For many cities and towns, Main Street is, well, Main Street.
In Fort Smith, Main Street is Garrison Avenue, and Garrison Avenue represents the heart of the city’s historic downtown — literally, where the new South meets the old West.
In recent years, several new development projects have infused new life into downtown. The transformation of the area into one in which residents are attracted to live, work and play has earned Fort Smith honorable-mention recognition as a 2011 Arkansas Business City of Distinction for Main Street preservation.
“Downtown is once again reclaiming its role as a gathering place for residents of the region, a place for quality live entertainment, a variety of culinary and shopping experiences, and a place for families to learn about our past and to simply have fun,” said Tracy Winchell, communications manager for the city of Fort Smith. “Downtown revivals require people, and people spur downtown revival. In Fort Smith, the Main Street concept is working.”
Perhaps the most tangible evidence of that can be seen crossing the Arkansas River into the city from Oklahoma. Riverfront Park hosts numerous large events drawing tens of thousands, and the city now has a popular Farmers Market along the river that features local food, live music, breakfast and plenty of social interaction. A large, vintage Ferris wheel located at the Park at West End provides a nice bookend to a bustling riverfront.
Through public and private ventures, more than $15 million has been invested in downtown in the past two years. The Fort Smith Convention Center has attracted well over 10,000 visitors downtown in that time frame, providing an estimated economic impact of $20 million. More than 2,000 jobs have been recruited downtown, and 18 new residential lofts have been added with another 14 units planned for the next year.
An estimated $6 million worth of new projects are in varying stages of development as well.
Several major events have found homes downtown, such as the annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration, the Old Fort Days Rodeo parade, the Old Fort Riverfront Blues Festival and a regional jazz festival. Artists such as Ted Nugent and Delbert McClinton have played private venues along Garrison, which Winchell said has developed a solid reputation as an entertainment district.
“The rehabilitation of Garrison Avenue and new construction along the Arkansas River in recent years are creating a new riff on a classic icon for Fort Smith,” Winchell said.