The new Fort Smith

EIGHTH IN A SERIES

It was an important day in the history of western Arkansas.

On Sept. 30, 1941, ground was broken between Fort Smith and Barling for what would become Fort Chaffee. War seemed imminent. The U.S. Department of War was determined to double the size of the U.S. Army and had paid almost $1.35 million to 712 property owners for 15,163 acres in far west Arkansas.

Chaffee eventually would cover more than 70,000 acres.

The first soldiers arrived in December 1941. From 1942-46, the 6th, 14th and 16th Armored Divisions trained there. Chaffee served as both a training camp and a prisoner of war camp during the war.

The 5th Armored Division called Chaffee home from 1948-57, and the name was changed from Camp Chaffee to Fort Chaffee in 1956.

In 1960-61, the 100th Infantry Division was headquartered at Chaffee. The fort was declared inactive in 1961 but would be used again through the years — as a test site for tactical defoliants during the Vietnam War, as a processing center for refugees from Southeast Asia in 1975-76, as a processing center for Cuban refugees in 1980, as the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center from 1986-93.

In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the closure of Fort Chaffee. The federal government declared more than 6,000 acres as surplus property and turned them over for redevelopment. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was established to find uses for that land.

In 2007, economic developer Ivy Owen moved from Mississippi to become executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. He had more than four decades of experience, including seven years with the Mississippi band of Choctaws.

A story about Owen in the 2017 edition of America’s Defense Communities said the developer “made friends with the tribal chief who cared more about what he could do than where he was from. He spent many nights in community meetings with an interpreter translating his smart growth and new urbanism concept and how they could benefit the tribe.”

“They were already pretty successful with a lot of industry, two huge casinos and two championship golf courses,” Owen told the publication. “They were also pretty clannish and didn’t like outsiders coming in and telling them how to design and implement a land-use program. It took seven years, but by the time I left, the council had approved the first smart-growth plan for an area adopted by any tribe in the nation.”

Ivy has had similar success at what’s now known as Chaffee Crossing. Construction crews seem to be everywhere these days.

“I never would have believed it 10 years ago,” Owen once told me in an interview. “You could have fired a shotgun through here in 2007 and not hit anyone. I think people in this region are finally seeing that this is really happening. The redevelopment of this acreage isn’t just a pipe dream anymore, and they know that. The thing that helped us most was when work began on the extension of future Interstate 49 through our property. People finally saw dirt flying around out here, and it was exciting.”

New residential subdivisions are springing up among the various businesses. There are 28 neighborhoods finished or planned, and authority officials say there soon will be 2,900 housing units (ranging from apartments to single-family homes) on the grounds.

Chaffee Crossing is now marketing itself as “the economic engine of western Arkansas.”

In June 2017, employees began moving into the ArcBest corporate offices that had been under construction for two years. The 200,000-square-foot building will house 1,000 people. It cost $32 million. ArcBest purchased 70 acres from the authority to accommodate future expansions.

In August 2017, the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine welcomed its first class of 162 students. In November 2009, Sparks Health System (now part of Baptist Health) was sold for $136 million to a company then known as Health Management Associates. Once liabilities were settled, there was $62 million remaining in the Degen Foundation’s (Sparks’ charitable arm that wasn’t a part of the sale) account.

Work began on a three-story building in February 2015. Students were recruited from across the country.

The parent of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine is the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. The health complex covers 228 acres. The 102,000-square-foot building that houses the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine cost $34 million to complete. The college will have 600 students once all four classes are filled.

An 84-unit apartment complex was built adjacent to the medical school so students could walk to class. Neighborhoods and retail shops will be added on the 228 acres as additional programs are launched. An $11 million residential and retail project known as Heritage Village is being built directly across the street from the medical school.

Last May, ground was broken for a $25 million facility that will house doctor of physical therapy, doctor of occupational therapy and physician’s assistant programs. Those programs will result in 30 new faculty positions. The new building covers 66,000 square feet. A $15 million anonymous gift in June 2017 helped make the second building possible. The first students are expected in the building in August 2020.

It has gotten so busy in the area that Kyle Parker, the president and chief executive officer of ACHE, is pressing for a stoplight at the intersection of Chad Colley Boulevard and Frontier Road. About 2,600 people a day now come to Chaffee Crossing for jobs.

In 2016, Glatfelter, a Pennsylvania-based company, purchased the former Mitsubishi Power Systems building for a facility producing absorbent papers used in personal hygiene products. That resulted in more than 80 jobs.

Also in 2016, Mars PetCare announced a $72 million expansion that added 130 jobs to the 250 people who already were working for Mars.

In 2012, 2016 and 2017, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority received the John Lynch Base Redevelopment Excellence Award from the Association of Defense Communities. Michael Cooper, the Association of Defense Communities president, called Chaffee Crossing “one of the greatest redevelopment community success stories across the country.”

