s construction manager at risk, Fort Smith-based Turn Key Construction Management, Friday and was still vetting the information and would be in negotiations and have a complete cost to bring before the board soon.