Fort Smith Leaders Eye Riverfront for New Development

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."

Sanders said the ultimate vision for the museum was to have it as part of a "triangular tour," shared with the Clinton Library in Little Rock and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Gosack said Oklahoma, with its National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, would fit in as well, creating something of a museum corridor between the two states.

Dunn said he was a "frequent visitor" to Arkansas' other cities with major museum development.

Bentonville and Little Rock are "beehives of activity with both economic development and jobs. Each of those two other attractions is materially different from the Marshals Museum, and that's good, not bad: We will appeal to a different group of tourists who, once here, will be likely to go onto Little Rock or Bentonville, or both. Likewise, those tourists that those attractions appeal to will be inclined to come to Fort Smith to see this national museum."

Dunn said a 2009 study showed the museum could draw up to 115,000 visitors per year, and that was without calculating traffic from Little Rock or Bentonville.

"I think any reasonable estimate now would be significantly higher," Dunn said. He also noted that the museum would likely bring in direct payroll results of about $1 million a year and the project would result in a "significant source of income, development and jobs for downtown Fort Smith."

$2.1 Million Investment

The groundwork for the riverfront commercial district is now being laid.

"The city's investing in water and sewer infrastructure along the riverfront," Gosack said. "It's a $2.1 million investment that will be finished in May of next year."

The investment will prepare about 100 acres for mixed-use development with the museum serving as an anchor, Sanders said. The city, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Westphal Group, which owns the property, are jointly marketing the property for development.

"Also on the riverfront, we've got a 6-mile trail that connects to a park along the riverfront," Gosack said. "Eventually that will connect into more trails on the east side of the city, but we haven't developed those trails yet."

That project will also lead to a 51-acre $20 million sports complex at Chaffee Crossing, Gosack said, which will be funded using a 1 percent sales tax renewed in March. Gosack said Fort Smith had a big demand for soccer, volleyball and softball tournaments, and the complex, with a tentative completion date of spring 2014, would enhance tourism.

Jayne Hughes, who works with Fort Smith's Central Business Improvement District, said the riverfront development would complement the area's downtown district.

"The opportunity is open for perfect locations with outstanding views for a boutique hotel, upscale retail, dining and corporate office space and possibly residential in the forms of condominiums," she said. "I plan to present to corporate headquarters site selectors first and then go from there."

Gosack said increased residential space downtown spoke well for that type of development along the river.

"The magnificent views of the river should lend themselves to people wanting to live there as well," Gosack said.

Hughes said the marketing package for the locations would be presented to the city board in early 2013.

The riverfront development is the latest phase in the redevelopment of Fort Smith's downtown, which Richard Griffin, chairman of the CBID, said had been in progress for about 40 years. Hughes said about $70 million had been invested downtown since 2005.

"Urban sprawl and shopping malls came in and in the '70s devastated downtowns all over America," Griffin said. "This downtown is pretty vibrant now, with over 100 [commercial] offerings and residential units that are pretty well all full."

Griffin said downtown redevelopment was already occurring when a 1996 tornado destroyed several portions of the downtown district, including several historic buildings that were being restored.

"It really served as a wake-up call," he said. "The commission regrouped and has been active."

Now, downtown is "totally different" than it was in 1996, having cultivated a reputation as a recreation area and acquired its own nightlife. But it's a work-in-progress: Griffin's board is working on getting the last few vacant storefronts occupied as well as beautifying the streets and installing traffic "knuckles" to slow cars down around pedestrians.

"We have a long way to go," Griffin said, "but we've come a long way."