Authority officials say that total capital investment at Chaffee Crossing is now more than $1.5 billion.

“We’ve just about run out of big pieces of property,” Owen told me. “We’ve been selling property so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. We started out with just more than 6,000 acres, and we’re now down to just more than 1,000 acres that we can sell. With more people living here, the next thing you’ll see is a lot more retail. Once we’ve sold all of the property, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority will go away and the assets will be split between Sebastian County, the city of Barling and the city of Fort Smith. I can tell you that we’re viewed across the country as a model for what should be done with closed bases. Things just came together for us in recent years. It has been the perfect storm.”

The authority derives revenue from land sales, leases and even railcar storage. It partners with Fort Smith and Barling on infrastructure projects.

Longtime Fort Smith journalist Judith Hansen told America’s Defense Communities: “Everyone wondered whether Ivy would be able to pull it off, but he has been there the longest and done the most with it. Before he arrived, the land was so open and empty that I used to give my kids driving lessons out there. Now, there’s manufacturing, light industry, retail, restaurants, housing, schools and nonprofits — and there’s still so much building going on that, as Ivy will say, ‘If you haven’t been to Chaffee Crossing this week, it’s as though you haven’t been here.’ I don’t know where folks are taking their kids for driving lessons now.”

She said Owen “sought a variety of perspectives and was willing to consider different options that would benefit the people throughout the region, not just Fort Smith. He also had the patience to wait for the right opportunities to come along rather than just jumping into projects that wouldn’t be the right fit.”

Not all of this success story involves new construction. Part of it has to do with attracting tenants for old base structures that are being repurposed for commercial uses. Hundreds of buildings were demolished after the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the permanent closure of Fort Chaffee in 1995. Several buildings that once were part of the fort, however, are now being renovated.

Businesses have taken notice.

Ivy told America’s Defense Communities: “One of the first requests I made of the authority’s board after I was hired was for $40,000 to design a historic district around the Elvis building, which has become a major tourist attraction, drawing people from all over the world. I didn’t think they would give me the money — and the project wound up costing three times what I asked for — but they let me go out on a limb. Fortunately, I didn’t break it.”

It was March 25, 1958, and Elvis Presley was being given a buzz cut at Fort Chaffee after having been inducted into the U.S. Army.

Asked by reporters what he thought about having to give up his famous sideburns, Presley said: “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”

The quote was printed in newspapers across the country the next day. And the haircut is still celebrated at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum.

“We opened that museum in 2008 after restoring the room to look just like it did in March 1958, and since then we’ve had visitors from 40 states and 15 foreign countries,” Owen said. “It has been a hit since the first day the doors were open.”

A second museum, the Museum of Chaffee History, attracts additional visitors. Displays chronicle the fort’s role in five wars along with resettlement operations that have occurred there. More than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were processed at Fort Chaffee in 1975-76. More than 20,000 Cuban refugees were processed there from 1980-82. In 2005, the fort was called back into duty to host evacuees following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. More than 10,000 people from coastal areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas were housed in empty barracks.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority has created four small districts within its larger Fort Chaffee Historic District.

The Legacy District houses the museums along with businesses in renovated barracks and administrative buildings.

The Enterprise District will cater to businesses that require more parking spaces and greater visibility.

The Warehouse District has a furniture store, a microbrewery, restaurants and commercial office space.

The Memorial District will feature a walking path and interpretive panels.

There are also attractions outside the Historic District that draw visitors to Chaffee Crossing. In 2006, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission put one of its four nature centers at Chaffee Crossing (the other three are in Little Rock, Jonesboro and Pine Bluff). The Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Nature Center is a 14,000-square-foot facility with 170 surrounding acres that are used to interpret the natural environment of the Arkansas River Valley. There’s a 12-acre manmade lake and numerous trails. The center attracted more than 80,000 people during its first year of operation.

In 2011, the McClure Amphitheater, which was built by soldiers in the 1950s, was restored at a cost of $160,000. The amphitheater now hosts everything from family reunions to small entertainment productions.

Back at ACHE, Parker believes the complex has the potential of transforming Fort Smith from the manufacturing center of the state to a place where science, technology and intellectual capital play leading roles.

“Those of us on the Sparks board began asking what we could do to improve the health of people in this state,” Parker told me. “The thing we were told over and over is that we should begin a school of osteopathic medicine and then place our graduates in towns throughout Arkansas. We then began to visit schools across the country. We asked the heads of those schools what they would do differently if they were starting from scratch. That led us to build one of the most modern medical schools in the world.”

Osteopathic physicians (also known as D.O.s) can become fully licensed physicians who are able to practice medicine and surgery in all 50 states. Their training is much the same as that given to the medical doctors coming out of schools such as the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock with the exception of an increased emphasis in schools of osteopathic medicine on the physical manipulation of muscle tissues and bones.

