by Chris Bahn
Posted 8/26/2013 12:00 am
Updated 11 months ago
A drive through the intersection of Zero Street and Massard Road in Fort Smith illustrates what a popular spot for local businesses the area has become. A bank, a shopping center and a mini-storage complex are among the enterprises that have set up shop near where the two streets meet.
Each one bills itself as being part of Chaffee Crossing. Technically, they sit just outside the 7,000 acres of mixed-use land overseen by the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.
That outsiders have chosen to affiliate with Chaffee Crossing isn’t lost on FCRA Executive Director Ivy Owen. In fact, Owen finds it both amusing and humbling considering the jaundiced eye with which many viewed the redevelopment project when he took over in 2007.
“That should tell you how far we’ve come,” Owen said. “It’s pretty significant. Absolutely, I’m proud of that. When we started out here, this wasn’t something people were lining up to be associated with, really. We’ve worked really hard at this.”
Inside the boundaries of Chaffee Crossing — named for Fort Chaffee, the military base that formerly occupied the land — is a mix of residential, commercial, recreational, historical and industrial projects. This has not been a slow year for Owen or anybody affiliated with the Crossing, which is located inside both Fort Smith and Barling with residents who are assigned to either the Greenwood or Fort Smith school districts. Consider:
- Old Dominion Freight Line added a 65-bay terminal earlier this year;
- Umarex USA and Walther Arms invested $7 million in an expansion of their factory inside Chaffee Crossing;
- Phoenix Metals is relocating here from Russellville;
- The Fort Smith School District has designated land within the area as the location of its next high school;
- First Baptist Church, a fixture in downtown Fort Smith, has plans to build a new campus at Chaffee Crossing; and
- A 70-store mall is slated for 90 acres of property inside the Barling city limits.
By the end of the year a total of six residential developments will be part of the district, which Owen estimates has generated more than $800 million in capital investments since the FCRA was set up in 1999.
"I'm not bashful when I say this: We are the economic engine in western Arkansas," Owen said. "Everything is happening here. It's not just one thing. This has everything that a community or economic developer dreams about. If you were going to come in here with a blank slate and be an economic community developer, this is a dream come true."
A year ago Chaffee Crossing was recognized as the Association of Defense Communities Base Redevelopment Project of the Year. Growth hasn't slowed since then, and the only thing limiting additional industrial expansion is the limited amount of land left zoned for that use.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders had just been elected in 2010 when he told Arkansas Business that the area was ready to “explode.” Fast-forward nearly three years, and Chaffee Crossing draws more than 1,100 area residents for work and an estimated $8 million in property sales expected for this year.
Still, Sanders isn’t sure that the full potential has been reached.
Sanders, who serves as an ex officio board member of the FCRA, is hopeful that the success of Chaffee Crossing will carry over into more of Fort Smith. Plant closures and layoffs in the city have too often dominated headlines, and the work at Chaffee Crossing has been a helpful antidote. Seizing that momentum for the rest of the town is critical, he said.
“Anytime you have positive news like we’ve had at Chaffee Crossing, it does provide encouragement that good things are continuing to happen. … I think the newsworthiness of what has happened there has spilled over into the community and has businesses looking at Fort Smith as a prospective location. That’s good for all of us.”
Developer Rocky Walker, who owns Cobblestone Homes, has plans for a residential neighborhood of houses ranging from 1,800 to 3,500 SF. Building in Chaffee Crossing makes sense because of the retail and industrial development in the area, which also features more than 12 miles of biking and hiking trails. There is also a historic district, which includes the Barbershop Museum, site of Elvis Presley’s haircut when he entered the military in 1958. There’s also a nine-hole golf course nearby that was taken over by FCRA last year.
Even with all the amenities, Walker said, some in town seem skeptical that Chaffee Crossing will be good for the city. There is some concern, he said, that it will hurt other parts of town.
“I think there are a lot of people in my line of work and my age that see the opportunities out here,” Walker said. “Fort Smith will be unrecognizable in five years and we’re excited about it. Unfortunately, there are naysayers and people who are maybe a little bit jealous of the Chaffee Crossing area. What they don’t understand is this is a plus for all of Fort Smith from the east side to downtown and everywhere else.
“It’s a great opportunity for Fort Smith to not only survive, but thrive.”
All of the success that has happened at Chaffee Crossing has been achieved without perhaps the largest piece of the puzzle. Construction is continuing on Interstate 49, which will one day connect the Gulf Coast near New Orleans to the Canadian border. It will include a six-mile stretch that runs through Chaffee Crossing and connect Highway 59 from Van Buren to U.S. 71 south of Fort Smith.
It’s near the eventual intersection of Highway 59 and I-49 that the mall is planned. Owen said there will be 12 corners of prime real estate available after the interstate work is complete. Those, Owen said, will be some of the most valuable land in Chaffee Crossing thanks to an estimated 35,000 vehicles per day that will pass through the development district.
“Some people still don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Owen said of the I-49 project, set for local completion in mid-2014. “They’re convinced it’s not going to happen. There are some of those people around, some hesitancy until they see pavement or until they see traffic. But when that happens, those 12 corners are going to sell and that is going to be the icing on top of the cake as far as I’m concerned.
“It will be a tremendous boost. Maybe I can retire and 10 years from now this area will be so successful, nobody will remember we were here trying to make this happen.”