An ambitious economic development project in south Fayetteville was officially launched Tuesday (June 27) on South Cato Springs Road near Kessler Mountain Regional Park.
Dozens of civic leaders, elected officials and supporters gathered at South Cato Springs, a proposed mixed-use development, to mark a significant milestone — securing a $3 million federal grant and a matching $3.48 million grant from the city of Fayetteville. The funding will pay for the initial infrastructure work and bring city sewer services to the 230-acre site.
“The federal award secured by Congressman [Steve] Womack and the matching grant from the city is the essential spark for South Cato Springs and the future home of SLS Community,” Ashton McCombs IV said in his remarks Tuesday.
McCombs, 30, is the executive director of SLS (Supporting Lifelong Success) Community, a Fayetteville nonprofit focused on empowering neurodivergent adults with the necessary tools for growth and fulfillment.
Neurodiversity, also known as neurodivergence, encompasses individuals with autism, Down syndrome, or other variations in brain functioning that deviate from the neurotypical norm.
“To be clear, this is not a neurodivergent development,” McCombs said. “South Cato Springs is the venue where SLS will scale. The philosophical bent of this project is towards inclusion and understanding the relationship between neurodivergent adults and the broader community. We intend not to create an institution tucked away, hidden or isolated. It will be fully immersed in a live/work/play community that serves the whole region.”
McCombs’ parents, Ashton and Betts McCombs, established SLS Community in 2016 to create a supportive environment for neurodiverse adults. They aimed to help these individuals thrive, engage meaningfully with the broader community, and discover their paths to self-actualization. Their motivation stemmed from their daughter Anna, a young adult on the autism spectrum who requires intensive support to manage her behavioral challenges.
Due to the lack of comprehensive services in Arkansas and nationwide, the McCombs family searched around the country to find the right place for Anna, receiving help from Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins Hospital and finally matching Anna’s needs with May Institute in Boston.
They encountered numerous families throughout their journey, many single parents with limited or no resources for their adult children.
Financial struggles were common among these families, and they often found themselves unsure of how to best support their children and care for their families. Recognizing the issue, SLS Community is dedicated to accommodating the most challenging individuals, which frequently significantly strains families’ day-to-day coping abilities.
Ashton, president and co-founder of Illinois-based Phigenics, a national water management company, passed away in November 2021 after battling a malignant brain tumor. His son, a Marine Corps veteran, and widow are seeing his vision to fruition.
The South Cato Springs project, rooted in the well-being and long-term success of neurodivergent adults and other residents of Northwest Arkansas, aims to provide a comprehensive living environment through housing, employment and services.
“This is one of the most significant economic development projects to ever [happen] in the city of Fayetteville,” Mayor Lioneld Jordan said. “Because it’s tackling a significant issue, ensuring our neurodiverse residents get healthcare, job skills training and employment and housing opportunities they deserve.”
Initially, the endeavor set out only to create McCombs’ vision — a dedicated home for SLS Community. Jordan said those preliminary discussions date back six years.
“Ashton McCombs came to my office and told me about his dream; of what we are here doing today,” Jordan said. “I didn’t know how we would pull it off.”
However, as plans progressed, the project expanded into a dynamic mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood.
The envisioned community will encompass various components, including workforce housing and a vibrant town square. A cornerstone will be a planned outpatient multispecialty medical clinic and center of excellence built by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). It will be adapted for and accommodate the special needs of the neurodiverse population.
Moreover, the development will integrate urban agricultural areas and open recreational spaces that seamlessly connect with the region’s existing bike trails.
“The reality that we live in today is from the dreams people dreamed in the past,” Jordan said during his remarks Tuesday. “The reality we will live in tomorrow is because of dreams people dream of today. Today, we begin the dream that Ashton brought to my office. And we’re going to fulfill that dream.”
Developers say that by incorporating these diverse elements, the South Cato Springs development aspires to foster a holistic environment prioritizing all its residents’ well-being, inclusivity and prosperity.
Tuesday’s groundbreaking celebrated a significant first step in the transformative project, which developers say will be active for 15 to 20 years.
Matt Zakaras, an entrepreneur from Chicago, is the lead investor in the development entity — South Cato Springs Holdings LLC, which bought the land in 2019 for $6 million.
Zakaras’ business relationship with Ashton McCombs dates back nearly 20 years as a strategic advisor to Phigenics.
“Several years ago, Ashton asked me if I wanted to invest in some real estate in Fayetteville,” he recalled. “I listened to [McCombs’] story, and I knew the ‘why’ in terms of why we were doing this, but as we worked through that, we didn’t know the how.
“This is a big ambitious project which involves lots of pieces. How do we make it happen? Does it involve partnering with the government for infrastructure funding? Does it involve private investment? Does it involve philanthropy? Does it involve working with the business community? The answer is ‘Yes, yes and more yes.’ We need to do all of those things.
“How do you eat an elephant? You take it one bite at a time.”
Womack, who has represented Arkansas’ 3rd District since his election in 2010, attended Tuesday’s event but deflected credit for the funding to others like the McCombs family, Mayor Jordan and Steve Clark, CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce.
Womack said his four-year-old grandson would one day benefit from the project.
“He was diagnosed only about a year ago on the autism spectrum,” Womack told those gathered Tuesday. “Now, my involvement with this work predates that, so I don’t want anybody to think it was because of a personal connection. It was the right thing to do.”
Zakaras said Focus Commercial Real Estate in Bentonville is a South Cato Springs development partner. Initial infrastructure work could begin by the end of the year. Ramsay Ball, a Focus Commercial Real Estate principal, said the project is still in design led by New York City-based design studio OSD. OSD is designing the outdoor features of the rooftop park and surrounding site of the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine under construction in Bentonville.
The South Cato Springs developers did not disclose preliminary financial details for the project.
The development partners’ news release with renderings of the project is available at this link.