The long-awaited opening of the U.S. Marshals Museum and the final decision to place a foreign pilot training center in Fort Smith were two of the top news stories in the Fort Smith metro during 2023.
Following are the top five stories, followed by a list of other notable news.
1. U.S. Marshals Museum finally opens
After more than 16 years of fundraising struggles and leadership changes, the U.S. Marshals Museum opened in downtown Fort Smith on June 29. Just under 10,000 people would visit the museum in its first month.
In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the national museum. The Robbie Westphal family, led by Bennie Westphal and Robin Westphal Clegg, donated the riverfront land for the museum. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in September 2015. Museum officials initially hoped to have the facility open by late 2017, but struggles to raise money delayed the opening. Construction of the approximately 53,000-square-foot U.S. Marshals Museum was completed — except for exhibits — in early 2020.
The museum is designed to tell the story of the United States’ oldest federal law enforcement agency, which was established by President George Washington.
According to a 2018 study, the museum could see around 125,000 visitors a year. The Arkansas Economic Development Institute, using information from the study, estimated the museum and related tourist expenditures would have a total annual impact on Sebastian County of $13 million to $22 million.
2, Foreign pilot training center officially lands in Fort Smith
The plan to locate a foreign military pilot training center in Fort Smith was made in June 2021, but the final “record of decision” from the U.S. Air Force was made in March 2023. That decision released funding to create the center.
U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall signed the final “record of decision” to place the operation at Ebbing Air National Guard Base located adjacent to the Fort Smith Regional Airport. Ebbing will be the next home for the 425th Fighter Squadron, a Republic of Singapore F-16 training unit now based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
The pilot training center is planned to support F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
The new facility will cost at least $765 million to become fully operational, according to initial estimates. Air Force officials have said the earliest planes and pilots from foreign nations could arrive at Ebbing would be in late 2024. The full complement of 12 F-16s and 24 F-35s from various nations could arrive in fiscal year 2026 at the earliest.
3. Tyson Food closes Van Buren plant
Springdale-based Tyson Foods sent 969 employees of the Van Buren plant WARN letters on March 13 saying the last day of operation is slated for May 12. The company at the time said it’s working with employees to provide opportunities for relocations where applicable within the company.
There were outside options for the Tyson workers who lost jobs. Twin Rivers Foods wasted no time seeking employees from the Tyson plant. A post on its Facebook page March 16 said the company welcomes all former Tyson workers who want to work at its Second Street plant in downtown Fort Smith, saying it has openings on first and second shift and will honor Tyson seniority with Twin Rivers vacation schedule and holidays.
Former Tyson employees would receive a sign-on bonus of $250 to $500 on completion of the first day of work and $250 upon completion of 60 days with Twin Rivers, the post said.
Also, the Van Buren Chamber, in partnership with the Crawford County Adult Education Center, and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith provided job placement and retraining opportunities for the former Tyson employees.
4. Slackwater harbor funding
An infrastructure project officials have pursued for decades will soon be built. The River Valley Slackwater Harbor project on the Arkansas River in Crawford County will receive a $15.096 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD).
The grant, announced Nov. 3 by MARAD, will provide a majority of funding to build a slackwater harbor off the main channel of the Arkansas River that will be approximately 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide and have the capacity to moor and offload up to eight barges at a time. The harbor will have roughly 2,000 feet of dock frontage with a 50-foot-wide concrete deck for mobile cranes.
The new harbor will enhance reliability of the port because it will be less susceptible to operational disruptions and damage resulting from fluctuations in the flow rate of the river, according to MARAD. The harbor will increase barge handling capacity of the port and will improve port resilience because the concrete deck will be constructed above the 100-year flood level to ensure year-round operation even in the face of flooding events, noted the MARAD statement.
The slackwater harbor project will be located on a man-made channel off the Arkansas River at Five Rivers Terminal in Crawford County, near Van Buren. He says he believes it will take all of 2024 to complete the necessary advance studies and requirements but thinks construction can begin at the end of 2024 or in early 2025. He said it will take about a year to complete the construction.
