CBID discusses concerns with downtown Fort Smith programs, projects

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 297 views 

The Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID) Commission is reevaluating programs it instated with the help of an assessment on property in the district. The Fort Smith Board of Directors in 2022 approved an assessment on properties in the CBID.

The assessment had been in the works for more than three years and allows the CBID, a semi-autonomous governing body, to levy a supplemental annual assessment of up to 10 mils on real property within the CBID boundaries – primarily in downtown Fort Smith. The assessment for 2023 was 8 mils. The same is set for 2024.

The CBID said it will use assessment funds to support an ambassador program with Fort Smith police officers as part of a downtown Safety and Security program, and a Green and Clean project.

The Fort Smith Police Department hired Jon Raspberry to start the ambassador program in 2021. Raspberry served as the department’s downtown ambassador/meter technician. At the first of August 2023, the police department hired Saylor Steward and Allyson Wilson, as part-time ambassadors. There are ambassadors downtown 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Raspberry has said.

At the CBID meeting Thursday (June 20), commissioners voiced concerns that the ambassador program was not going as expected. Jana Mundy with Griffin Properties presented a report to the board Tuesday, saying that if the program is going to continue as it is now structured, she believes the ambassadors need more training.

“The ambassador program isn’t playing out like we initially intended for it to work out. I think it’s time that we regroup,” Mundy said. “Maybe it needs to fall under a different department, or they need more training. I just don’t see the focus is where it should be.”

Originally the ambassadors were to spend half their time checking and enforcing parking meters downtown and the other half communicating and interacting with the public offering help when needed and helping to keep the homeless population from loitering downtown. Because the Fort Smith Board of Directors voted to keep parking meters covered until the end of the year, the ambassadors only need to concentrate on engaging with the community downtown, Mundy said.

Commissioners said they have not seen the ambassadors much in the past months and agreed they needed to meet with Sgt. Steve Creek, who supervises the ambassadors, and Police Chief Danny Baker about the program, expectations and training that may be needed. If the program isn’t able to meet the expectations, Commissioner Phil White said, the board needs to look at ending the program and finding a better use of the assessment funds.

The board had similar concerns about the Green and Clean project. For this year, the CBID will have around $150,000 for the Green and Clean fund generated by the CBID assessment. They intended to use part of those funds to hire a landscaper to plant and care for landscaping along Garrison Avenue, but multiple requests for bids on the project have not netted any interest.

In April, the board decided to spend money on two projects in a plan presented by MAHG Architecture’s blueprint for a better downtown with a total around $75,000-$80,000. The remaining funds would help to pay for extra hours for a team from Abilities Unlimited that already works to keep downtown clean through the Parks Department.

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman and Parks and Recreation Director Sara Deuster said they could better use the remaining funds to hire more seasonal parks employees who would be dedicated specifically to the green and clean program downtown. Though the workers would not be able to do much in terms of landscaping this year because of the time of year and issues with irrigation downtown, they would be able to do other jobs the CBID wants completed and could work more on landscaping for 2025, Deuster said.

The board asked her to come back to the next meeting with a detailed plan of how things would work. If it doesn’t seem like it will accomplish what they want, they agreed to look at ending that program and focus on other green and clean projects.

As for the projects the board agreed in April to fund with assessment dollars, little progress has been made. Commissioners agreed to fund the Garrison Crossing at Third Street, which will cost $9,208.31, and the Art Walk Connector, which will cost $65,362.36. The Garrison at Third Street crossing will have a “pedestrian scramble” large crosswalk that allows for basic across-the-street crossings as well as diagonal crossings. The crossing will also feature landscaping.

The board told the Fort Smith BOD of their intention, and the city has put it in the budget, Dingman said. He said now it’s up to the city’s street department to talk to the Arkansas Department of Transportation, because Garrison Avenue is a state highway, and get the work done. The board was hoping the work would be completed in 2024, and Dingman said he would work with the street’s department to see if that could happen.

The Art Walk Connector will have an entry plaza, art pedestals, string lights and an art walk lighted sign. It will be by the state office building and Prohibition Bar. The art could be rotated at certain intervals.

Because the Art Walk is on private property, it is easier to complete. Property owners for all properties involved have agreed, said Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown. However, they do not want their power source used to power the lights, which has slowed the project.

Richardson said the string light installation would need a dedicated transformer that can be attached to a permanent power box. Because there is some debate on what the city intends for the city-owned parking garage by the installation, there was concern on whether the installation could tap into a power source there.

“I think we can tap into the power source through the parking lot,” Dingman said. “We’ll still be able to get power from the property. If the box has to be moved later, it has to be moved.”