Fort Smith Leaders Eye Riverfront for New Development

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Aug. 13, 2012 12:00 am  

Take a walk along the Arkansas River at the west end of Fort Smith and you won't see much: Past the Riverfront Pavilion there's little more than weeds and dirt. But that's changing. Big trucks have appeared, along with signs promising "Future site of ..."

The town has morphed during the past decade. Manufacturing has given way to transportation and utilities as Fort Smith's biggest employer, seen most recently in the dramatic shutdown of Fort Smith's 944-employee Whirlpool Corp. plant.

Now, the city's leaders are prepared to fight back with big plans for tourism and commerce along the Arkansas River.

The two biggest projects in the area are the long-planned U.S. Marshals Museum and a brand new commercial district, both in place of the aforementioned weeds and dirt.

The museum project has been building momentum since Fort Smith was chosen as its location back in 2007. The $50 million, 20,000-SF riverfront facility will showcase the history of America's U.S. Marshals Service near what was once the gateway to the real "Wild West."

Fort Smith beat out Los Angeles and Staunton, Va., among other cities, for the museum's location. Jim Dunn, the museum's president and CEO, said the location was chosen partially by way of community effort and partially because of Fort Smith's storied history with the Marshals Service.

Where there's now a highway bridge into Oklahoma there once was nothing, and a trip west of Fort Smith meant wilderness and the territory of five Native American tribes. Across the river, Arkansas law didn't apply.

"We had more marshals killed in the line of duty riding out of the Western District of Arkansas than any other district of the nation, most of them being killed in Indian Territory," Dunn said.

But the museum is still in the funding stages.

"It's all private fundraising," said Ray Gosack, Fort Smith city administrator. "They first conducted a local fundraising campaign, and now they're in the midst of a statewide fundraising campaign, and then they'll go to a national campaign."

Gosack said the campaigns were waylaid by the recession, but they had so far raised about $10 million, and donations were now picking up steam. The actual date of the museum's construction will depend on how fast the funding can reach the $50 million goal.

"Their intent is to have the funds in hand before they break ground," said Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders. "They want to build it the way it ought to be built."



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