Fort Smith Fights to Find Its 'Best Version'


James Ibison with Ibison Masons prepares to cut a decorative stone for Gateway Park at the east entrance of downtown Fort Smith.
James Ibison with Ibison Masons prepares to cut a decorative stone for Gateway Park at the east entrance of downtown Fort Smith. (Corey S. Krasko)
Murals downtown are part of Fort Smith’s visual revitalization, aided by artists from the Unexpected Project.
Murals downtown are part of Fort Smith’s visual revitalization, aided by artists from the Unexpected Project. (64.6 Downtown Fort Smith)
Murals downtown are part of Fort Smith’s visual revitalization, aided by artists from the Unexpected Project.
Murals downtown are part of Fort Smith’s visual revitalization, aided by artists from the Unexpected Project. (64.6 Downtown Fort Smith)

Whirlpool Corp. left Fort Smith in 2012 after 45 years, leaving empty buildings and nearly 1,000 people without jobs.

It plunged the manufacturing city, Arkansas’ second-most populous, into a state of shock that it has taken years to rebound from. Fort Smith hasn’t completely recovered yet, although city leaders say revitalization is well underway.

It took the Unexpected.

In 2015, local businessman Steve Clark, founder of Rockfish Interactive and Propak Corp., decided the city needed to do something provocative. He developed the idea of the Unexpected Project, a festival that has artists paint murals on buildings in downtown Fort Smith.

The weeklong festival, held every October, has attracted thousands of tourists, the curious and proud locals. While not solely responsible for Fort Smith’s re-emerging downtown vibrancy, which Clark is first to point out, it has given the town something to hang its hat on.

“This isn’t just something we’re doing,” said Clark, who earned a 2019 Governor’s Arts Award for the Unexpected. “This is something we have a right to. A celebration of the arts in Fort Smith has a long, long [and] rich, rich history. We had maybe forgotten that. Now that we have rediscovered it, it gives other people permission to dream and take chances.

“In the end that is all we can really do: encourage people to build the city they want to live in.”

Clark said that, after Whirlpool left, there was a sense of malaise in the city. About five years ago, he said, leaders such as himself, President Bill Hanna of Hanna Oil & Gas Co. and others said enough was enough.

“We’re not trying to emulate any other Arkansas city; we are just literally trying to be the best version of ourselves,” Clark said. “That’s good enough.”

Fort Smith’s economic recovery isn’t a done deal. Its growth lags behind more robust metropolitan areas such as Little Rock and northwest Arkansas, but city leaders said there is cause for optimism.

Downtown doesn’t look like a boarded-up ghost town anymore, and Chaffee Crossing is a vibrant residential area with a new medical school. Jobs are being added and sales tax revenue has begun to increase by 0.75% to 1.5% annually.

Workforce Development

City Administrator Carl Geffken hates to use the word “slow” to describe Fort Smith’s growth, preferring to stick to “steady.” Whatever the terminology, Geffken said it is important that Fort Smith have sustainable growth that doesn’t suffer at the whims of a roller-coaster economy.

“We would like larger, faster growth just like everyone else,” Geffken said. “There is a lot of growth going on. It’s that deliberate, planned growth. If you can maintain steady growth, then God forbid if there is a recession or a problem, that steady growth continues. It’s the tortoise and the hare. No one needs to be on that seesaw. You don’t want to have flashes in the pan.”

The gritty economic development work is done by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is led by CEO Tim Allen. Allen said Fort Smith has attracted several job-bringing companies in recent years but the key to sustaining that, and attracting more in the future, is the city’s workforce development program.

Two years ago, workforce development became a top priority of the chamber, which worked with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, city officials and the local educational system from kindergarten through college at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to make sure the city’s workforce would become a selling point.

Nearly all cities looking to attract new industry can offer affordable land and generous tax incentives, Allen said. But companies want to know that the jobs they need done can be done.

“The challenge is, just like the rest of America, is having the capacity of workers,” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter if you are in Bentonville or Kansas City; the communities that can provide the workforce are going to win in economic development. That is what we are putting a lot of our energy behind. We are all on the same sheet of music.”

Allen said the city is partnering with Edge Factor of New York on a pilot program that makes videos for students to understand what jobs are out there.

“It’s a channel where students can see what a certain career looks like,” Allen said. “They truly don’t know that jobs are here waiting for them. They have to do certain things to get there. It is a way to connect with students.”

Quality of Life

Hanna, who is the board chairman of Fort Smith’s Central Business Improvement District, said the revitalization of downtown with restaurants, a live-music venue and a bike-and-skate park is a vital component of the city’s economic development drive.

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Amenities are economic development, Hanna said, because workers want to work in a city that has things they enjoy doing. Fort Smith is expanding its trail system and building Gateway Park at one end of downtown, for example.

“In my company, it helps me attract and retain employees; that’s citywide,” Hanna said. “When you create an environment people can engage in, that brings people in, employees in, employers in. That’s what you see in northwest Arkansas. We’re not at that scale and never will be, but the excitement to me is no different.

“It is economic development because you provide quality of life. That turns into economic development, maybe more so. That is what we have neglected. We haven’t paid enough attention to quality of life amenities.”

As for the catalyst, Hanna and Geffken both gave credit to Clark’s Unexpected — run by Clark’s 64.6 Downtown nonprofit — but Clark echoed Allen’s same sheet of music theme. Hanna said enough people just got tired of “no progress” and became proactive.

“The idea is we have to build a city that people don’t just want to live in, but it attracts talent and companies from all over the world,” Clark said. “In order for us to participate, there are things we have to do to put ourselves in position to participate. The days are gone where you can simply hope for the best.

“A number of folks in town just said depending on the kindness of strangers and letting nature take its course are not going to work. There’s no cavalry coming to save us. You have to fight a little different.”