Fort Smith, a can­vas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son Rex Nel­son is a se­nior ed­i­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

I’ve al­ways en­joyed driv­ing into down­town Fort Smith from Ok­la­homa. You cross the Arkansas River into Arkansas. Spread out be­fore you is the state’s widest city street, Gar­ri­son Av­enue. Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion Church, which was ded­i­cated on June 1, 1899, tow­ers in the dis­tance. It’s one of Arkansas’ most stately places of wor­ship with stained glass pro­duced by the F.X. Zet­tler Royal Bavar­ian Art In­sti­tute of Munich, Ger­many. On the right is the dis­tin­guished old First Na­tional Bank Build­ing. The eight-story white-brick struc­ture has been oc­cu­pied by the bank since Jan­uary 1910.

With a pop­u­la­tion of more than 86,000 peo­ple, Fort Smith long has been the state’s sec­ond-largest city. Given its size, I’ve al­ways found it strange that Fort Smith is a place rarely on the minds of many Arkansans. They live in, visit or dis­cuss the north­west cor­ner of the state (Benton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties) and the Lit­tle Rock metropoli­tan area with­out giv­ing a sec­ond thought to the his­toric city on Arkansas’ west­ern bor­der. If any­thing, Fort Smith was known for decades as the state’s man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter. As Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ing took a hit, Fort Smith suf­fered right along with it.

There’s a new en­ergy in Fort Smith, es­pe­cially down­town. It’s as if the lead­ers of the city are say­ing this to the rest of us: North­west Arkansas, we’re glad you have the state’s flag­ship univer­sity, Wal-Mart and the Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art. Your growth is good for the en­tire state. Lit­tle Rock, we’re happy you’re the cen­ter of state gov­ern­ment and have that Clin­ton Pres­i­den­tial Cen­ter on the banks of the Arkansas River. We like see­ing the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of down­town Lit­tle Rock. But we have some unique as­sets here that also can ben­e­fit the whole state. And we’re about to cap­i­tal­ize on them.

Do you want to get a feel for the new spirit that in­fects Fort Smith? Look no fur­ther than the ren­o­vated Fried­man-Min­cer Build­ing down­town and con­sider the story of Steve Clark, whose Propak Lo­gis­tics Inc. oc­cu­pies part of that build­ing. Con­structed in 1911 at the in­ter­sec­tion of Gar­ri­son and Tow­son av­enues, Fried­man-Min­cer was known by lo­cals as the Otasco Build­ing. Clark spent mil­lions of dol­lars ren­o­vat­ing the place and makes it clear to any­one who asks that he wants it to be the spot where im­por­tant dis­cus­sions are held and de­ci­sions cru­cial to the fu­ture of west­ern Arkansas are made. He likes to say that “the cav­alry isn’t com­ing to save Fort Smith. We have to do it our­selves. We are the cav­alry.”

One Clark brain­storm re­sulted in the Un­ex­pected Project, which in Septem­ber 2015 first brought in­ter­na­tion­ally known artists to down­town Fort Smith to paint mu­rals on the walls of build­ings. A sec­ond fes­ti­val was held last year. Dur­ing the past week, the third edi­tion of the Un­ex­pected has been tak­ing place with 10 artists and dozens of vol­un­teers adding to the city’s al­ready im­pres­sive port­fo­lio of mu­rals. On a hot Tues­day morn­ing ear­lier this month, I was given a tour of down­town by Claire Kol­berg, the Un­ex­pected fes­ti­val co­or­di­na­tor. Like Clark, she has a level of en­thu­si­asm that’s con­ta­gious. Kol­berg says the event brings al­most 20,000 peo­ple down­town each year to watch the artists. Sev­eral past artists have fallen in love with Fort Smith and moved to the city, and the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Fort Smith has added classes that fo­cus on mu­rals.

“We’re look­ing to rein­tro­duce the for­got­ten spa­ces of this city,” Kol­berg said. “The city of Fort Smith is our can­vas.”

Near the river in his of­fice on North Third Street, Patrick Weeks has just com­pleted his first year as the pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum. Arkansans have been hear­ing about this project for years, and some have doubted that it will ever be built. One of the first things Weeks did was set an open­ing date of Sept. 24, 2019, the 230th an­niver­sary of the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice. A clock out­side Weeks’ of­fice counts down the sec­onds, min­utes, hours, days, weeks and months un­til the open­ing.

“This project needed a firm open­ing date,” says Weeks, a south­ern Cal­i­for­nia na­tive who has spent his ca­reer work­ing on projects for theme parks and mu­se­ums as far away as Rus­sia. “We have a $58.6 mil­lion bud­get for the project, of which $33.8 is bud­geted for con­struc­tion. We can’t al­low that to grow. We sim­ply must live within our means. Our ar­chi­tec­tural firm [Polk Stan­ley Wil­cox of Lit­tle Rock] has done a mar­velous job evolv­ing the de­sign of the build­ing into what it needs to be. For in­stance, we de­cided we could bring the 102-foot peak of the build­ing down to 50 feet and still have an im­pact. The fact that we can make changes sends a mes­sage that we’re go­ing to stay within bud­get. The ex­pe­ri­ence in­side the build­ing is where our fo­cus needs to be.

“A mu­seum should be a place that af­fects you emo­tion­ally. His­tory can be ugly, messy, in­spir­ing and beau­ti­ful all at once. We want to tell all parts of the story of the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice. We have a long, hard road still ahead of us, but we’ve al­ready raised $34.5 mil­lion. We’ll raise that last $24 mil­lion, I prom­ise you. It’s time for peo­ple to be­lieve in this project again be­cause it’s hap­pen­ing.”

Along Gar­ri­son Av­enue, one can see the num­ber 200 on ban­ners. That’s be­cause Fort Smith is about to cel­e­brate its 200th an­niver­sary. Things will kick off on Christ­mas Day as re-en­ac­tors pay homage to Maj. Wil­liam Brad­ford and Amer­i­can troops land­ing at what was then known as Belle Pointe on Dec. 25, 1817. Fort Smith Mayor Sandy San­ders is even try­ing to get a keel­boat that re­sem­bles what the troops would have used on the river.

“I’m not try­ing to be north­west Arkansas,” Steve Clark told an in­ter­viewer for En­ter­tain­ment

Fort Smith mag­a­zine last year. “They’ll take care of them­selves. I’m try­ing to be the best ver­sion of us that we can be—uniquely us.”

It ap­pears that the state’s sec­ond-largest city is feel­ing feisty again. That’s good for all of us.

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