Booming Business: Fort Smith’s self-storage surge reflects growing demand

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 622 views 

A view of several storage units at RazorBox Storage in Fort Smith. The city is seeing an influx of storage units being built.

Stuff. We have a lot of it.

The two-car garage is so full that it’s a barely-one-car garage. The attic is packed, and so is what was once the guest room. Garage sales are hassles, and the thrift store is picky about the stuff they’ll take.

However, there most likely is a new self-storage place within a mile or two of all those boxes and baskets of shoes, shorts and sweaters in the study that your college kid says they might use if they get an apartment in their senior year.

Storage facility access shouldn’t be a problem in the Fort Smith area, where at least $39.25 million in new storage facilities were built or permitted by Fort Smith, Greenwood and Van Buren officials between 2019 and May 2024. That number does not include facilities built outside the city limits of each city.

According to information provided by Jimmie Deer, director of building services for the City of Fort Smith, Fort Smith has received more than $35.13 million in self-storage facility building permits since 2019. That total does not include furniture, fixtures and equipment in the units. The permits for the 13 different storage facility sites were for a combined 3,913 units, with an average cost of $8,979 per unit.

The largest by permit value is a $7.97 million permit at 8600 Jenny Lind Road for 824 units under the name Trinity Storage Center. The largest by number of units is the three-story Life Storage facility at 2219 S. Waldron Road, which is permitted for 906 units. That facility, once the home of a hotel, was issued a $7.67 million building permit.

The big year in that period was 2023 when 3,218 units were permitted in Fort Smith, or 80% of all permitted units and 75% of the building permit value.

Greenwood issued a permit in 2022 for the Horizons Secure Storage facility for $3.36 million. Greenwood Building Inspector Hunter Mikles said the city issued a moratorium on self-storage facilities in late 2022 to change zoning rules. Storage facilities, once allowed on commercial property, are now allowed in Greenwood only on land zoned for industrial use. Mikles said city officials wanted to preserve commercial areas, especially those along major roads, for businesses generating more tax revenue and having more employees.

David Martin, a building official in Van Buren, said the city issued three permits between 2019 and May 2024 valued at a combined $748,000. He also said several storage facilities have been built in Crawford County recently, likely pushing the overall regional number above $40 million.

‘A GOOD MONEY MAKER’
Stephanie Goins, office manager for RazorBox Storage at 8601 Chad Colley Blvd., in Fort Smith (Chaffee Crossing), is not surprised by the increase in storage sites. Goins, who has worked more than 20 years in the sector, said new construction is catching up with regional business and population growth and possibly anticipating people moving in to support the foreign military pilot training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith. According to Arkansas and military officials, the center could bring in up to 2,000 people when fully operational.

“It’s [self-storage] a good money maker, a good investment if you can manage it correctly,” Goins said, adding that storage facilities often attract investors seeking to diversify real estate and business holdings.

The Arkansas Self Storage Association confirms Goins’ investment note.

“Self-storage is an excellent way for investors to diversify their real estate portfolio, providing a buffer against market volatility in other sectors like residential or commercial real estate,” according to a response from the association about reasons people and companies invest in storage facilities.

Other reasons noted by the association include historically steady demand, recession resiliency, the ability to add more units as demand grows, relatively low maintenance compared with other commercial structures, low tenant turnover, and a high return on investment with the ability to adjust to inflationary pressures.

“Self-storage facilities typically offer attractive returns due to relatively low operating costs and steady rental income,” the association noted. “Month-to-month leases allow facility owners to adjust rental rates frequently, often on a monthly basis. This flexibility enables them to respond quickly to inflationary pressures and rising operating costs by increasing rents accordingly.”

The association also reports that storage unit costs vary based on location, unit size, climate control, and overall amenities offered at the site. Monthly rental rates are often around $50 for smaller units and up to $200 and more for larger units.

According to the association, Arkansas has 800 to 1,000 self-storage facilities, with up to 60,000 U.S. locations.

“A typical self-storage facility employs between two to four people. This includes on-site managers, maintenance staff, and sometimes additional part-time or seasonal workers. Larger facilities or those with more extensive services may employ more staff,” the association noted.

HOARDERS & ‘RV COUPLES’
Goins said there are many reasons people and businesses use self-storage services. Some storage customers are hoarders.

“Just walking down the street, you wouldn’t know that’s who they are. But when they don’t have more room there [at their house], they will rent a [storage] unit,” Goins said.

Other customers, according to Goins, include those who get a job in the area and need space until they buy or build a house, people who need space for their hobbies, those who need to temporarily store items during a home remodel, those with “heirloom pieces” who want them in a safe space, “RV couples” who store seasonal clothing and other items, and those with “temperature sensitive” items they don’t want to leave in a garage or attic. She’s also had customers from families who move in together and put extra items in storage.

Goins also said medical students at the nearby Arkansas Colleges of Health Education rent space at RazorBox during the summer or during a residency.

The reasons vary. During the interview with Goins, a couple rented a unit to house two four-wheelers. She had bought a new car, and recent severe weather with hail caused her to want to park in the garage, which is where the four-wheelers were parked.

“I need to get that [new car] in the garage. There have been too many storms through here,” she said.

Goins also said businesses use storage sites. For example, lawn and landscape companies may use self-storage to house some or all of their equipment. Restaurant owners and managers also use storage sites for overflow equipment. Goins said about 20% of renters at RazorBox are commercial customers.

“They’ll [lawn companies] have their crews meet there [at a storage site], get their equipment for the day, and then go out to the different jobs they have that day,” she said. “There’s a lot of commercial that rents, too. It’s not just residential.”