Reach­ing the fin­ish line

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Ed­i­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­fried.com.

On Sept. 24, 1789, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton signed Se­nate Bill No. 1. A part of the bill known as the Ju­di­ciary Act cre­ated the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice. Dur­ing the next sev­eral days, Wash­ing­ton ap­pointed the first 13 U.S. mar­shals to en­force fed­eral laws, serve war­rants and pro­tect judges and wit­nesses.

The first mar­shal for the Arkansas Ter­ri­tory, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Scott, was ap­pointed in May 1820 and served un­til Elias Rec­tor was ap­pointed in March 1831. Rec­tor con­tin­ued to serve in that po­si­tion for an­other five years af­ter Arkansas be­came a state in 1836. By the 1870s, the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas was one of the largest (since it had ju­ris­dic­tion over the In­dian Ter­ri­tory, now Ok­la­homa) and wildest ju­di­cial dis­tricts in the coun­try.

“Arkansas was di­vided into the two cur­rent dis­tricts in 1851, but the same fed­eral judge presided over both dis­tricts,” Jes­sica Hayes writes for the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Arkansas His­tory & Cul­ture. “Af­ter the di­vide, on March 12, Ge­orge Knox was ap­pointed the first U.S. mar­shal for the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas, then head­quar­tered in Van Buren. The East­ern Dis­trict head­quar­ters re­mained in Lit­tle Rock. On March 3, 1871, the of­fice for the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas was moved to Fort Smith. With that move, the West­ern Dis­trict re­ceived its own judge. From 1851-96, the West­ern Dis­trict held ju­ris­dic­tion over 13 coun­ties and all or parts of the In­dian Ter­ri­tory. The his­tory of Fort Smith is in­tri­cately con­nected to the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice. The city, once known as Hell on the Bor­der, is renowned for its con­nec­tion to the era of Judge Isaac Parker and the U.S. and deputy mar­shals.

“Be­tween 1871 and 1874, two U.S. mar­shals in west­ern Arkansas were re­moved for be­ing in­ef­fec­tive. Isaac Parker, known as the Hang­ing Judge, was ap­pointed fed­eral judge for the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas in May 1875, and he al­most im­me­di­ately ap­pointed 200 deputies in an ef­fort to get a han­dle on the crime and vi­o­lence that plagued the area. Dur­ing his ten­ure, more than 65 deputies died in the line of duty. Fa­mous out­laws and crim­i­nals sen­tenced by Judge Parker in­cluded the Cook Gang, Chero­kee Bill and Belle Starr. Some of the most well-known deputy mar­shals served in the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas—Bass Reeves, Heck Thomas, Zeke Proc­tor, Frank Dal­ton and Ad­di­son Beck.”

In 2007, it was an­nounced that Fort Smith had been se­lected as the site of the U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum. Sta­cia Hyl­ton, the for­mer direc­tor of the Mar­shals Ser­vice, said of the mar­shals: “For all of us, Fort Smith is like sa­cred ground.”

Arkansans were told the mu­seum would open in 2014. Then they were told it would be 2016. That date later was changed to 2017. A ground­break­ing cer­e­mony was held on Sept. 24, 2014, the 225th an­niver­sary of the Mar­shals Ser­vice, but it was cer­e­mo­nial in na­ture. Many peo­ple be­gan to doubt that the fa­cil­ity would be built.

En­ter Pa­trick Weeks. In one of his first in­ter­views af­ter be­ing named last year as the mu­seum’s pres­i­dent and CEO, Weeks stated flatly: “The re­al­ity is a mu­seum is go­ing to be built, and it will be the an­chor of the river­front.” Weeks brought to­gether his ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee in late Oc­to­ber to lay out a time­line and bud­get. And then he set an open­ing date of Sept. 24, 2019, five years af­ter the ground­break­ing.

The hir­ing of Weeks al­lows Jim Dunn, the Booneville na­tive who had headed the project, to fo­cus on fundrais­ing. Dunn had spent seven long years hav­ing to wear two hats— op­er­a­tions and fundrais­ing—and can now con­cen­trate on one area as head of the sep­a­rate U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum Foun­da­tion.

The mu­seum has a to­tal bud­get of $58.6 mil­lion. The board voted in De­cem­ber to change the de­sign as nec­es­sary to stay within that bud­get. There’s $24 mil­lion left to raise. The mu­seum will be built on 15.9 acres along the Arkansas River that’s be­ing do­nated by the Rob­bie West­phal fam­ily.

Weeks, 48, has worked on theme parks, sci­ence cen­ters and mu­se­ums around the world with a fo­cus on cre­at­ing mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ences for vis­i­tors. When Weeks was hired, Robert A. Young III, the chair­man of the mu­seum’s foun­da­tion, said Weeks had “played an in­te­gral role in the de­sign and con­struc­tion of sev­eral na­tional en­ti­ties. At the Ari­zona Sci­ence Cen­ter, he fos­tered re­la­tion­ships with cor­po­rate spon­sors, in­di­vid­ual donors and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties to com­plete a $24.5 mil­lion cap­i­tal rein­vest­ment project. I’m con­fi­dent he and Jim Dunn will do the same for the U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum to bring this project over the fin­ish line.”

That fin­ish line is Weeks’ fo­cus. “I couldn’t re­sist ap­ply­ing when I read about this mu­seum,” says Weeks, who be­gan work on July 1, 2016. “There al­ready was a team in place that had done ev­ery­thing right to that point. It’s not as if I had to come in and be­gin re­tool­ing things. My fo­cus has been on the bud­get and the op­er­a­tional as­pects. Our board has made some tough de­ci­sions, and now it’s time to see the out­comes.”

Alice Alt, the mu­seum’s vice pres­i­dent of de­vel­op­ment, calls the mu­seum a cat­a­lyst in the cur­rent re­vi­tal­iza­tion of down­town Fort Smith. Even though there’s no build­ing, there’s al­ready plenty of ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram­ming such as the Winthrop Paul Rock­e­feller Dis­tin­guished Lec­ture Se­ries.

“When it was an­nounced that the mu­seum would be in Fort Smith, it led to other things,” Alt says. “We’re a cat­a­lyst for much more to come. It’s an ex­cit­ing time.”

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