What follows is an abridged and heavily amended version of a Riff Raff essay first published in June 2009. Although more than two years old, many points in the essay, unfortunately, remain relevant.
Here we go. And let’s begin with a question posited in that June 2009 essay: “What now? As a region, as a people and as a collection of cities, What-Fricking-Now? What are the collective goals of the region? What do we all want to be when 2020 rolls around? What!?”
There are a wide range of intriguing and doable possibilities. Conversations with concerned citizens and Kind Readers (often one in the same) in the past 15-plus years have resulted in the compilation of too many good ideas to list here. Also, we know that our region of 300,000 folks is limited in its resources (and political will) to engage at one time a long and broad To-Do list. With that in mind, let’s briefly consider a few options possessing the potential of transformative socio-economic change in our metro area.
THREE OPTIONS FOR TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE
Small business development
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith has proactively revamped its small business support structure to provide “an information-rich environment for start-up businesses, potential entrepreneurs, existing companies and family-owned enterprises and collect, analyze and disseminate information related to local and regional entrepreneurial, economic and business activities.”
However, the one thing we aren’t doing well as a region is aggressively pursuing teams of individuals who take their business ideas to national entrepreneurial competitions and/or matriculate out of incubator organizations at hundreds of universities around the country. The business college has become nothing more than a boring reproduction of hundreds of business colleges around the nation.
That’s unfortunate, and shame on us if our regional economic development officials won’t better support local entrepreneurial upstarts and formulate a proactive plan that let’s the tens of thousands of brilliant entrepreneurial minds around the country know that we welcome their ideas to our fertile grounds.
If the world’s largest retailer and the world’s largest meat company could find success in out-of-the-way small Arkansas towns, then please don’t tell me the Fort Smith region is incapable of supporting a wide range of new business ideas. Please keep your defeatism to yourself.
Tourism/sports venue growth
Sure, we’ve got the Marshals Museum on the hook, but it could be 10 years or more before the first tourist buys an overpriced plastic badge (made in China) in the museum’s gift shop.
Look, folks, we’ve got to quit kidding ourselves and get serious about bringing in thousands more folks a year who spend money in our stores, restaurants and hotels. We must demand that city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County officials remove their gray matter from their dark places and get serious about building a city/county sports complex at Ben Geren park that would rank within the top 20 among the nation’s 363 U.S. metro areas. We Fort Smithians also must demand that city officials bring some sanity into our tourism efforts by combining our tourism recruitment with our convention center management — as is done in most cities enjoying success.
(OK. We’ve done some of this since 2009. But a water park and a few ball fields is a small step in what should/could have been an aggressive long-term plan. We need to do more to physically tie the Fort Smith Museum of History, Fort Smith trolley system, downtown Fort Smith and the riverfront area, the National Historic Site and the Marshals Museum into an “historic campus” that includes infotainment opportunities for a wide range of ages and interests. We should do more to to invest in walkways, bike paths, riverfront expansion, and other park and beautification amenities. And the investment should come with more public input rather than a few ideas from city officials and a parks commission.)
The Fort Smith region could use a well-financed business-sponsored “council” focused on big picture improvements and/or lobbying.
This is not a suggestion to create and/or restore the Good Old Boys network. The bottom line is that we could use a small staff supported exclusively with private-sector funds. The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce has announced such a council, but they’ve given no hints about if it will truly be a leadership group able to propose and push bold and transformative ideas. Anything less than such a leadership group will be yet another false start from the chamber.
Financial support from our regional council would come from businesses and individuals interested in SIGNIFICANTLY better connections in Little Rock and Washington, D.C., securing CONSISTENT and PROFESSIONAL efforts to obtain Interstate 49 funding, and interested in pressuring municipal and county governments to be PROACTIVE in regional infrastructure enhancements (water supplies, intermodal operations, parks and recreation, maximizing Fort Chaffee development, etc.).
And please know that better connections to Little Rock means this proposed council would actively seek out Arkansas Legislative candidates more interested in progress than liberal and conservative political agendas. Left-wing tree huggers and right-wing bible thumpers won’t get us a seat on the Highway Commission; won’t get us more funding for UAFS; won’t obtain leadership positions in the Arkansas Legislature; won’t give us a voice in state agencies that oversee important aspects of state government; won’t do anything but continue to prove that narrow political agendas are the offspring of small minds that use unproven science and untestable scripture to obstruct the practice of proactive, results-oriented politics.
This essay is too long, so let’s simply list other ideas, including those suggested by Kind Readers.
• Aggressive beautification campaign that might include an attempt to bury utilities.
• Regional healthcare coalition that might financially benefit doctors, hospitals, clinics, businesses and patients. Especially patients.
• Reformation of county government.
• Get serious about recruiting movie production to western Arkansas.
• Get serious about investing in the restoration of the Belle Grove Historic District.
• Develop an innovative model to reform public education and test it in Fort Smith.
You’re right, if not constructive, to caution that the devil is in the details with respect to all this talk about transformative change. But might we consider that if we fear the devilish details we’ll have economic and cultural hell to pay if we allow a fear of transformative change to diminish our ability to make the most of our opportunities.
Please forgive the repetition of a statement previously issued in this space, but it seems a addition to this rambling essay: What’s wrong with the Fort Smith regional economy is no match for what’s right with the Fort Smith area. Within our people and within our many public and private entities, we have the potential for great things; we have the potential — through better leadership — to direct overwhelming people-power on whatever problems and obstacles we face. We are a great people, in a great place, and we are capable of great progress.
However, don’t be surprised if we see this essay again in another two years. The Fort Smith Board of Director is a political body with the ability to impact — through secondary effects of direct action — socio-economic development beyond city borders. But a majority of the Board is focused on micromanaging and win-it-all-costs petty politics. Collectively, this Board majors in the minors.
Our business leadership has been unable to coalesce into a meaningful force that has any leverage to enact significant positive change — which is funny, considering that many folks believe a Good Old Boys network is calling the shots and keeping Fort Smith mired in the the 1960s.
In their book, The Axemaker’s Gift, James Burke and Robert Ornstein told us that things (plants, animals, people, cultures, communities, etc.) “go the way of anything in nature that stands still or doesn’t adapt: they die.”
We’ve become less well since 2009.