Because of numerous construction challenges, Fort Smith Public School’s Peak Innovation Center will not open until late March. The FSPS school board was told in November the facility would be finished Dec. 23, allowing students to attend the center Jan. 4 when school resumed.
“Construction challenges including supply chain issues and labor shortages have delayed the opening of Peak Innovation Center,” said Zena Featherston Marshall, FSPS executive director of communication and community partnerships.
As of Tuesday, work continues on multiple aspects of the building like safety, electrical, parking, exterior sitework and equipment calibration, Marshall said.
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.
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. Northside and Southside high school students who are enrolled in UAFS WATC classes will be in their respective schools until WATC classes begin on Jan. 10 at UAFS, Marshall said Tuesday. Those students are expected to attend classes at Peak for the final 4-5 weeks of the semester, she said.
“(UAFS) leaders and faculty members have created contingency plans to continue offering our high-quality educational programs to students who enroll in courses through our Western Arkansas Technical Center. In collaboration with Fort Smith Public Schools, we created a plan which includes use of our main campus classes and laboratories until it is most advantageous to move to the Peak Innovation Center. It is helpful to move when classes are not in session, so spring break will be a time when we can safely move equipment and will not interrupt student learning,” Dr. Terisa Riley, UAFS chancellor, told Talk Business & Politics.
The Peak Innovation Center was originally expected to be open to students for the start of the school 2021-22 school year. In June Shawn Shaffer, FSPS facilities supervisor, informed the school board that date would be pushed to the start of the second semester. In July, Shaffer also told the school board the center was coming in $6.6 million over budget. The anticipated final cost of the project, including phase two work with an elevator and roof replacement but not including art, is $19.076 million, about $6.6 million more than originally planned. That cost includes $18.627 million committed or budgeted funds and $450,000 in non-committed contingency funds, Shaffer said.
That total did include fixing what Shaffer described as extensive roof leaks on the building, which the district learned of in October 2019. Total funding for the building is $16.505 million, including $13.724 from millage funds, $1.4 million from an EPA grant, and $1.38 million from phase two funding, Shaffer said. That leaves the project roughly $2.57 million over budget.
The master planner for the district’s millage projects originally estimated the cost of the Peak Center at $13.724 million in 2018. That cost would be for a 50,000-square-foot facility to be located in an already existing store-front building on property the district would purchase, such as the old Best Buy facility, Shaffer said.
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, including $1 million from ABB’s Fort Smith operation, $1 million from Fort Smith-based ArcBest, and $500,000 each from Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Mercy Fort Smith.