Members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors met for nearly three hours on Monday night (Sept. 9) to discuss and try to narrow the focus of priorities identified during a strategic planning retreat on July 19 and 20 at Mt. Magazine State Park.
Consultant Ron Holifield, a principal with consulting firm SGR, was clear about what the meeting was intended to accomplish and what it wasn't.
"We cannot do what we did at the (Mt. Magazine retreat) because what we did at the last session was think very broadly about everything and had a lot of wondering to and fro conversation in the context," he said. "The staff has done a great job of kind of organizing the priorities you established at that last retreat and now what we're really going to do this evening is try to take those to sort of the next level, sort of narrowing in and prioritizing. Because the reality is that staff can't deliver what you can't measure. In other words, whatever you say this is what we're really going to pay attention to is what staff is going to deliver. Does that make sense? … You can't simply say we're going to do everything because it won't happen. It just simply won't happen."
With that said, the group was able to narrow the list of nearly 27 different items that had been floated as possible priorities during the July retreat, determining through discussion with City Administrator Ray Gosack that many priorities were actually in the process of either being developed into working items or were already up and running, or on so-called "auto pilot."
The items that were listed as being on auto pilot included:
• Developing a governance policy;
• Marketing the history of Fort Smith;
• Designing and eventually erecting downtown "wayfinding" signs;
• Analyzing the police and fire departments' pension funding;
• Researching possible physical changes to the Stephens Building, which houses city offices, in order to improve customer service and friendliness;
• Adding and re-constructing sidewalks across the city; and
• "Selling the dream," essentially posting priorities at board meetings and scheduling regular board discussion about priorities and using the city's cable access television channel to publicize the priorities.
During discussion of making changes to the Stephens Building, Director George Catsavis proposed not only exploring ways to update the building that houses city offices at an annual rent of $240,000, but possibly moving the city offices to a permanent home designed to serve as a city hall that the city would own versus a city hall that would has been and continues to be retrofitted for use as a municipal structure that Catsavis called "depressing."
It was a sentiment that met nearly no disagreement.
"It's really hard to provide good or great customer service because we have to shuffle people from one floor to the next for simple things just because there's not enough room on any one floor to put all those uses in the same place," Gosack said.
City Clerk Sherri Gard said the city's lease still ran for between one and two years, meaning that a decision on whether to move and how to pay for a permanent home for city hall would not have to be made immediately.
But in discussing a possible move, which is an idea still in its infancy, discussion of riverfront development came up, with the idea of possibly locating a city hall along the river. It was an idea Holifield said could spur economic development, a task the Board made clear tonight was among the highest in priorities for the next few years.
"If I had to choose a location to build a city hall and funding was available, it would be on the river right next to the Marshal's Museum," said Director Mike Lorenz, emphasizing that river front development was one of the top two priorities he saw come out of the meeting. "Because I think that's the catalyst to develop that whole thing."
With the museum and a new city hall, individuals would be brought to the riverfront on a daily basis, which would make the area ripe for development, Lorenz said, adding that the development would likely bring hundreds of people per day to the area that don't frequent the river, which is devoid of development between the Riverfront Amphitheater downtown and Riverfront Park near the intersection with Midland Avenue.
Besides riverfront development, Lorenz said annexation of land surrounding what will become Interstate 49 would be essential as the city looks not only five or 10 years down the road, but decades or even 100 years into the future.
"That's something Ron said at the end looking 50 or 200 years in the future. While we're talking 20 plus years to get I-49 finished, it won't be that long before it's connected to Interstate 40 … That's going to happen first. That's going to happen before down south happens. But that gives you connection from that intersection to Joplin, basically, and I think that defines the entire area right there. And I think that has to be a major priority."
Holifield reminded the Board that the goal of tonight's meeting and the retreat at Mt. Magazine was to look at the big picture items, such as downtown development and I-49 annexation, as near-term and long-term actionable items that the Board should place a focus on while leaving the mundane chores of operating the city to the people hired to deal with such tasks.
"Just because something doesn't show up on your priority list doesn't mean it's not a priority and doesn't mean it's not important, (it) doesn't mean it's (not) marching forward. What you're doing, the role of the Board is to be the bow of the ship and pointing toward the horizon and saying, 'This is where we're focused,'" he said. "Stuff that is being taken care of on a routine basis needs to be taken care of by staff, but you don't need need to spend a lot of time rehashing stuff that doesn't really warrant the Board's attention because if you're down in the engine room dealing with routine stuff that's already on auto pilot, you're not up in the bow of the ship wrestling with what's on the horizon."