A $1 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation will help the city of Fort Smith better realize its plan for creating a trails and greenways system that will stretch across the city.
The grant, which will be matched by a $1 million investment by the city of Fort Smith, will allow the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Department to construct a two mile stretch of the River West Trail that will extend from River Park to the Rice Carden Levee Trail. The trail is identified as a "high priority trail in the Trails and Greenways Master Plan," first adopted by the Board of Directors and Parks Commission in 2004, a press release from the city said.
Announcing the trail to a standing ovation from parks supporters, Mayor Sandy Sanders said the trail will complete a stretch through a large portion of northern Fort Smith.
"When completed, there will be a continuous public trail of five miles between Fort Smith National Historic Site and the north bend of the Arkansas River," he said.
Sanders said design work for the trail extension will begin in Spring 2014, construction will begin in Fall 2014 and the trail extension will be completed in mid-2015.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said the city's current master plan calls for 80 miles of inter-connected trails.
"This two mile trail is the most significant stretch to be completed to date," he said. "The citizens who steered the greenways plan are encouraged by the growing interest in building out the plan. This investment certainly gives us momentum."
The funding for the city's portion of the trail system will come from the city's one-eighth cent sales tax, according to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, while Sanders said businessmen Benny Westphal and Richard Griffin, both donated easements for the trail, along with the U.S. Marshals Museum.
Parks Commission Chairwoman Lorie Robertson said today's announcement is what voters wanted when they approved the sales tax last year. She also said the trail expansion along the river would be beneficial with planned development along the river, including the U.S. Marshals Museum.
Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said after the announcement that the riverfront is a "blank canvas" with many possibilities for development, adding that the trail was just a first step to transforming the empty properties along the river.
"Once we get the pieces in place, and the pieces are the amenities that the regional headquarters, the regional offices, the white collar jobs - the amenities that those groups demand to have on properties – this is the first step," he said. "The biking and walking trails, those are the type of amenities that can entice corporate offices and white collar jobs more into downtown Fort Smith."
Griffin, one of the two easement donors and the chairman of the Central Business Improvement District, said he saw the trails as becoming closely identified with the city.
"There's something about this that makes me think of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and their bell tower," he said. "That's become an icon out there. And this beautiful river, beautiful walking trail … is really an icon for downtown Fort Smith. I really see a similarity there. Who would have thought Phil's ferris wheel would be on stationary and advertising?"
The Park at West End, where the ferris wheel is located, is leased to the city for $1 per year by CBID commissioner Phil White.
The cost for the trail extension, which will run about $1 million per mile, is on par with another large trail project underway in Northwest Arkansas.
The 36-mile Razorback Greenway, a regional bike and pedestrian trail system connecting the Bella Vista Trail in northern Bentonville with the Frisco Trail in Fayetteville, has a price tag of $38 million, slightly more expensive than the planned trail in Fort Smith. The price per mile of the Razorback Greenway is less than $1.056 million.
By comparison, the city of Fayetteville has used its own road repair crews to construct much of its vast trail system, costing the city only $500,000 per mile, according to its website.
No contracts for the Fort Smith project have been awarded at this time.