5. Crawford County library drama
Under pressure from those opposing LBGTQ+ books, Crawford County Library Director Diedre Gryzmala resigned in February with a $40,687.50 severance deal.
The controversy began in November 2022 when Hamby and her husband Dr. Jeffrey Hamby, a Van Buren family physician, spearheaded a campaign against LBGTQ+ books being available through the library system, and Grzymala’s book display of LBGTQ+ children’s books set up at the Van Buren Public Library.
Hamby was appointed to the Crawford County Library Board by Crawford County Judge Chris Keith and named the board chair after Jamie Balkman, former chair, and two other board members resigned after a contentious Quorum Court meeting in December.
On June 2, several Arkansas libraries and library associations filed a lawsuit in the Fayetteville Division of the Western District Court of Arkansas against Crawford County officials and state prosecuting attorneys to overturn Act 372. The Act is primarily a measure allowing books in public libraries to be banned or relocated. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks granted a preliminary injunction July 29 against Act 689 implementation, which was set to go into effect Aug. 1.
The June 2 lawsuit was the second to be filed attempting to block libraries from censoring books. Attorney Brian Meadors filed a federal complaint May 30 against book censorship actions by the Crawford County Public Library. The Crawford County Library has in recent months approved the removal and relocation of books largely because of objections from citizens to LGBTQ content.
Crawford County has spent and/or budgeted more around $245,000 on legal bills related to the actions by Hamby and others to censor or relocate books. As of Jan. 4, the library system has yet to name a new director.
OTHER KEY NEWS
Following are some other notable developments, in no particular order, in the Fort Smith metro during 2023.
• ArcBest sells FleetNet
Fort Smith-based ArcBest announced Feb. 28 the sale of its FleetNet segment to Cox Automotive in a $100 million cash deal. The maintenance and repair unit of ArcBest generated 6.4% of overall revenue in 2022 and 1.5% of operating income. Cox Automotive is a division of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, which also owns Cox Communications. Cox Enterprises has more than 55,000 employees and more than $20 billion in annual revenue.
• Fort Chaffee upgrade
Almost 30 years after it was feared Fort Chaffee would be permanently closed as a military facility, the base near Fort Smith is now just one of five among more than 150 National Guard training bases in the nation to be rated Level 1 by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Level 1 is the top classification that an Installation can receive,” Col. David Gibbons, Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center commander, said in a statement. “The Level 1 designation is significant in that Fort Chaffee is now one of only five of the Guard’s over 150 nationwide Training Sites, to attain this status. Level 1 Training Sites are vital to the national strategy in the event of full-scale mobilizations.
• New arts high school
The Arkansas Department of Education State Board of Education gave final approval for the Institute for the Creative Arts at its meeting Dec. 15, officially starting the state’s first performing and visual arts high school.
With that final approval, the high school is now preparing to open in August in Fort Smith.
The new school will be housed in the Community School of the Arts’ (CSA) new 40,000-square-foot Center for Creative Art building under construction just north of the U.S. Marshals Museum along the Arkansas River.
• Newton’s closes
An era of jewelry in Fort Smith is coming to a close after more than a century. For 109 years, the Newton family has sold fine jewelry, watches and other items, with many of those years from their store at 701 Garrison Ave.
The business was founded by George H. Newton Sr. in 1914 in McAlester, Okla., according to the store’s website. Four of his sons followed in his footsteps and opened individual stores in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa. The Fort Smith store was owned by William W. “Bill” Newton until his death in 2001. His wife, Zoe, and three sons Kelly, Kyle and Kevin, were all involved with the business, the website notes. The store would close in April.
• Countywide tax renewal
Sebastian County voters on Aug. 8 approved by a wide margin another 10-year run for the county’s 1% sales tax. The tax, which generated almost $34 million in 2022, was first approved by county voters in 1994.
The tally by the Sebastian County Clerk’s office showed a little more than 75% of voters approving the tax renewal for another r10 years.
Collections from the tax are divided among the 11 municipalities in the county and the county itself based on a per capita percentage, according to Hotz. Of the $33.768 million collected from tax in 2022, 85.8% went to the towns and cities inside the county. The county received 14.2% in 2022 or approximately $4.8 million.