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Cell towers down and construction numbers up


Kyle and Michael discuss the vote on a cell tower in Fort Smith, an EPA settlement, and the latest construction numbers in the Fort Smith metro.

Kyle Kellams: With me on the phone from his Fort Smith office is Michael Tilley, who is with Talk Business and Politics. Michael, welcome back.

Michael Tilley: Thanks for having me back.

Fort Smith Board votes down a new cell tower permit

KK: You know the past few weeks or months, we've had some conversations about what's going to appear or is appearing on the riverfront in Fort Smith. There's the US Marshals Museum. There is the School for the Arts. There is possibly the Children's Museum. Let's talk about something that apparently is not going to be on the riverfront and that's a cell tower.

MT: Not near as exciting, but yes. the Fort Smith Planning Commission had approved what’s essentially a 15-story commercial communication tower near the Arkansas River more toward the north part of the city near the Gerber facility, the OK Foods corporate office, for people who are familiar with that part. But there was some growing pressure to not allow that construction, and so there were some citizens who showed up and some other folks showed up. The Fort Smith Board of Directors this Tuesday reversed the Planning Commission’s decision, which essentially blocks the construction of this tower.

There were two telecom companies fighting over it. There was one telecom company already has a tower on the Van Buren side that was saying “We can cover it,” and if anyone's familiar with geography, that powers on that Van Buren hill that overlooks Fort Smith. AT&T wanted the tower. I'm not going to get into the market dynamics of whether the tower was needed or the negotiations between these two telecoms. What is interesting is that for the last several years, maybe even as far back as ten years, the Fort Smith board has been putting a lot of talk and even money into this concept of developing a riverfront. They renamed Clayton Expressway Riverfront Drive, and they've done a lot of other things. They’ve put a park there, improved infrastructure, several things. So, I knew this was coming, and I was kind of curious. And I don't want to make too much of this, and I'm also somewhat reluctant to praise the city of Fort Smith, because as soon as I do, they'll do something to jeopardize that praise or my optimism in what they're doing.

I was curious if they were going to kind of stick to their guns because they said, “we want to make sure the riverfront is visually appealing, commercially appealing, and want people to come down.” And not saying that we don't want cell towers, we all use cell phones, we know that infrastructures needed. But it was interesting to see the Fort Smith board—it was a 5-1 vote—reject the tower. Again, I don't want to make too much of it, but it's interesting to see the board continue to be to show in interest in making sure the riverfront as appealing for future development as possible.

Fort Smith board comes to settlement with EPA & DOJ

KK: The Fort Smith board also passed a resolution that agrees with a settlement with the federal Department of Justice the EPA. It's $800,000, which sounds like a lot of money, but isn't as much of a penalty as it could have been. Do I have that right?

MT: Yeah, you do have that correct. The initial penalty was 2.34 million. It was related to some sanitary sewer overflows, which that's a fancy word for you know what, coming out of the ground. These overflows happened between 2015 and 2021, and if you remember there was some of that back in 2019 where we had historic flooding and that created a water flow issue. And then right on top of that, we went into COVID. So the city has kind of been working with DOJ and EPA saying “Look, under normal circumstances, yeah we did it, but these last four or five years have been anything but normal.” So, kudos to the city, they were able to get that down to an $800,000 penalty. That's still a lot of money.

I think the lesson here though is sometimes, I think for the citizens of Fort Smith, if it's not top of mind and if it's not something you see all the time, you don't remember that we're under a consent decree. That's a federal order, it's serious. The city is going to spend who knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars to address the consent decree, and it's not going away until it gets addressed. This is somewhat of a reminder to all citizens—especially ratepayers—that the federal government is serious about the city of Fort Smith getting its act together in terms of an adequate water sewer system for all parts of the city. So, I think that's the lesson learned there. Thankfully, it wasn't a $2.3 million hit, $800,000 is still quite a quite a bit. Hopefully that will be the end of any penalty negotiation.

KK: But still much more money to be spent to make the required improvements.

MT: Right.

KK: I understand the EPA being involved with this; you've got water infrastructure problems. Why the DOJ?

MT: They're the enforcement mechanism. The EPA can issue fines and that kind of thing, but the Department of Justice came in to really be the enforcement agency.

Fort Smith metro region building permits up in August

KK: Construction is still taking place throughout the Fort Smith region, isn't it?

MT: Yes, very much so. We've talked about how we've seen higher interest rates put a damper on home sales in the area—we talked about that I think last week—but construction continues in the Fort Smith metro. We look at city of Fort Smith, city of Greenwood and Van Buren. Through the first eight months of the year cities around $408 million in combined building permit values. That's up almost 30% compared to the same period last year.

Keep in mind, last year was a record $480.3 million combined for those three cities which blew past the previous record of $343 million. This 30% gain is on top of what was an amazing record last year. So, last year the average per month building permit value for the whole year was $40 million in that record year. So far this year through the first eight months the average monthly permit value from those three cities is $51 million. So that gives you a sense of how much more construction is going on. And you can't say that inflation accounts for all of that, inflation is not up 30%. It is up and it does account for some of it. We’re seeing gains in residential growth and commercial growth. The only city that's seeing a decline is Van Buren. But remember, Van Buren last year had a record year because of all the Simmons Food construction and there was a school, so they're up against some pretty tough comparisons. Their permit numbers are down 62%. through August this year, but it's still healthy activity over there, they’re just compared to what was a record year. This is still a good sign for the Fort Smith metro economy that people are still swinging hammers, and we watch this industry, because as you know it's not just about building stuff, it trickles through the economy. Design companies, hardware companies, they're building houses and they have to eat. So, a robust construction sector helps the overall economy.

KK: Michael Tilley. You can read about all of this and so much more at TalkBusiness.net. We'll talk again next Friday, how's that, Michael?

MT: Sounds like a plan to me, appreciate it.

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Kyle Kellams is KUAF's news director and host of Ozarks at Large.
Michael Tilley is the executive editor of Talk Business & Politics.
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