As the Fort Smith Board of Directors plans for the 2024 operating budget, directors discussed the city’s $150,000 investment in 64.6 Downtown, with members saying they hoped the investment would bring more grants, downtown development, and downtown visitor traffic.
“I understood that when we entered into this partnership with 64.6, it opened us up for grant opportunities. We would have a return on the investment. We give $150,000 to 64.6. How much did we generate in 2023 in grant dollars and how much will we in 2024 and 2025?” Director Neal Martin said during a discussion with the 64.6 Downtown board of directors during a Fort Smith Board of Directors study session on Dec. 12.
Mitch Minnick, chair of the 64.6 Downtown board, said among other things the city had benefited through a $40,000 grant for art infused transit shelters that 64.6 received. The non-profit organization announced in fall of 2022 that it had received a $90,000 grant from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to continue the Levitt AMP Fort Smith Music Series, which was held in May and June this year as well as in September. The music series will return for two series segments – one in May and another in September again next year. 64.6 also received a $1,000 in an in kind grant from a local business owner for the downtown Christmas programs this year, Minnick said.
As an organization, 64.6’s first and foremost focus is to represent Fort Smith with Main Street Arkansas, focusing on the four points of focus – organization structure, design ascetics, promotion of downtown and economic vitality, Minnick said.
The city and 64.6 Downtown began their relationship in 2017 when the city decided to work with 64.6 to create a plan to propel the downtown forward, Talicia Richardson, 64.6 executive director, said in a BOD study session in June. She said the plan used existing project ideas for the city and became a working document focused on mobility, infrastructure and activating the riverfront.
64.6 Downtown was the organization responsible for Fort Smith receiving designation as a Main Street Arkansas city in 2020 and has been the representative of Fort Smith for that program unfunded since.
In February, the BOD approved a downtown development services and Main Street public services agreement with 64.6 that gives the non-profit organization $12,500 per month (not to exceed $150,000 in a year) plus reimbursement expenses for the 64.6 to continue as the city’s Main Street Arkansas entity of record and to perform all the things necessary to be a part of that program.
Fort Smith had been part of Main Street as a Downtown Network Community since 2007. Main Street Arkansas is a program within the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (AHPP). It was established in 1984 to help spark life into Arkansas’s traditionally commercial areas, a media release said. The program works with “community members committed to revitalizing and preserving downtowns across” the state. At the state level, Main Street Arkansas offers consultation services including interior and exterior design help, small business advice and grant opportunities to its members.
“64.6 Downtown is the City’s Main Street program and as such, it supports our downtown businesses by providing advocacy and providing links to grants and to technical assistance from the Main Street program,” said City Administrator Carl Geffken.
During the board’s Dec. 12 study session, Richardson said the contract with the city allows for a steady stream of funding to allow the organization to have professional staff as well as to fund the different types of activities they have throughout the year. Some of the activities or programs 64.6 has coordinated this year are the Downtown Guide, which lists retailers, restaurants, bars, offices and attractions in downtown, the Cisterna Park Christmas program, care of the statues in Gateway Park, and the art installations in the city’s transit shelters.
“That contractual relationship allows 64.6 ability to bring on additional staffing, so that we can focus more on trying to program for downtown and build relationships with property owners and residents and hopefully build to that critical mass so that its not hard for us to say lets have a First Thursday event (downtown) and keep your shops open until 7 p.m.,” Richardson said.
Directors expressed a desire to see more events or programs downtown that would allow residents and visitors to experience more downtown during the evenings and at night. Director Kevin Settle listed some of the things downtown Main Street in Van Buren does to bring shoppers and diners to the area at nights, especially during December.
“64.6 is vital in my honest opinion to the future of not only downtown but Fort Smith as development is rapidly occurring on the riverfront. They have done a lot of great work,” said Fort Smith Mayor George McGill. “64.6 is that touch point with those interested in starting businesses downtown, developing downtown and activities downtown. I think it is important to have that touchpoint and 64.6 is that.”