Though three Fort Smith Board of Directors Seats are up for election this year, only one seat had more than two candidates file for the position. Christina Catsavis, City Director Robyn Dawson and Carl Nevin filed for the Director-at-large Position 5 seat.
The election for the Director-at-large Position 6 seat between incumbent Kevin Settle and A. Drew Smith and the election for the Director-at-large Position 7 seat between incumbent Neal Martin and Jackson Goodwin will be held during the Nov. 8 general election.
A primary election for the Position 5 race will be Aug. 9. Early voting began Aug. 2. If no candidate captures more then 50% of the vote at the primary election, the top two candidates will be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. (Link here for a PDF with more election info.)
Catsavis, 37, is the owner of The Smith Jewelry & Living and co-founder/Designer of Julep Jewelry Co. Dawson, 59, is the Educational Renewal Zone (ERZ) director at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and an Arkansas PLC specialist. She is the incumbent, having been voted into the position in November 2018. Nevin, 67, is a small business owner and factory worker.
Talk Business & Politics sent questions – with answers to each question limited to 150 words – to the three candidates in the Position 5 race. Following are their responses:
• Why do you want to be a Fort Smith city director?
Catsavis: Fort Smith is a very special place that has its own unique identity. We need leadership who understands and represents that. We need a local economy that works for everyone. I want to focus on economic development in order to create high-wage primary jobs, diversify the economy and better control our future. We have a looming nationwide recession and average household costs have gone up $496 a month. Citizens want to know that city leadership is mindful of their fears and concerns. I am someone who holds myself to a high level of accountability, and I believe that I am the right person to fill this position.
Dawson: My desire for any leadership position is to serve. A motto that I think about often is “If servanthood is below you, then leadership is above you.” Growing up the daughter of a pastor, serving is what we were called to do. This calling is why I went into education and of course, then into public service. Specifically, the desire to serve as a City Director of Fort Smith is because this is my hometown; it’s the place that educated me, raised me, and helped make me the person I am today. I enjoy using my skills to serve individuals in Fort Smith to help them with various concerns. Giving back is the highest form of serving. Additionally, I have spent the last four years making our community better, and there are many projects coming up that I have helped create and would like to see them through.
Nevin: I would like to become a City Director of Fort Smith so that I can help the citizens of Fort Smith to prosper.
• What do you think are the top challenges facing the city?
Catsavis: The consent decree is certainly a challenge. The estimated cost of upgrades and repairs has gone from approximately $480 million, to the latest figures estimating the cost at $650 million. Supply chain issues are a challenge for the city in numerous ways. It affects everything from the purchase of police vehicles and sanitation trucks to parks equipment. Supply chain issues coupled with inflation and a lack of skilled labor have slowed down housing development. We can’t build fast enough because the supply chain won’t allow it.
Dawson: The obvious top challenge facing the city is the ever-looming consent decree. While it is a challenge, the board has made it a top priority and has been aggressively pursuing all avenues, both judicial and workforce, to make sure we solve this challenge and not have it carry over to future generations. Another challenge is meeting the needs of the expected growth in the community over the next decade, specifically infrastructure and water. These are both high ticket items but necessary to sustain and improve the life of our citizens. Other challenges to address are the homeless population, the plight of homeless animals, and the flood-prone areas of our town. While these issues are not unique to Fort Smith, they definitely impact our community. To have the excellent living conditions that we all would like, these must have a resolution.
Nevin: The Consent Decree, the homeless situation, and affordable housing.
• What do you think are the top opportunities facing the city?
Catsavis: Arkansas Colleges of Health Education continues to be an economic impact generator. The new Biological Research Lab brings not only research jobs but will help attract medical professionals to the area. It will also bring an increased focus on health, wellness and nutrition to the region. In addition, the Singapore pilot training program will have a significant effect on the community. It is estimated that the economic impact from the pilot training center will be around $1 billion. This is a huge opportunity for Fort Smith. It is because of these opportunities that people and industries are really starting to take notice of us. We are on a national stage now, and we need leadership that understands that.
Dawson: Without question, the top opportunities are the Military Training Project that will be located at our airport and the completion of the next section of I-49 from Kansas City to Fort Smith. This project is set to bring in $1 billion of economic impact to our region as well as several new global citizens; the first will be from Singapore with five countries in the queue. The completion of I-49 is the biggest “game changer” for our region in this lifetime. It is predicted to raise our population to near 800,000. Fort Smith is poised to be the center of impact where I-40 and I-49 intersect and a destination for railway and waterway commerce. While the face of our community will not be the same, these incoming economic foundations will guarantee a stable, vibrant community for the future.
Nevin: One is getting the F16/ F35 program to locate in Fort Smith, and the Interstate 49 Highway Bridge Completion.
• Where would you like to see the city in 5 years?
Catsavis: I would like Fort Smith to be seen as a vibrant city that is a hub for innovation. I would like to see Fort Smith bringing in and bringing back young talent to create a productive, creative and skilled workforce. I think we have done a great job investing in ourselves by adding amenities and changing the conversation around civic pride. We have worked hard to set ourselves up to attract new industries and create jobs.
Dawson: I envision a city that is safe, economically viable, where all people feel valued and respected, and where people want to live because of the high quality of life. Many of these currently exist, but some items need more work. In addition to these, having a better handle on the consent decree and continuing to run the city in proactive mode rather than reactive. By that time, the airport mission should be fully operable, and the I-49 expansion should be close. Great, great things are coming!
Nevin: In five years, I would like to work closely with the nonprofit organizations to help find a solution to the homeless problem in Fort Smith. I would also like to see more affordable housing in Fort Smith. Also, I would like to help build a new animal shelter in Fort Smith.
• What could you do as a board member to get it there?
Catsavis: I think accountability goes a long way. We have a lot of eyes on us right now looking to decide if they want to make an investment here. The right leadership is key to bringing in high-wage jobs and creating a local economy that benefits all citizens. The board is the face of the city, and we must be mindful of presenting ourselves in a professional way. Companies with high standards want a city with high standards, and the board must be beyond reproach. Building and maintaining relationships with state officials and our representatives in Washington, D.C., are a key component to ensuring that Fort Smith is top of mind when new opportunities for growth and advancement become available.
Dawson: Strong, caring, knowledgeable leaders are the way to ensure that goals get accomplished. Most of my life has been spent as a servant-minded leader, and Ihave led many different entities to achieve shared goals. Mostly, it requires a “whatever it takes” attitude and a growth mindset. This has been my mantra since I have been on the board, and many things have come to be as a result. I will continue to use my skills to not only shine light on accountability but push for progress, whichever is needed at any time to ensure that goals are achieved.
Nevin: I would help organizations to secure private funds and grants to help the homeless situation. I would also work closely with the Housing Authority to secure private funds and grants as well. I will work tirelessly to get a new animal shelter in Fort Smith that is adequately addressing the needs of the animals.