Fort Smith mayor, director question recent population estimate

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 910 views 

City officials are questioning census data that shows the Fort Smith population declined over the past year. According to U.S. Census Bureau data released May 16, Fort Smith’s population declined by 0.3% to 89,770 in 2023 from 90,080 in 2022.

Fort Smith had the state’s second-largest numerical decline in population, down 310 people. From 2020 to 2023, the population rose by 0.7%, the 16th-fastest in the state. Following are Fort Smith population figures since the 2020 Census.
2023: 89,770
2022: 90,080
2021: 89,500
2020: 89,153

“I do not believe those numbers. It just doesn’t add up,” said Fort Smith Director Lavon Morton.

Driving around Fort Smith doesn’t reveal anything to justify the decline in population, Morton said. Newly constructed homes in the Fianna Hills area, Chaffee Crossing and east Fort Smith are all sold or rented, he said.

“As soon as you see a for sale or for rent sign go up, it’s back down because it’s sold,” Morton said. “Even on the north side of town, there aren’t any areas with many vacant homes.”

The Fort Smith Housing Authority is building new residences to meet the need for affordable housing, and there is constantly a waiting list of people hoping to get into those, Morton said. He said conversations with those who own rental properties suggest they remain full.

“There just isn’t lots of empty housing around town,” Morton said.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith had a fall enrollment in 2023 of 5,506. While that is down from the 6,265 in 2019, the numbers were up from 2022. Arkansas College of Health Education (ACHE) in Chaffee Crossing has been adding new programs over the last few years and continues to see an increase in student population. ACHE had 826 students enrolled in fall 2023, which was higher than 2023. Susan Devero, ACHE vice president of marketing and communications, said the number would be higher for 2024.

“And those students are living all over the city,” Morton said.

He said all it takes is a look at the number of water meters in use around the city this year compared to last year and the number of new meters being tapped in the city to know there is growth. Morton said he would like to see action to get a more accurate picture of the city and it’s population. He said he was going to talk to McGill to see if there is anything the city can do to get a population count.

“So maybe we can get an accurate count for the first time since 2010,” Morton said.

Alison Wright, data center division head for the Arkansas Economic Development Institute, said losing 310 people is not really that many and there is a good chance the numbers will rebound in 2024.

“I was a little surprised to see it go down because it had been gaining slowly, though not as much in the past,” Wright said.

She also noted that Barling grew in 2023, so maybe that explains some of the decline in Fort Smith. Barling grew by 303 people in 2023, rising from a population of 4,912 in 2022 to 5,215 in 2023.

The U.S. Census Bureau starts at the county level when estimating population for areas. Housing units being built and torn down are calculated. Then the county is broken down into subcount areas – cities and towns. At the city level, data from institutional and non-institutional facilities such as correctional facilities for adults; juvenile facilities; nursing facilities/skilled-nursing facilities; and college and university student housing, is collected, Wright said.

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill believes the city was undercounted in 2020 for a number of reasons and the numbers are still low.

“But it doesn’t bother me that a small number have moved out of the city. Maybe they have moved so they can have more acreage, which you can’t get in the city of Fort Smith, or for some other reason. Maybe our homeless population count is smaller, because our homeless population is less. … What is important are our employment numbers and those keep rising,” McGill said, noting that employment numbers in the city show there are around 1,000 more people in the workforce in the city this year than last.

The Fort Smith metro has an estimated 116,642 jobs in March, up 1,500 jobs compared with March 2023. Regional employment remains well below the peak of 124,098 in June 2006.

McGilll said some people leaving the city to live nearby does not reflect the quality of life in Fort Smith.

“We have an amazing future in Fort Smith. In the next 10 years, this city and this region will be completely transformed,” McGill said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, shared McGill’s optimism.

“From the Foreign Military Sales training mission to city leadership’s initiatives to posture Fort Smith for growth and opportunity, it is an exciting time to be in Fort Smith. I will always advocate for the City of Fort Smith and stand ready to assist at the federal level,” Womack said in a statement provided to Talk Business & Politics.