Pictured above: Left: The Fort Smith Trolley Museum operates a streetcar line. Right: Downtown Fort Smith is known for its large and colorful murals, including this one celebrating the city’s Native American heritage.

 

Hidden gems in Arkansas are not exclusive to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro. The ones found in the dirt there are real, but there is another diamond of a more symbolic nature guarding the state’s western flank.

 

Fort Smith is Arkansas’ unique capital of the River Valley and a once-true gateway to the West from which U.S. marshals embarked into Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, to hunt down outlaws as pioneers launched westward pilgrimages in search of new lives.

 

For essentially the entirety of the 20th century, Fort Smith was firmly established as Arkansas’ second city — not just in population, but also in cultural and political influence. Fort Smith had the state’s western back, and the city’s influence extended far, to residents of the Ouachita Mountain wilderness to the south, the River Valley as far as Russellville, eastern Oklahoma’s expansive Sequoyah and LeFlore counties, and even into the Boston Mountains in the north. For perhaps more than a century, folks in those spots were oriented to Fort Smith as the regional hub.

 

Times change, of course, and as the 20th century began to fade and U.S. 71 between Alma and Fayetteville became an interstate, prominence began to shift decidedly north. Interstate 540, as it was originally designated, ferried people, products and, ultimately, influence across the hill-like floodwaters overwhelming a bank of the Arkansas River.

 

Some might even argue that the string of burgeoning municipalities stretching across Washington and Benton counties now challenges greater Little Rock as the state’s primary metro in influence if not yet in population.

 

Like the hardy souls who populated it from the 1840s, however, Fort Smith carries on, sure-footed and steadfast. The city now boasts more than 90,000 residents that anchor its own metro of more than 280,000. It may no longer be the state’s second-largest city in terms of population — that distinction now belongs to Fayetteville — but it has never seen a census population decline and has maintained steady growth over the decades. Northwest Arkansas is the state’s rock star now, but city leaders have discovered there are benefits to operating somewhat under the radar. As NWA hogs the news cycles, perhaps rightfully so, Fort Smith has transformed into what Fayetteville used to be: Arkansas’ true hidden gem.

 

“One thousand percent, this is true,” said Ashleigh Bachert, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There has been such a focus on NWA and what they are doing — for good reasons — that Fort Smith has been left out of conversations. That hasn’t stopped the community from continuing to develop and grow.”

Ashleigh Bachert

A former athlete, Bachert likened Fort Smith to the basketball player who consistently records double doubles but surrenders the spotlight to the player who hits the game winner at the buzzer. Caitlin Clark may hit improbable game-winners, but a team goes nowhere without a Jaylin Williams, the Fort Smith native, former Razorback star and current member of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder — a player who is low- key, dependable and, above all, indispensable.

 

“Right now, NWA is hot in its development and big wins, but Fort Smith continues to be consistent and does its thing quietly,” she said. “I personally love that about our community.”

 

Indeed, Fort Smith never left the game; it just took on a different role. Central Arkansas has its Amazon distribution centers and northwest its Fortune 500 companies, but Fort Smith continues to pull down those all-important economic defensive rebounds. They include the prominent Chaffee Crossing, a retail, business and residential development on land once a part of Fort Chaffee, currently an active Arkansas Army National Guard installation and former home of the U.S. Army’s 5th Armored Division. For four days in 1958, Fort Chaffee was the home of a young and recently drafted Elvis Presley. It was also where the emerging king of rock ‘n’ roll received his first military haircut, images of which were transmitted across the globe.

fort smith gem

The U.S. Marshals Museum on the riverfront is expected to become a big tourism driver to the city.

Fort Smith’s other notable spots include the impressive new U.S. Marshals Museum, which honors the U.S. marshals of the mid- to late-19th century who were based in Fort Smith and worked to maintain law and order in what was then considered the Wild West. Many Americans are familiar with a pair of them, one fictional, the other very real. Rooster Cogburn, of course, was a primary character — the gruff old marshal with a heart of gold — in Arkansas native Charles Portis’ acclaimed novel, True Grit, set in Fort Smith.

 

The other, Bass Reeves, was a deputy marshal in Fort Smith who stood out for a couple of reasons. He was very good and efficient at his job, and his life and career are noteworthy because Reeves, born into slavery in Crawford County, was the first Black U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. A limited television series based on his life and set in Fort Smith, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, premiered on the Paramount+ streaming platform in November 2023.

