Fort Smith's riverfront offers residents an artistic refuge
Fort Smith is a happening town. The historic city is always bustling with activity, from art galleries to a lively nightlife, there's always something to do. However, activity doesn't stop at the city streets. For those seeking natural fun, the Riverfront Park offers near-limitless possibilities.
The park is nestled against the Arkansas River. It hosts 16.2 miles of trails, an outdoor amphitheater, a skate park and more. A park against the river may seem like a natural choice for Fort Smith, but city administrator Carl Geffken says that Fort Smith planners drew inspiration for the park from the Arkansas Municipal League.
"...which works with all 500 cities, is that when one city does something well, it's emulated throughout the rest of the state may be done a little differently, but essentially it's the same," Geffken said.
So, when you think of Fayetteville, you think of trails and outdoor recreation.
"And so their ability to start that work and be successful at it," he said. "And you know, Fayetteville has been doing this for a good 20 years, so they have that head start, and to see what that has attracted is wonderful for us because then we, there's proof in the state that it can be done, and that there's a benefit to it."
Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley have a unique relationship. Geffken said he thinks of the two regions as rivals who encourage each other to improve. He said he prioritized outdoor recreation, not to compare Fort Smith with Northwest Arkansas, but because he believes the river park and joint trail system will benefit Fort Smith's military population as well as further stimulate the city's arts and culture scene.
"There's that symbiotic relationship of north and south of the tunnel," he said. "And, you know, it's one that is a healthy competition, and the only the true benefit benefactors so the true people who will benefit from this, are our residents."
New opportunities for creative recreation occur all over downtown, all the time, says Talicia Richardson. Richardson is the executive director for64.6 Downtown, a nonprofit that curates local arts through business development, special events and public art.
Recently, the city acquired over 300 acres of wetland, and volunteers are currently developing a soft trail system for the space. Additionally, city administrators opened an innovative park named after the late local artist, John Bell Jr.. The park houses Fort Smith's first universally accessible playground that has features geared toward children of all levels of physical ability. Richardson says the park is indicative of the entire riverfront.
We have open access to the Arkansas River. So John Q Public can literally walk and fish in the Arkansas River in our downtown area. And to me, that is a jewel that just needs to be realized.Talicia Richardson
If the riverfront is a gem of downtown Fort Smith, then 64.6 is a jeweler. The nonprofit has installed works of art along the trail system for public viewing, and Richardson says the convergence of art and nature provides the space with both aesthetic and practical value.
"So 646 downtown has already installed a couple of pieces across along the Arkansas River along the trail," she said. "Can we do more? Absolutely. But with that comes funding, right? So, to be able to have a public art installation along the river after so many miles, that to me would be ideal because it will extend your experience, if you will. You can have these beautiful pieces. You can have all of that. But I'm a big proponent of tree canopies when I'm walking, especially in these record-breaking temperatures right now. So, what would that look like? That looks like so many different things that we can offer. But the tree canopy to me but be a more artistic, it could be an artistic approach, or ways to create shade so that people can extend their time downtown."
She said the riverfront is not the only space that combines art and recreation. The newly finished US Marshall's Museum will house art celebrating the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes, whose land now backs up to the museum's sidewalk.
"The businesses are also taking note of what has been done and incorporating art and culture along the riverfront," she said. "So, it's not just a singular effort of one organization. It's everyone within our community buying into the importance of arts and culture."
64.6 launched their Levitt Amp Music Series earlier this month, with DJarin performing on the historic riverfront Saturday, Sept. 9th.