Fort Smith, a canvas
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.