Parker, a 1980 graduate of Arkansas Tech University at Russellville, received his law degree from the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire in 1985. A technology buff, Parker wrote the first artificial intelligence software ever granted a registered copyright for the legal profession while he was still in law school.

In 1989, Parker digitized Arkansas legal case opinions along with statutory and regulatory laws and released a legal CD-ROM known as CaseBase. By 1994, he had created the first searchable legal information Internet site at loislaw.com.

His company LOIS (for Law Office Information Systems) grew to almost 700 employees and went public in 1999. The company helped revolutionize legal research. In 2001, it was sold to an Amsterdam-based publishing company. LOIS clients included more than 23,000 law firms, every accredited law school in the country and most courts. Parker then joined that publishing company, Wolters Kluwer, as its executive vice president of business development and strategic planning.

Tired of the corporate rat race, Parker entered higher education in 2009 as the vice chancellor of technology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. He became the school’s vice chancellor of operations a year later.

“Our faculty members have come from 15 states, and they love it here,” Parker says of ACHE. “We assured them that we’re here for the long haul, and when they saw how advanced this building is, they believed us. We’re also trying to get our students to fall in love with the state. We want them to stay and practice here.

Parker hopes eventually to have four buildings around a landscaped quadrangle.

Chaffee Crossing isn’t the only place where Fort Smith is changing these days. The city’s old downtown also is being revived.

I had lunch recently with two of the leaders of the downtown revitalization efforts, Trent Goins and Steve Clark. They’re intent on fulfilling the late Bill Neumeier’s goal of transforming downtown Fort Smith into a regional dining and entertainment destination. Neumeier died Nov. 19 at age 54 after a long battle with depression. The cause of death was suicide.

Goins heads poultry producer O.K. Foods. The company was founded by his great-grandfather, Collier Wenderoth Sr., in 1933. The business grew under the later leadership of Collier Wenderoth Jr. and son-in-law Randy Goins, Trent Goins’ father.

Trent Goins didn’t immediately go into the poultry business after college. He began his career on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., handling agricultural issues for then-Congressman Marion Berry. Goins returned to Fort Smith and joined the family business in 2002.

Collier Wenderoth Jr. died in 2011, and O.K. Foods was sold later that year for more than $90 million to Mexican conglomerate Industrias Bachoco. Goins stayed with the company as its senior vice president of sales and marketing. When the president and chief executive officer of O.K. Foods left in February 2014, the Mexican owners asked Goins to take the job.

Clark, meanwhile, was born in the Dallas area. His family moved to Roland, Okla., which is just across the state line from Fort Smith, when Clark was in the fifth grade. Clark graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in finance in 1986. Two decades ago, he founded a logistical company known as Propak Corp. The company now has almost 2,000 employees with 60 of them working in a historic downtown Fort Smith building that was renovated by Clark. Propak has received national recognition for its supply chain management solutions.

Neumeier opened a downtown Fort Smith diner known as Coney Island in 1988. Goins has fond memories of going there with his grandfather.

“He would buy us both a hot dog and then take food to his employees,” Goins said. “Bill’s businesses grew from there. I came back to Fort Smith at the right time because people like Bill were already bringing life back to downtown.”

In 1990, Coney Island added the Downtown Pizza Wagon. In 1994, the business grew into the Coney Island Beer Garden at 817 Garrison Ave. The first touring act — Poppa Chubby — played there the next year. Neumeier added a stage in 1996, and the place became known for its live entertainment. In 2009, the business became Neumeier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden.

At 508 Garrison Avenue, Neumeier started Papa’s Pub and Pizzaria. Neumeier sold the 817 Garrison Ave. location three years ago to a group who turned it into The Sound Room. The Rib Room then moved to its current location at 424 Garrison Ave.

Neumeier began the Riverfront Blues Festival in 1991 on a flatbed trailer stage on the banks of the Arkansas River. In 2015, he helped Goins and Gosey start the Peacemaker Arts & Music Festival in downtown Fort Smith. That annual festival has brought the likes of Jason Isbell and Ray Wylie Hubbard to town.

The Rib Room is filled with music memorabilia. The room housing the bar is decorated solely with Rolling Stones items that Neumeier collected.

“Bill saw this as his rock ‘n’ roll barbecue joint,” Goins told me. “Musicians loved hanging out in here because Bill treated them like royalty. Fort Smith has a great reputation among performers because of Bill.”

Goins talked excitedly about plans for the restaurant and its outdoor patio, where live performances will resume in the spring.

After lunch, we crossed Garrison and visited Harry’s Downtown, a venue that Gosey opened last August. Gosey also owns AJ’s Oyster House downtown. He named his most recent venture in honor of the late Harry Schwartz, who operated a restaurant known as Harry’s Hamburger Barn back when there were few dining options along the avenue. The music venue will hold almost 200 people.

