The 64.6 approach
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.”