Magazine March 2019

Fort Smith: Reinventing A Frontier Town

Fort Smith

By Sydne Tursky

Fort Smith has been many things in its 200-year history, from a simple stockade on the Western frontier to a military base to an industrial city. With a revitalized historic downtown, significant developments in the city’s arts scene and the construction of a national museum, the city is looking to reinvent itself one more time.

The city’s long and often bloody history began in 1817 when Fort Smith was established so that troops could manage hostilities between the Cherokee and Osage tribes. In the 1830s, the fort was used to facilitate the forced migration of Native Americans to present-day Oklahoma, during what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

Fort Smith was incorporated in 1842, serving as a base in the Mexican-American War a few years later and was the site of a Civil War scuffle in 1864. Federal troops left the city in 1871, and “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker served as the hand of justice between Arkansas and Indian Territory until the end of the century; he infamously sentenced 160 people to death during his term. His courthouse remains and serves as a National Historic Site, complete with a recreation of his gallows.

The Universal Chapel painted by artist Okuda San Miguel and Guido van Helten’s murals at O.K. Feed Mills are products of Fort Smith’s Unexpected Art Festival.

Even today, city administrators loves leaning into these roots; the city’s new nickname is “Star of the Western Frontier.”

“We’ve always utilized what you call heritage tourism, where you brand yourself based on who and what you are, where you are,” says Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors’ Bureau. “It continues to grow, and we’re on the cusp of seeing it really kind of blossom with the advent of the U.S. Marshals Museum coming aboard.”

In 2007, Fort Smith was selected as the ideal spot for the United States Marshals Museum after three years of intense lobbying by city volunteers. The museum will celebrate and teach the history of the U.S. Marshals Service. Construction should be completed by fall 2019.

“It will be a national museum and the first major development on the Arkansas River riverfront, and with the number of people that we will have visiting the museum, it should have a significant impact on downtown businesses and riverfront development,” says Jim Dunn, president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation.

Museum staff anticipates 125,000 visitors in a stable year, with about 60 percent of those visitors being tourists who come from farther than two hours away, according to a report commissioned by museum officials.

Recently, museum officials proposed a one-penny, nonrenewable sales tax lasting nine months to raise $15 million to fund the project entirely. The special election to vote on the tax is scheduled for March 12. City officials have expressed their support for the tax because of the museum’s projected $13 to $22 million economic impact on the community, but not all citizens have responded favorably to the idea of an additional tax. The museum will operate as a nonprofit, and the city will have no control over or liability for the museum.

Fort Smith’s sales tax is 9.75 percent; the additional tax would put Fort Smith in the top five percent of sales taxes across all Arkansas cities. The median household income in Fort Smith is $36,532, while the median household income for the entire state is $43,813, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city’s economy has historically been rooted in manufacturing, but following Whirlpool’s closing in 2012 and a string of downsizing and closures at other factories since, including Trane and, most recently, Acme Brick, the picture is a little different. Fort Smith is a blue-collar city that has lost a lot of blue-collar industry. Still, the city’s top employers are Baptist Health which boought Sparks Health in 2018. followed closely by OK Industries, a poultry processing plant and Baldor Electric, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith at night. Photo by Rachel Putman, courtesy of UAFS.

Fort Smith has put a massive effort into revitalizing its historic downtown following a destructive 1996 tornado, says Talicia Richardson, the executive director of 64.6 Downtown; a private non-profit committed to building vibrant spaces. What was a lot of damaged and empty buildings 20 years ago is now a thriving avenue full of locally owned businesses like a popcorn shop, an independent bookstore, a cigar lounge, a volunteer-run art gallery and a variety of bars and restaurants, and even a Ferris wheel. Many businesses that originated in Northwest Arkansas have opened locations in Fort Smith, including Savoy Tea Co and Core Brewing.  

The crown jewel of Fort Smith’s downtown area is, without a doubt, the massive murals painted on seemingly every available blank expanse. The Unexpected project brings in artists from all over the world to paint each year in the fall. During Art Week, downtown residents drag out their lawn chairs to watch the artists bring old, historic buildings to life with modern, rainbow-colored art.

A rendering of the United States Marshal Museum underway in Fort Smith.

“We’re really kind of becoming known for our arts community,” Legris says. “We’ve got a great symphony and a renowned community theatre [Fort Smith Little Theatre].” 

It’s a brand new beginning for a very old town, and Legris expresses excitement about the town’s future. He tells his new favorite story: As a couple of tourists from out-of-state were traversing through Arkansas, they were asked if they’d seen the art at Crystal Bridges [in Bentonville]. 

They replied, “No, we stopped in Fort Smith for that.”  

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