 

The Marshals Museum anchors a Fort Smith riverfront that is coming to life.

 

“It’s really starting to blossom,” Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said.

Mayor George McGill

In addition to the Marshals Museum, he noted the new Community School of the Arts on the river downtown, a new RV resort, an outdoor concert venue, and, of course, the thoroughly underappreciated Fort Smith National Historic Site, home to Judge Isaac Parker’s legendary courtroom and gallows.

The Fort Smith National Historic Site includes the courthouse where the famous —or infamous — “Hanging Judge,” Isaac Parker, presided.

“There’s now 1 1/2 miles of fun and recreation down along the riverfront,” McGill said.

 

The National Historic Site is just upriver from the Marshals Museum. It represents a notable tourist draw because of Parker, who served as the federal judge for the United States District Court in the Western District of Arkansas and had jurisdiction over Indian Territory from 1875 to 1896.

Homegrown ArcBest chose Chaffee Crossing to build its new headquarters.

Things are buzzing along the river in Fort Smith but also at Chaffee Crossing. The state’s second medical school and first of the osteopathic variety, the private Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, was established there in 2017 and includes the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. Another economic driver in Chaffee Crossing is multibillion-dollar integrated logistics provider ArcBest, which was founded in Fort Smith in 1966 as Arkansas Best Corporation.

 

The city is home to another multibillion-dollar company, ABB Motors and Mechanical, which was founded in 1920 as Baldor Electric in St. Louis. Its headquarters were moved to Fort Smith in 1967, and the company was acquired by ABB in 2018.

 

Another important piece of the city’s economic pie is on campus at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith Center for Economic Development. The center is designated an official University Center program by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which means the center works with EDA partners to develop, implement and support regional strategies for job creation and business expansion. The CED at UAFS is one of two such recognized EDA university centers in the state and one of only 73 nationwide.

 

The CED houses the regional Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, the Jim Walcott Family Enterprise Center, and the Center for Business and Professional Development. The CEC offers non-credit workforce development courses and professional development courses, as well as strategic planning and business development opportunities.

 

“Last year, our ASBTDC alone had an economic impact of almost $7 million through new business startups,” said UAFS chancellor Terisa Riley. “Beyond our CED, the university is at the table for every visiting business owner who is considering building new or expanding businesses in the River Valley to ensure that we have the types of educational programs and workforce development options that will provide an educated and trained workforce.”

Terisa Riley

Last year, Fort Smith did much more than grab the economic equivalent of a crucial rebound. It pulled off the municipal version of signing hall-of-famer John Calipari as head coach. The city was selected as the site for a U.S. Air Force’s Foreign Military Sales program pilot training center. The center will serve as home to thousands of pilots from other countries training on F-16 and F-35 fighter jets.

 

The training center is being built adjacent to Fort Smith Regional Airport at Fort Smith’s Ebbing Air National Guard Base, which will essentially function as an active air force base. Ebbing will become the new home of the 425th Fighter Squadron, the F-16 Fighting Falcon training unit for the Republic of Singapore. The unit is currently based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

 

Initially, the mission will bring roughly 850 foreign military members and their families to Fort Smith — about 230 USAF personnel, 300 military personnel from Singapore and 300 dependent family members. Pilot trainees will be deployed to Fort Smith for roughly 18 months to two years. The new training center will be home to 24 F-35s and 12 F-16s.

 

Pilots from other countries that purchase U.S. jets — such as Germany and Finland — will come to Fort Smith to train, as well. USAF and state officials have estimated the economic impact of the center at $750 million to $1 billion annually, but McGill said he believes it “could very easily soar to $1.5 billion.”

 

He said the selection of Fort Smith for the training center represents one of the biggest economic development investments in Fort Smith and perhaps even the state.

 

“As the mission [of the training center] has expanded, we’ve spoken with a few other countries interested in training their pilots,” he said. “This is going to be big for the entire state.”

 

Founded as a frontier military outpost in 1817, Fort Smith maintained a western vibe over its two-plus centuries. As such, it has always been home to a diverse community, and McGill said the influx of pilots and their families from other countries will add to the city’s colorful tapestry.

 

“It will be a beautiful fabric of cultures,” he said. “We’ve gained statewide, national and international attention, and the countries [that are sending pilots to the training center] have found out about the place where their pilots and families are going to be.  There has been a lot of positive activity here, which sets us up for a great future.”