Clark stressed the need to make Garrison — the widest city street in the state — more friendly for pedestrians. He also listed potential new businesses along the avenue such as a distillery. In numerous speeches, Clark has urged Fort Smith residents to quit being jealous about what has happened in Washington and Benton counties and instead come up with ideas that will put Fort Smith on the map.

“We can’t match the resources of the Walton family and what that has brought to northwest Arkansas,” Clark said. “We can’t build a Crystal Bridges in Fort Smith. In a way, though, that’s liberating. We’re forced to try new things that bring energy to the city and engage its people. The things happening here are genuine and authentic. They’re uniquely Fort Smith. We now have people who aren’t from here looking to make investments downtown.”

Clark hopes to spread the activity from Garrison into surrounding neighborhoods.

“Downtown is more than just Garrison Avenue,” he said. “We should think of Garrison as the backbone and the side streets as the ribs. People with vision built this city back when it was on the American frontier. We let that spirit become dormant for a time, but we’re now back on the right track.”

In 2015, the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas named Clark as its Entrepreneur of the Year. Clark is behind 64.6 Downtown, the nonprofit group that’s helping transform the city. He’s also behind The Unexpected, the festival that has brought artists from around the world to Fort Smith.

Speaking last year to the Fort Smith Downtown Business Association, Clark said: “When Whirlpool left, we sat around for a while thinking that maybe that wasn’t what was really going on, that maybe we had just fallen asleep, that it was a bad dream and that it would all take care of itself. Once you cross the bridge intellectually that there is no cavalry coming to save us economically, you’re going to have to fight a little harder and do the things for yourself that maybe historically you waited on others — the city, civic leaders, whatever — to do for you.”

He was asked why he came up with The Unexpected, which has led to 33 works of art being produced on the sides of buildings across town during the past five years and has attracted international media attention to Fort Smith.

“Because that is the kind of city I want to live in,” Clark told the downtown business group. “If you want to live in a city that has trails, that celebrates the arts or music or anything that makes the city rich in culture — if you’re waiting on someone to do that, stop. Find a way to get engaged. Plug in.”

As we dug into our barbecue that day at Neumeier’s, Clark said to me: “Art is a powerful thing.”

He then looked down the table at Goins. Clark wanted an Unexpected artist to paint murals on an old feed mill that O.K. owns downtown. Goins resisted at first, thinking of reasons why it wouldn’t be a good idea.

“Trent is a compelling debater,” Clark said. “But on that day, I was better.”

The work of Guido van Helten on the silos at the feed mill now draws visitors from across the country. He painted for two weeks in September 2016. Portrayed on the towers are three locals — Gene “Beck” Beckham, Edward Paradela and Kristina Jones. Beckham worked for O.K. for more than 70 years beginning in the 1940s.

In a documentary by fellow Australian Selina Miles, van Helten said of his art: “Before I create a work, I really want to learn about the people who live there. I want to really try and develop a work that speaks to them and belongs there even though I don’t belong there.”

When the work was finished in 2016, Goins said: “Gene spent more than 40 years working at this feed mill, and he embodies the spirit of our employees, both past and present. … While our feed mill has stood as an economic contributor to the area for more than 50 years, it can now shine as a cultural inspiration that celebrates our community’s past, present and future.”

I picked up a copy of the Times Record, the local newspaper, after lunch that day and noticed that all three front-page stories had to do with downtown development.

The first story noted that the Fort Smith Board of Directors voted 6-1 in favor of holding a March special election on a 1-cent sales tax. The tax would run from July 1, 2019, until March 31, 2020. The nine-month tax would generate $17 million that’s needed to complete the U.S. Marshals Museum on the banks of the Arkansas River.

The second story covered a special meeting of 64.6 Downtown that was held the previous day at Propak headquarters. The meeting gave the public a chance to meet sculptor Spencer Schubert of Kansas City, who will create three statues for the new Gateway Park at the intersection of Garrison and Rogers avenues.

The third story was about the Central Business Improvement District’s request that the Fort Smith Police Department provide bike patrols downtown.

Clark is as responsible as anyone for this renewed focus on downtown. He was raised in the Fort Smith area and is committed to the city. In addition to founding Propak, Clark was a founder of the digital media company Rockfish Interactive, which was sold in 2016.

“Rockfish taught me that you have to be a lifelong learner,” Clark told the online publication Backstory 40. “Gone are the days when you can graduate from college and you’re through. You have to expect to remake yourself several times throughout the course of your career. We cannot rest on what we have done. We must constantly be remaking ourselves.”

While remaking himself, Clark is remaking the old blue-collar city of Fort Smith.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?” he told Backstory 49. “You’re supposed to make things better if you can. We have a right to be as good as we can be.”

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