In this space last week we asked the question, “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!?”
The genesis of the question was the setback in being named an All American City. The city of Fort Smith applied for the All American City status based on efforts of those in the Fort Smith region to keep the 188th Fighter Wing based in Fort Smith; to successfully recruit the U.S. Marshals Museum; and to supports the Community Services Clearinghouse and its amazing work to feed the poor children among us.
In considering the question we noted the writings of James Burke and Robert Ornstein, who 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.”
At the conclusion of the previous commentary in which we pondered “What now?,” it was suggested we further ponder the simple but provocative interrogatory at our next gathering.
Well, here we are.
So ... what now? 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.” This is a tremendous and positive move by UAFS Chancellor Dr. Paul Beran and his staff.
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. And it’s been a few years since UAFS had teams competing in the entrepreneurial competition sponsored by Arkansas Capital Corp. 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. (Please note David Potts commentary about the recent UAFS developments and the importance of entrepreneurial support.)
• 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 (advertising & promotion commission) with our convention center management — as is done in most cities enjoying success.
Here’s the plan. Get voter approval on a 2% restaurant tax that, combined with the existing hotel tax, would generate close to $3 million annually. We’ll need about $2 million of that to keep the convention center going and pay salaries and operating costs of the broad tourism effort. We’ll return to the remaining $1 million in a few sentences.
The voters also would be asked to redirect 25% of the street tax for a 10-year period to fund construction of a regional sports complex and to develop basic infrastructure for continued expansion of riverfront development plans. This redirection of tax money would generate about $40 million during the 10-year term, of which about $25 million would be used for the sports complex.
Of the remaining $15 million, $5 million would be placed in a reserve fund for future sports complex maintenance and capital improvements (generating $150,000-$200,000 a year in interest), and $10 million invested in a clever program that physically ties 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.
At the end of the 10 years, the voter approved plan would include a provision to permanently (or as long as the street tax is collected) direct 5% to the maintenance and operation of the sports complex. The 5% redirection would generate between $800,000 and $1 million annually. Combine this with the about $1 million a year from the restaurant tax, and we’d have about $2 million annually to invest in park amenities (walkways, bike paths, riverfront expansion, etc.), upkeep and sports complex operations.
Is this a perfect plan? Probably not (primarily because it doesn’t account for financial input from Sebastian County, grants from state and federal agencies, and doesn’t mention possible financial support from businesses/individuals interested in naming rights). But it’s a plan, damnit! A plan from a guy who’s thought about this issue from several different angles in the past 15 years. And it’s a plan, damnit, from a guy tired of watching the city board of directors take small steps in hopes of obtaining big results — all because collectively they are afraid of their own shadows when it comes to proposing bold and transformative ideas.
• Regional council
The Fort Smith region could use a well-financed business-sponsored “council” focused on big picture improvements and/or lobbying.
“You want a bunch of shadowy overlords calling the shots in the Fort Smith area?” responded an acquaintance after my attempt to explain this concept.
No, this is not a suggestion to create and/or restore the Good Old Boys network. Maybe we consider the details in a future essay in this space, but the bottom line is that we could use a small staff (no more than four people) supported exclusively with private-sector funds.
“Oh, so you mean something like the Northwest Arkansas Council. Right?” the acquaintance responded after further explanation.
Yes. Very much like the Northwest Arkansas Council. In fact, our council might initially affiliate with the NWA Council in an effort to create collaborative bonds with our neighbors to the north and better ensure we don’t spend time reinventing the wheel.
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 posited by Kind Readers.
• Aggressive beautification campaign that might include an attempt to bury utilities (expect more on this in a future essay).
• Regional healthcare coalition that might financially benefit doctors, hospitals, clinics, businesses and patients. Especially patients. (Can we do this and avoid anti-trust laws?)
• 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 fitting close 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.