 

Fort Smith delivers on infrastructure, as well. Work has begun on the Interstate 49 corridor through town, specifically the bridge over the Arkansas River that will connect Alma to Barling on Fort Smith’s southern edge. The section between Alma and Texarkana represents the final piece of the I-49 corridor in Arkansas to be completed, although an interstate-quality I-49 bypass is set to open in south Fort Smith.

 

McGill said the federal approval for funding of a slack water harbor in Fort Smith will have a major impact on the cost of transporting goods such as grain down the Arkansas River to the Mississippi River. The infrastructure work will “play a major role in attracting people to come to Fort Smith,” he said.

fort smith

Tim Allen

What those people, whether they be new residents or visitors, will notice about Fort Smith is a laid-back vibe coupled with a blue-collar work ethic. Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the city has always projected an entrepreneurial feel with an eclectic mix — where “modern meets turn of the century.”

 

“Look back on our history, and you can find example after example of individuals pulling up their bootstraps and creating something from nothing,” he said. “Legacy companies that have stood the test of time, upstart businesses proving that it makes no difference where you are located to be successful and a welcoming environment that makes any potential company looking in from the outside interested in why they should be here.”

 

Riley, who landed at UAFS in 2019 after serving as senior vice president for student affairs and university administration at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said residents’ friendliness and community involvement stuck out to her when she first arrived.

 

“The community has maintained a small-town culture where people look out for one another while developing the amenities of a city, which means that there are always fun, educational and entertaining things to do,” she said. “Having worked in a variety of cities and states, I was very particular about where I was willing to relocate in the world. I was specifically looking for a safe community where people were kind and welcoming. I found that immediately in Fort Smith. My neighbors have become best friends, and everywhere I go in town, I can find friendly, unassuming people who are proud of the university.”

 

Riley said the university’s relationship with the city is a symbiotic one.

 

“We understand the power of education to pave the way for social mobility of our citizens, and the community invests in the university to ensure that our programs meet the needs of regional employers,” she said. “We are all ‘rowing the boat in the same direction,’ which is not always the case in large, complex communities.”

 

McGill is eager to tout his hometown, and why not? He seems to embody the city itself, a blend of lawman Reeves and actor Morgan Freeman. Everything about the mayor screams Fort Smith.

 

McGill is the city’s first Black mayor and formerly served the area in the Arkansas House of Representatives, where he held multiple leadership positions, including service as deputy speaker pro-tempore. In a patriotic city that prides itself as the hometown of Col. William O. Darby, founder of the United States Army Rangers, it does not hurt that McGill is a U.S. Army veteran who served with honor in Vietnam.

 

He went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in education and Master of Business Administration degrees from the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Back home in Fort Smith, he was a small-business owner and worked as a sportswriter at the Southwest Times Record newspaper under legendary publisher Jack Moseley.

 

He said he got to witness “leadership at its best” from Fort Smith residents during the aftermath of the 2019 Arkansas River floods that devastated parts of the city and “put everything on hold.”

 

When asked about Fort Smith natives such as Williams and fellow Northside High School alumnus Isaiah Joe, who in recent years parlayed successful college basketball runs with the Razorbacks into NBA careers, McGill practically bursts with pride.

 

“Not only are they successful at the pro level; they are genuinely good kids,” he said. “I love them because they have not forgotten Fort Smith.”

 

Indeed, each has been active in supporting local philanthropic causes and is not shy about coming back home since landing in Oklahoma City with the Thunder.

 

All that to say, when McGill speaks with excitement about the city’s future, he is not dispensing typical “mayor talk.” He is thinking about all those good kids that Fort Smith produces, about the supportive neighbors, the thriving businesses, and the engaging modern and old-school mix that envelops the city.

 

McGill is thinking about the graduates of UAFS and ACHE and presenting the city as a place where they might want to settle and practice. He is thinking about the airmen who will serve at the foreign pilot training center.

 

“At some point when they retire, I hope they consider this place,” he said. “Arkansas has great retirement benefits. Arkansas is a great state, a great place for anyone who enjoys an outdoor life, and we’re close to it all in Fort Smith.”

 

McGill and other city leaders see Fort Smith emerging from the shadow of NWA and recognizing that the city never has to play second fiddle — or third or fourth, for that matter — to anyone.

 

“That is the goal,” McGill said. “We want to present our city as the special place to live it is. Over the past five years, I think people in Fort Smith and elsewhere have started to recognize that we do live in a great place.”

 

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