The 64.6 ap­proach

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.

Amem­o­rable mo­ment for down­town Fort Smith oc­curred last month when the first steel beams were erected for the U.S. Mar­shals Mu­seum. Shortly be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, em­ploy­ees of Mid­west Au­to­ma­tion & Cus­tom Fab­ri­ca­tion be­gan de­liv­er­ing steel to the mu­seum site along the banks of the Arkansas River.

It had been a long time com­ing. Fundrais­ing has been go­ing on for years for the Mar­shals Mu­seum. It was slow at times, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion. Frankly, there were plenty of peo­ple across Arkansas who doubted that the mu­seum would be built.

In Jan­uary 2007, the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice se­lected Fort Smith as the site for its na­tional mu­seum. Af­ter com­ing aboard as the mu­seum’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Pa­trick Weeks set a firm open­ing date of Sept. 24, 2019, so the mu­seum could be open for the 230th an­niver­sary of the Mar­shals Ser­vice. The 53,000-square-foot mu­seum will pay trib­ute to the na­tion’s old­est fed­eral law en­force­ment agency with five gal­leries, a learn­ing cen­ter, a Hall of Honor that will serve as a me­mo­rial to those killed in the line of duty, con­fer­ence rooms, a restau­rant and a gift shop. The to­tal pro­ject cost is al­most $50 mil­lion.

The mu­seum is ex­pected to at­tract more than 100,000 vis­i­tors a year, com­ple­ment­ing the pos­i­tive things al­ready hap­pen­ing in down­town Fort Smith.

Fort Smith re­ceived na­tional pub­lic­ity this fall when ur­ban plan­ner Daniel Her­riges wrote an ar­ti­cle for the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Strong Towns ti­tled “64.6 Brings a Com­mu­nity To­gether in Re­vi­tal­ized Down­town Fort Smith.”

Her­riges wrote: “A non­profit place­mak­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, 64.6 Down­town, has done a re­mark­able job of bring­ing new life and mo­men­tum back to down­town Fort Smith and work­ing with the city to spell out a de­tailed, af­fir­ma­tive vi­sion for what down­town could be. It’s an il­lus­tra­tion of the im­mense power of a grass­roots ap­proach. In ad­di­tion, 64.6’s suc­cesses are an in­spir­ing ex­am­ple of what’s pos­si­ble when you look at a place holis­ti­cally and bring to­gether all of the peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions with a stake in what could be in­stead of let­ting each group—the lo­cal gov­ern­ment, busi­ness in­ter­ests, hous­ing ad­vo­cates, art in­sti­tu­tions and so forth—op­er­ate in its own silo and fixate on its own area of ex­per­tise.”

Tali­cia Richard­son, who be­came the 64.6 Down­town ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor ear­lier this year, told Her­riges: “I’ve lived in big cities like Dal­las, Austin, At­lanta and Phoenix, and smaller cities like Joplin, Mo., and Fort Smith. Our con­ver­sa­tions here were just start­ing while other cities were at the ex­e­cu­tion phase.”

The name 64.6 comes from the num­ber of square miles in the city lim­its. Busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive Steve Clark be­gan the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2015 with the idea of driv­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment through the arts. Clark and 64.6 are re­spon­si­ble for the event called The Un­ex­pected. It fea­tures artists from around the world who come to Fort Smith to paint mu­rals on the sides of build­ings. The first fes­ti­val took place in Septem­ber 2015 and has been held each year since then.

“Clark and 64.6’s early team didn’t an­tic­i­pate the or­ga­ni­za­tion would evolve so quickly,” Her­riges wrote. “64.6 has be­come in­volved in an im­pres­sive range of ac­tiv­i­ties be­yond pub­lic art. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has fos­tered pub­lic spa­ces where arts and events pro­gram­ming can oc­cur. It has cre­ated Gar­ri­son Com­mons, down­town Fort Smith’s only pocket park, and more re­cently Gate­way Park, a pri­vately funded pro­ject that 64.6 will own and de­velop and then partner with the city to main­tain.”

Tourism in Se­bas­tian County was up 7.2 per­cent in 2017.

“We can’t say it was be­cause of The Un­ex­pected, but we know that The Un­ex­pected, the Peace­maker mu­sic fes­ti­val, the Steel Horse mo­tor­cy­cle rally and other down­town events drew peo­ple to our re­gion,” Richard­son said. “We can’t take full credit, and we’re OK with that. But over the years, there have been groups that have come in and ex­e­cuted qual­ity events that are truly grow­ing a fol­low­ing.”

Down­town Fort Smith lost one of its big­gest pro­po­nents Nov. 19 when Bill Neumeier died. Neumeier owned Papa’s Pub and Piz­zaria and Neumeier’s Rib Room. He also helped launch the Peace­maker Arts & Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in 2015. Some called him the Guru of Gar­ri­son Av­enue.

Jeff Gosey, a down­town busi­ness­man, said of Neumeier: “He was an in­spir­ing guy. His love of mu­sic and bring­ing it to Fort Smith was un­par­al­leled. Look at what’s go­ing on to­day down­town.”

Now oth­ers are pick­ing up that torch. In late Oc­to­ber, 64.6 part­nered with the Fort Smith Re­gional Cham­ber of Com­merce to spon­sor a one-day sum­mit to en­cour­age ad­di­tional in­vest­ments down­town. Bill Hanna, a down­town prop­erty owner, praised the mas­ter plan for down­town Fort Smith that was adopted in Au­gust 2017. The plan, “Pro­pelling Down­town For­ward,” calls for “cre­at­ing sus­tain­able down­town growth with at­tain­able hous­ing, in­creased res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial spa­ces, walk­a­bil­ity, bike­abil­ity and over­all in­creased en­ter­tain­ment and cul­tural ameni­ties.” Busi­ness lead­ers raised more than $250,000 in pri­vate funds and then hired Gate­way Plan­ning of Dal­las to put the plan to­gether.

Hanna said of the mas­ter plan: “It’s not worth any­thing if we don’t use it.” He pre­dicted that the open­ing next fall of the Mar­shals Mu­seum will be a “huge cat­a­lyst” for down­town.

Clark said at the sum­mit that Fort Smith’s lead­ers have “come to the con­clu­sion that we can, in fact, af­fect the out­come. Five years from now, I think it’s re­ally go­ing to be an ex­cit­ing place to be.”

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