I devoted my Wednesday newspaper column to downtown Fort Smith this week and heard from everyone from the mayor on down it seemed.
They were pleased to see something other than a business section story about a manufacturing plant either laying off some of its workers or closing completely.
Fort Smith long has been our state’s manufacturing center. With the decline in American manufacturing in recent years, there has been a steady stream of such stories coming out of Sebastian County.
Living in central Arkansas, I can see how people who don’t travel much can stereotype other parts of our state. The average Little Rock resident probably would tell you that Benton and Washington counties are booming while Sebastian County is losing population.
The fact is that Sebastian County had an almost 6 percent population increase from the 2000 census to the 2010 census. That doesn’t come close to the growth in the northwest corner of the state, but you can see that the Fort Smith area isn’t losing population.
All of this brings us to downtown Fort Smith.
Following a lunch meeting in Siloam Springs last Friday, I decided to weave my way down U.S. 59 through the Ozark National Forest to Van Buren. I needed a change of pace from the usual route down Interstate 540.
Because of construction on Interstate 540 into Fort Smith, I took Interstate 40 west out of Van Buren to the Dora exit on the Oklahoma state line. I like that entrance into downtown Fort Smith. You drive through the corn and winter wheat fields along the Arkansas River for a few miles after leaving the interstate and then cross the Garrison Avenue Bridge into Fort Smith.
What immediately struck me was how busy things were along Garrison Avenue late on a Friday afternoon.
Go into the downtowns of most Arkansas cities on a slow Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer and you will see few people on the streets.
That wasn’t the case along Garrison Avenue. The parking spots were full, and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic.
That’s when the thought struck me: The folks trying to revitalize Main Street in Little Rock could learn a lesson or two from business and civic leaders in our state’s second-largest city.
It was just after 11 p.m. on a Sunday — April 21, 1996, to be exact — when a strong F2 tornado took dead aim at downtown Fort Smith. That tornado caused $300 million of damage.
A lot of downtowns across Arkansas would not have recovered from such a blow. But the leadership of Fort Smith — pushed by a visionary developer named Richard Griffin — decided not only to rebuild the buildings that had been destroyed but also to renovate historic properties that long had been neglected.
The city’s Central Business Improvement District became much more aggressive in marketing downtown, updating design guidelines and trying to attract downtown residents with projects such as the West End Lofts.
Traditional retailers such as Newton’s Jewelers — which has been around since 1914 — were encouraged to stay downtown while new restaurants and entertainment venues such as the Varsity Sports Grill & Adelaide Ballroom, Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante, R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe, Doe’s Eat Place, 21 West End and Neumeier’s Rib Room ensured there was life along Garrison Avenue and adjoining streets at night and on weekends.
Down by the Garrison Avenue Bridge, the Park at West End was opened, featuring a 1950s Ferris wheel and an Italian carousel.
Riverfront Amphitheater was built to accommodate more than 1,100 people for outdoor concerts and other events.
Ross Pendergraft Park opened adjacent to the Fort Smith National Historic Site in 2001, offering visitors restrooms, parking, benches and a pavilion. A statue of famed U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was recently erected in the park.
Further east at North 10th Street and Garrison Avenue, Cisterna Park — named after Cisterna, Italy, which is Fort Smith’s sister city — opened with a fountain, nature area and picnic tables.
Visitors to the Fort Smith National Historic Site now can spend an entire day downtown if they choose to do so. There’s the excellent Fort Smith Museum of History in the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building adjacent to the National Park Service site. There’s the Fort Smith Trolley Museum. There are plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance.
Sixteen new businesses opened downtown last year, including two antique stores in the 700 block of Garrison Avenue.
Fort Smith received an unexpected boost when True West magazine rated the city No. 1 on its list of “Top True Western Towns” for 2013.
Already, more of what’s known in the business as “cultural heritage tourists” had been attracted to Fort Smith by the remake of the movie “True Grit.”
And how many cities have a former bordello as a visitors’ center? To further enhance the visitor experience, a series of historical plaques was placed in downtown Fort Smith last year.
The next major step forward for downtown Fort Smith will be completion of the $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum. If the current fundraising effort succeeds, that museum will open along the banks of the Arkansas River in the fall of 2016.
Groundbreaking for the 52,260-square-foot museum will be Sept. 24, 2014, to coincide with the release by the U.S. Mint of a commemorative coin marking the 225th anniversary of the Marshals Service. There’s still about $27.5 million left to be raised.
While the nationwide fundraising effort for the Marshals Museum continues, Griffin Properties is moving forward with projects elsewhere downtown. Last year, the company completed an upscale market and cafe at the northwest corner of Garrison Avenue and North Fifth Street on an open lot where the KWHN radio studios once stood. The store, designed to provide groceries and other services to downtown residents, is in front of St. Charles Place, an office building developed by Griffin Properties.
Richard Griffin has said there are three keys to getting more people to live downtown:
— Buildings must be modernized
— Quality accommodations must then be added inside those buildings
— Things like grocery and fuel must be available in the neighborhood
In April, Griffin Properties announced that it will spend at least $3 million to renovate six buildings in the 400 block of Garrison Avenue. There will be retail space and 12 apartments once the project, known as Garrison Pointe West, is completed.
In May, it was announced that Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics will renovate the 1911 Friedman-Mincer Building — known by locals as the old OTASCO building — for its headquarters. The company will spend about $2 million to convert the three-story, 24,000-square-foot bulding into offices for 40 employees.
The company’s owner, Steve Clark, told Michael Tilley of The City Wire: “With each building we see removed in that area, it removes some of the heart of our history. So I see this as a preservation of a truly iconic building on a historic corner.”
Clark said he will use a Fayetteville-based architect with Fort Smith ties to “create a buzz in northwest Arkansas about what’s going on in Fort Smith.”
Clark took a trip with architects to Cincinnati to visit that city’s national historic districts.
Fort Smith native Ben Boulden, an expert on the city’s history, told Tilley: “It’s a real special building on the avenue. It has that triangular, mini-Flatiron appearance. … This is good news because we don’t need to lose any more historic architectural assets on the avenue.”
There also are preliminary plans to light and repaint the Garrison Avenue Bridge. Add to that efforts to relocate a railroad maintenance facility behind the vistors’ center, build a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks there, install a splash pad for children and add green space.
You know the old saying: Perception is reality.
But if you perceive Fort Smith as nothing but a declining industrial town, take a walk down Garrison Avenue. Your perception will change.
Once the Marshals Museum is completed, that perception will change for thousands of other people in the region.
The Marshals Museum should mean to downtown Fort Smith what the Clinton Presidential Center has meant to downtown Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has meant to downtown Bentonville.