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The tensions between Fort Smith, Sebastian County, and the Fort Chafee Redevelopment Authority


Michael Tilley of Talk Business & Politics joins Kyle Kellams to discuss continued sales tax growth, the frustrations at Deer Trails Golf Course, and the encouraging fundraising for Fort Kids Museum.

Kyle Kellams: With me on the phone to help us start this Friday edition — as he is almost every Friday — is Michael's dealing with talk business and politics calling from his Fort Smith office. Michael, we're about to move into November. We've got plenty to talk about. Let's start with the latest sales tax numbers that are at TalkBusiness.net. They continue to be up, don't they?

Michael Tilley: They continue to grow. I think the pace of growth is slowing a little bit. But again, if you would have asked me, first of the year, in fact, I think you did and I may have said I can't imagine that the pace will continue… well, it has for the most part. The September sales tax report from the city, Fort Smith showed that their share of the 1% Sebastian County tax was $2.1 million. That was up almost 4.3% compared to last year. In the first nine reporting months of the year that tax generated $18.6 million and that's just a little over 6%. The city's 1% street tax generated $2.5 million in the September report that was up almost 3%. And through the first nine months of the year that tax generated $22.6 million, that's just a little over 5%.

But one interesting note is that the city share of that Sebastian county sales tax is the gains on that tax are 1% higher than the tax exclusively collected in the city, which suggests that for whatever reason, there was more spending on a relative basis outside the city than in the city. So, for what it's worth, that growth is not as robust. Still good, but not as robust as out in the county. And again, those 2022 numbers that we're comparing this year against were record numbers. Last year the city share of the 1% county tax was $23.5 million and that was up almost 10% compared to 2021. And the street tax numbers were up roughly 7.5% in 2021. So that's why I was not thinking tax would continue to show such good strong percentage gains. I mean, you can see that they're not gonna match percentage case last year, but there's still going to break another record.

KK: There is an interesting relationship developing or existing between the city of Fort Smith, Sebastian County, and the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Board of Trustees and this relationship took kind of an interesting turn this week.

MT: If this were a marital relationship, they need to seek a marriage counselor, that's for sure. This all kind of revolves around this Deer Trails Country Club and Golf Course. It’s about 113 acres out at Chaffee Crossing. It's in the Fort Chafee Redevelopment Authority property. So, several months ago, maybe last late last year, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority put the land up for sale. But then weirdly said, well, we're not really looking to market it. The folks that are running Deer Trail said, we don't like that. We want to keep it you're going to sell it or we're going to continue to make improvements, that kind of thing. So, there was a push by the golf course folks and some local developers who say they're interested in developing residential, property, housing, apartments, that kind of thing around that. But they want some assurance that it will remain a golf course, as part of the amenities of building around it or the attraction of building around it.

So, the city approach FCRA several months ago and said, Look, donate it to us and we'll take care of it and ensure that it will stay a golf course, and if it doesn't remain a golf course, it will remain open green space for recreation, that type of thing. And so, the FCRA board came back and said, Well, we're not going to do that. You need to guarantee us more years. So, they came back with 40 years and then the FCRA rejected it and say they need 60 years. So, they came back and said I think the city said 90 years and the FCRA continued to reject it. And it's just a classic case. I've been covering local governments for a long time. I've never seen such a case and where one side keeps moving the goalpost, so to speak.

The way it stands now, the FCRA is essentially giving the middle finger to the city. And one city director, George Catsavis, has come out publicly now saying we think maybe it's time for the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority to go away and which it's always intended to go. It's never been considered a permanent authority. It was set up to get rid of the roughly 7,200 acres that were given to several governments back in the late 90s, early 2000s when the military changed the status of Fort Chaffee. It's not a pleasant relationship right now between the city and FCRA.

KK: And speaking of the city as we talked about last week, there was a proposal to extend this residential construction moratorium near the Fort Smith Regional Airport. And that has been approved. So now that moratorium goes into effect until December 2025. Quick reminder what does this mean?

MT: Well, this is directly related to the foreign Pilot Training Center at Ebbing International Guard base, they're co-located at the Fort Smith Regional Airport. You know, so that was approved we learned back in June. As the military continues to begin the work — and is actually in the middle of the work to bring this in — there will be ongoing environmental studies. One of those of course is noise. The military is worried about the noise of the F35s that come in.

We've had F16s, if you’ve lived in Fort Smith for a while, you heard F16s. They're loud, but they're not obnoxiously loud. The F35 is a much louder jet, and so there's a little concern about the noise from that. So, in response, the city is expanded, to some degree, the moratorium land. We've got a map that shows where it's moved and extended it to December 2025.

What’s interesting is Rocky Walker, he's president of the Greater Association of Home Builders, and he told the board he said look, he essentially said we're not happy about this. He said anytime somebody talks about reducing the number of residential permits you can have, he gets “twitchy,” but he said his association were behind it. We understand the need for it. We also hope it doesn't continue because we are also the folks that are providing the housing that — ifas many people come in as you say they will, you're going to be what we produce so. So right now, all signers-on are on board and supportive. We'll be watching these studies from the military on the sound impact.

KK: Finally, the Fort Kids Museum proposal is off to a pretty good fundraising start.

The museum is going to be built on the riverfront next to the Marshals Museum. So, the riverfront will have a Marshalls Museum, the School of the Arts, Kids Museum, a skate park, a lot of things coming down in that area. They have a $16.5 million total goal, they have a short-term $3 million goal. They've raised $1.5 million, and again, they just launched a few months ago, so this is somewhat of an impressive start for them. Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of this effort. We’ve seen the benefits of the Amazeum in Nnorthwest Arkansas. And I'm not saying Fort Kids is gonna be exactly the same, they’re all different, but this will definitely be a quality and much needed amenity for the region. So, let’s all cross our fingers and hope this pace of success continues.

KK: And if I had another seven hours to talk with you, I'd ask you to explain to us the history of the proposal to have a casino in Pope County. We don't have seven hours, but you have written about that, and folks can find the latest about that at TalkBusiness.net. Michael, have yourself a safe Halloween we'll talk again in November. 

MT: November already? Alright, yes, thank you sir.

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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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