by Dwain Hebda
For a city that ranks in the Top 5 oldest Arkansas communities, Fort Smith is looking pretty good for her age.
Downtown, stunning murals decorate the walls of buildings and even an entire series of grain elevators, part of the aptly-named Unexpected art movement. The somber National Cemetery stands gleaming not far from where the Poteau River gently folds into the Arkansas, while further north the U.S. Marshal’s Museum continues to rise, brick by brick, from the riverbank.
Miles away — literally and figuratively — lies Chaffee Crossing, a shiny new development built on and around the historic Fort Chaffee Army base on the other side of town. Since its formation in 1997, Chaffee Crossing has attracted nearly $2 billion in private investment on property sold.
Greta Barr, associate broker with Nunnelee & Wright Commercial Properties and board member with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, says these two very different areas demonstrate it’s a good time in the commercial history of the city.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve really noticed a lot of growth and change in the downtown area. It’s got people more excited about putting capital and money into those buildings,” she says. “We’ve got building owners, and we also have businesses that want to locate down there, and they believe in the legitimacy of the return on investment.
“We feel the same about Chaffee Crossing. It bookends our city really nicely. We’ve got companies that have been recruited out there. ArcBest built its headquarters a couple years ago out there. And, of course, the colleges and health education have done a great job out there with their development.”
Like any city predating the Civil War by nearly 50 years, Fort Smith has seen its share of reinvention. The initial settlement — a military outpost established to patrol the neighboring Indian Territory — folded up entirely within seven years but had already given birth to a town alongside the fort.
The last doorway to the frontier, Fort Smith quickly evolved into a jumping-off point for prospectors and pioneers headed west. As these legions flooded the town, manufacturing sprang up to serve their needs. At its peak, Fort Smith wagon builders were producing 10,000 units per year to meet demand.
When that fell off, many companies evolved into furniture building and the city’s next chapter began, one that would last a century. The industry died out in the 1960s and adaptation and redevelopment again held sway. Whirlpool and Rheem were enticed to set up shop, along with a vast cadre of smaller companies supplying factories with parts and components.
Even though Whirlpool shuttered in 2012, the city’s manufacturing community is still strong, says Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“We are the largest manufacturing community in the state of Arkansas. That’s a fact,” he says. “Manufacturing represents 18 percent of our workforce and about 18 to 20 percent of our GDP. We’re not ashamed of that. We’re embracing it.”
Sustaining that manufacturing component is a tricky matter, however, particularly when it comes to skilled labor. Here again, the community is evolving to meet needs head-on.
“Every economic developer has land, and they all should have buildings that are available, and they all should have money,” Allen says. “The real way to crack the code in economic development is, it’s really about the workforce. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Fayetteville or if you’re in Little Rock or if you’re in Charlotte. It’s all about the workforce because all the other things we all have.
“What separates us from the pack, and this is an initiative that we started three years ago in partnership with the governor’s office and the Walton family, we are building a new career technical center in Fort Smith. We’re beginning to put junior high students, not high school, but junior high students on a career path.”
Last May, voters approved a school millage increase for the first time in more than 30 years to pay for the $13.7 million, 180,000-square-foot technical center. A donated former shoe factory will house the project, which is expected to be completed by fall 2021.
“That’s really going to be a game-changer for Fort Smith,” Allen says. “If you’re going to win the economic development game, you have to widen the pipeline of people. You have to make sure they are trained in a way where when they leave high school; they have a skillset to go directly into the workforce. Or, if they don’t want to go directly into the workforce, they can go on to a (four-year) university and complete that degree and come back and have a career in Fort Smith.”
Other segments of the local economy are also growing and diversifying. One shining example of that is the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, a private medical school. Established in 2014, ARCOM began construction at Chaffee Crossing in 2016 and welcomed its first students a year later.
The school has quickly grown to offer undergraduate, masters and a brand-new doctorate-level curriculum in various fields of medicine. ARCOM has 500 students and 120 staff with more expansion on the near horizon, both in students and jobs.
“As you and I speak, we’re moving people over into our second facility which is housing three new programs: a doctorate in physical therapy, a doctorate in occupational therapy and the physician assistants’ program which is a master’s program. That will add another 330 students when it fully ramps up,” says CEO Kyle Parker.
“With our 120 employees, our payroll is $18.3 million, so that’s about $150,000 per employee, on average. We’ve got another 30 to hire before 2021 which is when the other three programs will come online and get through their accreditation process. That’s going to add an average of $150,000 apiece, too.”
Parker says Fort Smith was the logical choice for the school, given its proximity to underserved areas. Market research revealed Arkansas is consistently 49th or 50th in the country in health-care access rankings. Educating doctors locally keeps more of them long-term, as Parker noted physicians overwhelmingly tend to stick in the community where they serve their residency.
“Last year, we received 4,300 applications for 150 seats,” Parker says. “Our tuition is $43,000 a year and while that sounds extremely expensive, it’s the seventh least-expensive private medical school with an M.D. or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) school in the United States. We’ve done that intentionally because we’re trying to keep these students here in the state.
“We’re the only D.O. school in the country that did not raise its tuition last year and we have no plans to raise tuition for the next seven years. We’re very excited about being able to do that.”
Looking at the wider community’s future potential, Parker says the recent momentum is driven by a new and refreshing optimism.
“I was born and raised in Fort Smith and Fort Smith has been its own worst enemy,” he says. “It has talked negatively about itself. Now, it’s changing, and you can see that taking place.
“You look at faculty we’ve been able to hire from all over the nation out of very prestigious schools, they came here, but they demand certain things. They demand an improvement to the arts, better wellness and public education where their children are being raised in a center of excellence. You’re seeing Fort Smith begin to adopt that kind of attitude, and it’s needed to.”
“I think we are getting better at understanding that we are a unique area of the state,” Barr adds. “We don’t have to be anybody else. We have a lot of great natural resources. We have great education options and workforce development ready and willing for anybody that comes in to help them establish businesses or add jobs to our existing businesses. I’ve noticed the biggest change in that, just embracing who we are.”