Third high school, events center part of Fort Smith schools master plan

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A recently announced update to the Fort Smith School District's master plan has largely focused on the school's pitch for a third high school to be located at Chaffee Crossing. But included in the updated plan are anticipated capital projects to benefit the district's existing schools.

The largest of the capital projects includes the addition of of an events complex designed to serve all existing and future campuses within the Fort Smith School District.

A PowerPoint presentation detailing the master plan said the events complex would likely be built with state partnership funds and would address current and future needs within the district.

"The construction of an events complex to serve all Fort Smith Schools is planned to address needs for performing arts and indoor sports events which cannot be accommodated in current facilities," the presentation states. "This complex will include two separate facilities with shared parking for 1,500 cars."

The separate facilities would be a performing arts center and a multipurpose center.

While being the largest district in the area, Fort Smith has lagged behind districts such as Alma, Greenwood and Van Buren by not having a dedicated performing arts venue for students and the community. The planned $15 million, 45,000-square-foot facility will address the needs of Fort Smith students for a dedicated facility.

"This facility would provide seating for +/- 1,800 with first rate production space for musical and theatrical use as well as any other assembly purpose which the schools may need. It will be scheduled for school and community use as needed."

When presenting the plan to the Fort Smith School Board and the public at a Jan. 13 meeting, Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden said the facility would likely be packed non-stop with school functions, adding that the month of December alone would have likely seen the facility booked each evening.

The multipurpose center is described as being similar to an arena, again another type of venue that other districts have invested heavily in while existing Northside and Southside High Schools have made due with facilities dating back decades.

The 110,000-square-foot facility is estimated to cost around $20 million to construct.

"This arena-type facility will be designed with flexible use in mind to accommodate 6,000 seated spectators. It can be configured for athletic-type events, large assemblies and other events requiring flexible space. School use will be prioritized, with community availability."

Gooden raved about the planned facilities and the benefit the district would see from the planned event complex, though no site has yet been selected.

He said while a site had not yet been selected, the one certainty was that all schools would share the facility.

"The solution that the Board has moved to is the idea of a complex that will be shared. It's a better use of the money, more cost effective long term and (it is) something every school could benefit from."

Also included on the list of partnership projects was a $2 million, 10,000-square-feet "media center and flexible lecture facility" at Southside High School, which Gooden said would bring the high school's media center into the 21st century.

The final set of projects included installing four safe room tornado shelters, two located at opposite ends of the building at both Northside and Southside at a cost of $1.4 million each. Funding for the project would be reduced through grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he said.

Gooden said the 2011 EF-5 tornado that destroyed the high school in Joplin, Mo., as well as 2013's EF-5 tornado that destroyed multiple schools in Moore, Okla. — resulting in multiple student fatalities — was among the reasons the district was pushing to finish installation of safe rooms at all of its campuses (the district currently has 23 safe rooms across its schools).

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"We have two high schools that do not have tornado safe rooms and after I saw the video from Joplin, Mo., and what happens to what I thought was a pretty good high school in Joplin, Mo., and I saw the video of what the tornado did to their high school — and luckily there wasn't anyone in there at the time — their video cameras, their surveillance cameras told quite the story about what we've done for years is shelter yourselves in the corridors and try to find a reinforced place. When we saw what happened in Moore, Okla., I think we have a need to work on tornado safe rooms."

No specific timeline has yet been laid out for the completion of all the partnership projects.

The master plan is expected to be adopted by the Fort Smith School Board at its Jan. 27 regular meeting.

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