Westphal family donates riverfront land for planned Fort Kids Children’s Museum

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,555 views 

A children’s museum may grace Fort Smith’s ever growing landscape by the Arkansas River in the next few years. Costs for a planned 20,000-square foot facility are unknown, as is a targeted opening date, but a land donation is pushing the idea to reality.

Organizers announced Saturday night (June 17) during the Mayor’s Juneteenth Gala that the Robbie Westphal family has donated 5.6 acres along the river, just south of the U.S. Marshals Museum, as the site of the future Fort Kids Children’s Museum.

“Taking care of children is the most important part of contributing to a brighter future in Fort Smith and the surrounding area,” said Bennie Westphal. (Bennie Westphal is an owner of Natural State Media, the parent company of Talk Business & Politics.)

Robin Westphal Clegg said the family shares in the excitement of the impact Fort Kids will have on the community.

Fort Smith native Sarah Strom said she had an idea that Fort Smith needed a hands-on children’s museum a couple of years ago. She made a post on Facebook asking if anyone else felt it was something that would benefit the city and was quickly overwhelmed with the responses.

“We decided to find out how to make it happen,” Strom said. “We have been searching for a site for about a year.”

With Westphal’s donation, the project is picking up steam. The Fort Kids Children’s Museum has registered as a 501(c)(3) and set a board of directors. That board has hired the museum planning company Haizlip Studio, the firm that designed the River Valley Nature Center at Chaffee Crossing and the Amazeum in Northwest Arkansas, to help with the master plan, a brochure by the group said.

So far, the group has raised $20,000 in funds and has three letters of support, the brochure said. The museum will be about 20,000 square feet, but while organizers have a large overview of the site plans, they do not have any schematic drawings yet. Nor do they have a cost estimate.

“We are hoping to launch our capital campaign sometime this summer once we get those figures together,” Strom said.

The group is eager to break ground and begin working on the museum, but will not begin any building until the funds have been raised, she said.

Fort Kids is partnering with the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education’s Physical Therapy and
Occupational Therapy programs to ensure that the children’s museum will have a universal design. All the museum exhibits will be interactive and completely hands-on, she said.

“We will have it designed in a way that encompasses all children regardless of ability. We will have sensory safe spaces and be mindful in the design that all exhibits are accessible,” Strom said.

According to the group’s brochure, children’s museums are a community-wide investment in both children and families. The museums also serve as attractions and thus positively impact a city’s economy, it said. Research indicates that the average children’s museum visitor will spend $23 and an average tourist about $38 beyond the cost of admission in nearby restaurants and shops, it adds.

“Currently, Fort Smith has limited indoor spaces for children to play and families to engage. Fort Kids would provide a place for families, caregivers, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, and out-of-town guests to go regardless of the weather that is safe and inclusive,” the brochure noted.

The Fort Kids mission is to build a world of possibilities and connection through play, Strom said. The vision of Fort Kids Children’s Museum is to provide a safe and inviting space for all children and grown-ups to learn through play, sparking curiosity, joy, and confidence. Through hands-on exhibits, exploration, and education, Fort Kids hopes to empower children to connect to themselves, others, and the world to build a brighter future.

With close proximity to John Bell Jr. Park, the Riverfront Skate and Bike Park, the Greg Smith River Trail, the U.S. Marshals Museum, which opens July 1, and the Community School of the Arts’ Center for Creative Arts, which is now under construction, the location for the children’s museum is perfect, Strom said.

“It was always a big dream of the board for Fort Kids to be located on the riverfront next to the U.S. Marshal’s Museum,” Strom said. “We had no idea this dream would become a reality one year later. It is a dream come true.”

She said by being on the river, the museum could easily connect with eastern Oklahoma, making it an attraction for the entire Fort Smith metro.

“Fort Kids has come a long way in the past year. We have partnered with ACHE, hosted focus groups within our community to gain valuable feedback, visited 19 elementary schools to find out what children want in their museum, and we plan to keep going. There is so much more to come,” Strom said.