Outside of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its Omicron surge, the biggest 2021 news in the Fort Smith metro included stories about the military, medicine, manufacturing and municipal money.
Following are the top five stories based on what Talk Business & Politics believes had and/or will have the most impact on the region. There is also an “honorable mention” and notable death list following the top stories.
1. Fort Smith selected for foreign military pilot training center
Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith was selected June 8 by acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
In addition to Ebbing, which is home to the 188th Wing, finalist sites for the center were Hulman Field (Indiana), Buckley Air Force Base (Colorado), Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland (Texas) and Selfridge Air National Guard Base (Michigan). The initial schedule has Ebbing receiving the Singapore F-16s in 2023 and the F-35s in 2024.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency managing the FMS, notes that the program provides “responsible arms sales to further national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening bilateral defense relations, supporting coalition building, and enhancing interoperability between U.S. forces and militaries of friends and allies.”
The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce reports that 345 U.S. military personnel would be part of the center and an estimated 180-plus members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents. Training and aircraft from Finland and Poland may also be part of the FMS site in the future.
2. Continued expansion of Arkansas Colleges of Health Education programs, facilities
News from Fort Smith-based Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) was frequent in 2021. ACHE was formed when the Degen Foundation used part of $70 million from the sale of Sparks Health System in November 2009 to what was then Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates. The first class began in 2017 in the $32.4 million, 103,000-square-foot facility that is now home to around 600 medical students.
Following are just three highlights from the ACHE in 2021.
• The ACHE announced in June that a $32.3 million anonymous donation will support a holistic approach to health and wellness and include partnerships with public schools, art centers, a community garden, and a Northwest Arkansas-based culinary study center. The donation creates an endowment that will pay for staff, program costs and construction. ACHE acquired the former Golden Living headquarters in 2020 for the purpose of housing a medical research facility and a health and wellness education center.
• ACHE officials in early December dedicated the $16 million, 66,000-square-foot College of Health Sciences facility. The School of Physical Therapy welcomed its first class of 36 students in June. The three-year program features a hands-on approach to learning and 32 weeks of full-time clinical rotations. The ACHE School of Occupational Therapy will greet its inaugural class in January 2022.
• ACHE officials broke ground Dec. 15 on a 78,131 square-foot, $22.5 million commercial building at the Village at Heritage in Fort Smith. The planned building is part of commercial and residential space across the street from the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. The third building, called Building C, will hold commercial businesses on the first floor and student housing on the second and third levels. It’s part of planned development on ACHE’s 515 acres.
3. Record year for building permit values, tax revenue
Fort Smith, Van Buren and Greenwood had a record $343.289 million in permitted building activity in 2021, a 29% increase over 2020’s $265.975 million, a 42% increase over 2019’s $241.741 million and a 48% increase from 2018’s $231.78 million.
Revenue collected from Fort Smith’s share of the Sebastian County sales tax in the first 11 reporting months of the year is up 15.4% compared to the same period in 2020. From January through November, the tax has brought the city $19.205 million in revenue compared with the $16.645 million collected from the tax in the first 11 months of 2020.
Van Buren hospitality tax revenue during the first nine months of 2021 is $555,046, much better than the $462,068 during the same period in 2020, and up 11.6% compared with the $497,200 in the same period of 2019.
Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, said 2021 revenue through September is $723,518, well above the $485,043 during the same period of 2020 and even ahead of the $695,562 during the same period of 2019. He said if the pace continues the revenue will hit around $950,000 by year end, which will best the 2019 record.
4. Mercy announcements, openings
Mercy Hospital Fort Smith announced in June that construction on a $162 million expansion of its emergency room and intensive care unit would begin in early 2022 with completion estimated in 2024. The project also includes adding more parking at the hospital.
The Fort Smith hospital will expand its emergency room from 29 to 50 rooms and increase ICU capacity from 38 to 64. Multilevel parking also will add 140 parking spaces to accommodate the expansion with parking closer to the new emergency room entrance.
Mercy projects in 2021 include the June opening of Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital Fort Smith, a 50-bed facility at 6700 Chad Colley Blvd.; the July start of two new residency programs in family medicine and internal medicine, bringing in a total of 48 new doctors to Mercy over the next three years; opening in August of the first school-based clinic in Fort Smith, located at Darby Junior High; and the early fall opening the First Ronald McDonald House behind Mercy Fort Smith Labor & Delivery, developed by Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkoma to help Mercy assist up to 15 families being served by its level IIIA NICU.
