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A bright future in Fort Smith


Kyle Kellams: Ahead this hour, conversations about rural health, why there are disparities between urban health care and rural health care availability, and what can be done about that. But first, let's bring in Michael Tilley with Talk Business & Politics for our regular weekly survey of some of the week's news. Michael, always good to have you on the air. Thanks for coming back.

Michael Tilley: Hey, appreciate it. And I also appreciate you guys covering that rural health coverage. I think that's something that we at Talk Business and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal don't do enough of so I'm glad you're bringing that to folks’ attention. I think that is a much bigger issue not only now but going into the future.

KK: I imagine you at Talk Business are a lot like how we are at Ozarks at Large and other news organizations: you can spend a lot of time thinking about what you wish you could cover more of.

MT: Oh gosh, yeah, you give me another five reporters, and yeah. There's so much, and that's why we get a kick out of folks who, ‘I can't believe you missed so and so.’ Yeah, well, I can believe it, let me tell you why.

KK: Well, speaking of wishing they had more, the Crawford County Library System probably wishes they had some more personnel, including a director. There's still not one there. How come? 

MT: That's the question: how come? They've had several finalists, and they've been since February without a full-time director. They do have an interim director, Eva White — but I suspect she's at her wit's end. They're still looking for a director.

This all began early this year when Tammi Hamby and her husband became upset that they were allowing LGBTQ books in the library. They pressured the library system to get rid of the director, Diedre Grzymala, and they did successfully. Tammi worked her way into becoming chairman of the library system board, thanks largely to the indifference of Crawford County Judge Chris Keith. What has resulted — and we've reported on this — is more than $245,000 in legal bills. They lost part of a federal case, they're still facing a state court case that they're probably going to lose also because case law is not on their side. They had an executive session Tuesday of this week.

By the way, they broke the law doing this. According to the Freedom of Information Act, if you enter an executive session, you have to explain to the public why you're going into that session, and then you have to come out and explain what actions you did or did not take. They didn't do any of that. But they're still looking for a director.

They have two very qualified candidates. In fact, they had three qualified candidates, they narrowed it down to Cynthia Morrison and Charlene McDonnough. It'll be interesting. They're supposed to meet again in a few weeks. We thought they were going to have a decision this Tuesday, but they didn't. All Ms. Hamby would tell us is that they decided to wait to make a decision. And she said, “we'll have a meeting in two to three weeks, we'll post when.”

This has been quite a controversy. There are a lot of very good people in Crawford County who have supported the library over the years. They’ve given not only their time and energy but their money. Tina Dale, who covers this for us, and I are hearing from more and more folks who are very frustrated with this and very embarrassed by this because it's not only hurting the Crawford County reputation, but it's costing them financially. Maybe they'll get a director who's qualified and who will run the library, will follow the law, and will not relocate or ban books. I'm not optimistic that's going to be the outcome in the near term.

KK: I don't know if Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach is at the Crawford County Library. If it's not, you can see a live performance of it tonight from the Community School of the Arts in Fort Smith. I bring that up because at talkbusiness.net, there's an update on how the CSA school project is moving along. 

MT: Once again, you prove why you're a king of the segue. Yes, now it's the Institute of Creative Arts. It has received a verbal from Arkansas’s charter authorizing panel to have an art school. The Creative School of the Arts began construction down on the riverfront — and was shaping up to be a very nice facility — to be just a facility for school kids to come primarily after school and then have programs during the days for kids that could make it. But then when the charter school laws passed — and if there's anything good to come out of the LEARNS Act this might be it. Dr. Rosalie Russell pivoted and said, let's go for a performing arts school. It'd be the first one in the state and it's on track to be the first one in the state.

They'll draw kids from numerous school districts it's not just Fort Smith. I think that's another great thing about this. Alma, as far over as Johnson County, my old stomping grounds, Magazine, Mansfield, Boonville, so numerous school districts. And I think all the way up to West Fork. They hope to be up to 500 students in the fourth year. The first class would start next fall 2024.

But just one quick note, to close out on this topic: the Marshall’s Museum and getting the baseball team, for example, get a lot of headlines and get a lot of excitement. Rightfully so. To me, I'm just as excited about this. I'm not sure people understand the value of soft skills that kids get that are so good for them as they move on into life, especially in the business community. I think soft skills through arts, theater, and music, I think they even help people become more empathetic as they become citizens, and if there's anything we need, it's just a few more empathetic folks out there.

KK: Agreed. You know that riverfront: give me a museum. Give me some hearts. Give me some baseball. Put a brewery there. I'm never leaving. 

MT: Yeah, you’d just need a cot and a tent and you’d be good to go.

KK: There was a discussion last week and I wish I could have gone to it, but I couldn't. It was this downtown dialogue:  what's good, what's bad, what can be improved about downtown Fort Smith? It sounds like it was a really interesting evening.

MT: Yeah, it was. I didn’t know what to expect, it was kind of a little bit of some generational discussion. there were four people on the panel. Bennie Westfall, his family has given land for the Marshall Museum, for the Fort Kids Museum. Very well-known and popular businessman in the area. And in the spirit of full disclosure, he's also an investor in Talk Business & Politics. Sam Hanna — he and his family are responsible for the Bakery District and some other developments. Ashleigh Bachert, the new tourism director in Fort Smith. And then Maggie Rice who has been with the city of Fort Smith for 17 years — that makes me feel old, because I can remember when she began with the city — but she's the Director of Planning and Zoning and is very instrumental in and supportive of finding ways to help development happen. As long as it fits within guidelines, they try to be creative and work with some folks and so she was part of the panel also.

My key takeaway was that everyone was optimistic. And I'm hoping it's a pleasant generational shift, you know, people that were 10,15, maybe 20 years older than I am, kind of the previous leadership was more just, ‘Rah, rah, everything's good. We're gonna make it happen. Don't y'all worry about it. We're in control.’ Whereas my generation on down, we're more optimistic but skeptical, if that makes sense. We're more hopeful but wary. Because we see what goes on in other cities, we maybe we travel more, and there's the internet and social media, so we see what other communities do and are doing, and we're like, ‘hey, we can do that here.

So, we know that a lot of things are possible, but we also know we can't just say ‘Hey, this is a good idea. Somebody should go make it happen.’ So, I see more people getting involved. And they're either getting involved by coming up with ideas and money or they're pressuring folks who can make stuff happen. That's kind of my takeaway.

Some of the specifics: they talked about walkability and getting trucks out of downtown Fort Smith, that's becoming more and more of a central point to making an area better that residents are in.

KK: You're talking to 18-wheelers that come through?

MT: Yes, sir. The large trucks. Sam Hanna had a very blunt quote, he said, “it’s got to be one of the worst things to happen to this city,” meaning Garrison Avenue being used as a main thoroughfare. He thinks it ought to be narrowed, turned into a city street, and rezoned for multi-modality use, and you might think he's crazy. But if you begin to look at what other communities do, you'll find a lot have accomplished some very significant changes to make things better in terms of walkability and bringing people downtown. It was just kind of a pleasant surprise to hear these people talk about not only what's possible, but literally getting their hands dirty and making things happen and that they seem to be willing to do.

KK: You can read about almost everything we've talked about in TalkBusiness.net. Next week, Michael, is Thanksgiving week. So, you and I are going to take a break. Then we'll pick back up with our conversations in two weeks.

MT: We’ll take a break, just like the Razorback football offense has.

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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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