Downtown Fort Smith, an area once described as rundown with gutted buildings and others in disrepair, has recently been experiencing a re-birth, of sorts, but the revitalization is not only limited to commercial space.
According to developer Rick Griffin of Griffin Properties, residential real estate in downtown Fort Smith is not only stable, but a growing sector in an area once struggling to recover from the devastating affects of suburban sprawl to the east following the development of Central Mall and a 1996 tornado that caused millions of dollars in damage to western gateway of the city.
"Malls around the country changed downtowns. In the 1950s, when (Fort) Chaffee was alive and well, people would go downtown and walk the sidewalks. That was typical entertainment," he said. "The malls gutted local businesses. Downtown fell into disrepair. But our family and others started to buy those properties and figuring out what do with them. We've been working down there for about 35 years."
Griffin said part of his family's approach to downtown development has been to accomplish three things – offer commercial buildings that are modernized, get people living downtown and offer services to support residential and commercial development.
While the modernization of commercial buildings has been underway for many years, luxury apartment development has lagged for some time, with the Griffins not introducing their first units to the market until about 10 years ago.
"People in the late 80s and 90s put apartments in, they were just ok. But over the last 10 years, we've started to put (luxury) apartments in the top floors of buildings – 23 feet wide and 90 feet deep, about 2,000 square feet per floor."
Developments to call downtown home in the last decade include not only Griffin's 307 Garrison Avenue and 14 North 3rd Street, but also the West End Lofts, apartments at 706 1/2 Garrison Avenue, 501 1/2 Garrison Avenue, West End Lofts and the Ivory House Lofts, located above the Sake Sushi and Martini Bar at 823 Garrison Avenue.
Property Manager Amanda Mondier said the 14 lofts above Sake, purchased in 2008 by the Meadows family and first rented in 2010 through management company Southwest Resources, are nearly always at capacity. Much of the residents have chosen to be close to work.
"I think that just the downtown lifestyle, and just feeling like they live in the city, is a draw," she said. "And quite a few of the people that live down here work downtown, also."
There may be more people working downtown by next summer.
The historic and white tiled Friedman-Mincer building – also known as the OTASCO building – at the intersection of Garrison Avenue and Towson Avenue in the eastern end of downtown Fort Smith was built in 1911, and Steve Clark plans to give it a serious makeover more than 102 years later.
Clark, founder and president of Propak, plans to convert the three-story, 24,000-square-foot building into offices for the about 40 employees of Propak. The company provides logistics, transportation and supply-chain management services.
Griffin said while the apartments he builds in mixed-use developments are typically always full, as well, but it has not been without cost.
"Renovating the buildings is expensive. Cash flow isn't great. But there are tax credits available, but it handcuffs you to what you can do to the outside of the building. I wanted to do it all as apartments, but tax credit people want businesses that face Garrison. We had to do commercial space on the Garrison frontage."
And while some of the commercial space may not be leased regularly, Griffin said what he does know is "when we build decent apartments, we rent them. With commercial, we may have vacancies, but the apartments stay full."
POSSIBLE MARSHALS STIMULUS
As for what the future holds for downtown residential development, with conservative estimates of about 100 units in the market, Griffin said he thinks it looks bright.
"Remember that when the U.S. Marshal's Museum is constructed, it will be a game changer for this area and for downtown Fort Smith. It will bring a lot of people to downtown."
Griffin is already planning for that period, developing a $3 million mixed use residential development along the 400 block of Garrison Avenue to add to his downtown residential portfolio.
But to continue the growth Griffin expects in the downtown neighborhood, Mondier said residents will start to demand more amenities.
"If you look at people that move in from out of town from bigger cities, they're always surprised that there's not stuff downtown. ... A grocery store (would be a good addition), because there's not one down there. There needs to be more things that could be easily accessed or more convenient to down there."
Griffin said with his commercial properties, he is working to make sure unique retailers come to downtown in order to meet the needs of residents and visitors alike.
"We're trying to not rent to just anyone. I'd like to have a meat market downtown. if there was a small specialty grocery store, a small market down there would probably thrive. I was concerned about having a liquor store downtown, but we have that solved. People need to focus on not duplicating, but you need it to be diverse. But does (the downtown residential market) have a good future? I think it has a great future."