5. Manufacturing sector expansions, new jobs
Several manufacturing operations expanded or moved into the Fort Smith metro in 2021. Following are three of those.
• Jonesboro-based Hytrol Conveyor Co. announced in early January it would lease 300,000 square feet in what was once a warehouse for Whirlpool and invest $20 million in a new conveyer production plant. The company said it would add about 250 jobs. On Sept. 2, the company said it plans to hire another 100 workers in Fort Smith to operate a new product line. The expansion would bring employment in Fort Smith to around 350.
• Mars Petcare said in September it would once again expand its Fort Smith operation with a $117 million investment over two phases that are estimated to add 140 jobs. The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Sept. 21 approved an Industrial Revenue Bond (IRB) request for the project. Titled “Project Blue Moon” for purposes of the board discussion, the second and third phases build upon a $145 million expansion and 120 new jobs announced in January. The IRB program allows the company to pay taxes in lieu of 50% of property taxes for 15 years. A Mars Petcare press release said the company has invested almost $540 million in its Fort Smith operation, including the $117 million announced Tuesday. Officials with Mars Petcare – based in Brussels, Belgium, with a U.S. headquarters south of Nashville, Tenn. – announced in November 2007 they would build the Fort Smith pet food production and packaging plant, and the $80 million facility opened in September 2009.
• Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning is building a new 550,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Fort Smith that will replace the existing plant the company built in 1984. The estimated $115 million project is expected to add five jobs. The new plant is expected to begin production in mid-2023, and the existing plant will be “retired.” Owens Corning’s existing Fort Smith plant – located near the Gerdau (MacSteel) plant – began production in 1984, and produces mat for roofing shingles and other nonwoven products.
The Fort Smith metro manufacturing sector employed an estimated 17,100 in December, up from 16,900 in December 2020, but below the 17,400 in December 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment is well below peak sector employment of 31,200 in June 1999. Average annual employment peaked at 30,600 in 1999, fell to 20,800 in 2010 and was 16,800 in 2020.
OTHER BIG HEADLINES
Following are other top Fort Smith metro new stories in 2021.
• Fort Smith-based ArcBest on Sept. 29 announced a deal to acquire Chicago-based MoLo Solutions, a truckload freight brokerage firm, in a cash deal of at least $235 million. The deal will place ArcBest in the top 15 U.S. truckload brokerage market, the company said.
• It was learned in early December that Haas Hall Academy, the prestigious Fayetteville-based college-prep charter school, is seeking approval from the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) to open a Fort Smith campus in the fourth floor of the former Golden Living building now owned by the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE). Founded in 2004, Haas Hall is widely known for its advanced curriculum focused on preparing students 7-12 for college.
• In separate unanimous votes, the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Dec. 21 voted to stop the Feb. 8 sales tax extension election they approved Nov. 16. Directors said they needed to step back and better educate voters and get voter input. The election would have placed an estimated $300 million in proposed sales tax extensions before voters.
• Longtime weatherman and television personality Garrett Lewis announced March 30 plans to leave his job as chief meteorologist at CBS affiliate KFSM-TV. His forecast last day forecasting was July 30. Later in the year, he took a job with First National Bank Northwest Arkansas.
• Fort Smith-based Boyd Metals was acquired by Toronto, Canada-based Russel Metals in a $110 million deal. Russel Metals, a publicly held company (TSX: RUS) traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, said the deal was expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021. Boyd Metals, a steel service center, was founded in Fort Smith in 1991 by Chester Koprovic, Tom Kennon and Ron Tabor.
The passing of notable people in 2021 included the following.
• Tom Caldarera, the popular restaurant owner of Taliano’s and community leader who, along with his family, likely catered thousands of weddings, reunions, wakes and community events in the Fort Smith area, died in early February. He was 90.
• Chad Colley, a long-time Fort Smith businessman, U.S. Army officer, Vietnam veteran, and who was recognized by President Ronald Reagan for his disabled veterans advocacy, died Jan. 30. He was 76.
• Michael LeJong, a leader in the state and national architecture industry whose high profile work includes the $55 million Windgate Studio and Design Center at the University of Arkansas, died in July. He was 49.
• Robert Powell, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, an officer of what was then Arkansas Best Corp., and co-founder of Van Buren-based USA Truck, died in early October. He was 87.
• Louis Whorton, the Hall of Fame head women’s basketball coach for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, died Dec. 5 at age 70. He is the winningest UAFS women’s basketball coach in program history.