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Dog parks, housing moratoriums, and the Arkansas River

KUAF

Let's start off with a conversation with Michael Tilley about some of the news of the week. Michael, how are you doing this Friday?

I'm doing well here in Fort Smith. Nice, cool weather. It's my favorite time of the year.

I have to admit it has been a lovely week. Let's start talking about an expansion and extension of a temporary moratorium on housing construction near the Fort Smith Regional Airport. Why does this exist and what does this latest chapter mean?

Well, the existing moratorium was put in place in June of 2022. This was during the process when Fort Smith was still trying to be selected for this foreign military pilot training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base which is there Fort Smith Regional Airport. Now we all know that Fort Smith was eventually selected, and part of that selection included environmental impact study, and part of that includes noise, noise abatement, that kind of thing.

If you're going to be an area where it's going to be a problem, the federal government has measurements to determine what a problem is, you can be called from the running. Fort Smith didn't want to do that, so they put this moratorium to show the Air Force look, hey, we're willing to stop housing in these areas. And it's really to the immediate east and west of the airport with some a little on the north and the south.

There's some caveats to the moratorium, and this is for new housing, new residential. If you built it with certain what they call sound attenuation standards, then you can rebuild if you had a house and it was destroyed by fire, it could be rebuilt as long as it met those sound standards. I guess for further reasons to protect and ensure success, the Fort Smith board of directors is asking for a slight expansion to the really kind of to the north and the south of the airfield. That was supposed to end at the end of this year, but to extend that until December 2025. And again, it has the same caveats that you can still build, but you have to build a certain sound standards in the area.

There was some construction that was approved before the moratorium that was going up in the area. This item is on the agenda for October 24, this next Tuesday. Developers were very accommodating on that first round, Kyle, there was no pushback, but we'll see if there's any pushback on this one.

 KK: Adding two years is significant. 

MT:Yeah, but still a lot of the construction just naturally has been to the south and the east in the Chaffee crossing area, and then south toward Greenwood. That's where a majority of the construction has been and would have been with or without a moratorium. But yeah, we'll see how the conversation goes. I suspect it's not going to be as smooth for this expansion and extension, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's approved. The Fort Smith board of directors, historically, in different iterations has been very amenable to working with the military and trying to accommodate the military in any way they can.

KK: Well, let's see how smoothly another proposal goes. This one from the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Department. They'd like to delay work on a dog park and some updated expanded trails at Chaffee Crossing so they can do upgrades at Creekmore parks swimming pool everyone on board.

 

Yeah, probably not. This is some good old King Solomon splitting the baby. Because you'd have people that have been — rightfully so — waiting on improvements and Creekmore Park swimming pool for decades to upgrade the shower area, the changing rooms, the pool itself. At one point there was an entire discussion about bulldozing the whole thing and starting over. The Fort Smith parks and recreation department is proposing putting more of its money from their capital improvement plan (CIP), and they presented their five year CIP to the board and it included delaying work on some trails, delaying work on a dog park — and I’ll get to that in a second — and spending that money instead on getting more ark pool upgrades getting those upgrades completed in a more expedited manner.

Now, there will be some pushback in fact, city director Lavon Morton he's already kind of raised a little bit of hell about the price. There apparently is a $4 million price tag on some bathroom showers changing areas that he thinks is a little too much. So, he's wanting a second look at that. He's also voiced in the study session that he's against the delaying the trails at Chaffee Crossing, because you know, there have been some promises made both on the trails and on the dog park.

These dog people are not folks you want to screw around with. The dog park was a very nice very large dog park. It was at the end of the Fort Smith Regional Airport. When Ebbing was considered for this pilot training center — which we've just talked about — they had to get rid of part of the dog park because they had to extend the runway and extend the taxiway for to meet the requirements for this platform military pilot training center. And so, the city promised they’re going to build a better and larger dog park at some point in the near future. And there are a couple other smaller parks and there's a park at that park at Chaffee Crossing, but it's not even an acre and a half whereas the park that was closed was significantly larger.

There’s a proposal for a dog park out at Chaffee Crossing, but that was supposed to open this summer and that's a 24 acre park. So that talk is delaying that park. This is also going to come up for discussion, but I suspect that there's going to be some pushback and some some not happy pushback. Everyone wants to get the Creekmore Park pool fixed, again it’s been decades in the making. But pushing back trails and this dog park which are very popular, we'll see how this plays out.

KK: You know I've just removed Parks and Rec director off my dream jobs by the way I don't want that one. 

It’s good on the ribbon cutting for trails, but it can be hard otherwise.

KK: We know that on the other side of the state, there is concern about the low levels of the Mississippi and barges being able to get through. On the western side, the Arkansas River sees a lot of traffic. What have we seen in late summer and early fall?

Through the first nine months of the year, Arkansas River traffic is almost 9.3 million tons and that's up 12% from the same period last year, and last year was a pretty healthy year in terms of traffic, also. But, the low levels on the Mississippi River will impact Arkansas River traffic. It obviously hurts internal shipments and we're already seeing some declines. For example, in August, there was an 8.4% decline in tonnage on the Arkansas River in September there's a 12.2% decline on the river. So those low water levels are hurting the Corps in the process. 

The Montgomery Lock and Dam is where essentially where the Arkansas River and the Mississippi River come into contact, and so there are issues there with getting more barges through. The water levels are too low on the Mississippi side. So that's got to be addressed through rainfall or dredging. The Corps of Engineers is pretty powerful, but I don't think they can make it rain.

We talked to Marty Shell he's President of the Van Buren based Five Rivers Distribution, he also operates the Port of Fort Smith. He's very optimistic. He says tonnage has been pretty strong year to date and still thinks they’ll end the fourth quarter still in the positive in terms of tonnage. He's a river rat through and through and so I'm going to trust his judgment on it.

These numbers are still pretty healthy, I mean tonnage in 2022 is over 11 million tons. That was up almost 3% compared to 2021. So to be 12%, up as a year shows a lot of activity. And I’ll close by saying that, I still think people don't value river traffic enough because the goods shipped on the river, that's just the foundational part of the economy: sand, gravel, rock, chemical fertilizers, iron, steel, minerals, and building materials, agricultural products. Those are heavy users on the Arkansas River.

KK: You can read more about that and everything we've talked about and talk business.net. Michael, as always, thank you for your time.

MT: You're welcome, sir.

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