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Tourism Thrives 10 Years After Tornado Tears Up Town

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Ft. Smith National Historic Site
Ft. Smith National Historic Site
    Ft. Smith Convention Center
Ft. Smith Convention Center
April 18, 2006

By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

FORT SMITH – It’s tornado season – a time that causes the city of Fort Smith to cringe and to celebrate.

Ten years ago on April 21, a twister ripped through the heart of the downtown, a northern residential area and next-door Van Buren, damaging more than 200 businesses and 3,000 homes, and causing more than $500 million in damage. What’s to celebrate? A community spirit to revitalize the tornado-torn area, creating new developments to draw visitors to experience its Wild West heritage and southern charm.

About four or five downtown buildings were lost during the 1996 tornado, Dean Kruithof, deputy city administrator, remembered. Some buildings were damaged by the winds, others by fire when utilities were restored about three days later, said Carolyn Joyce, administrative assistant for the Convention and Visitors Bureau explained. “It sparked a fire which took out some really historic buildings down on the avenue.”

City officials utilized economic development assistance grants from the Department of Commerce to help that area recover from the tornado. Today, one of those spaces where a building once stood is a parking lot framed by the remnants of the structure’s front façade. Another spot is now Pendergraft Park, containing a pavilion and landscaping.

“It did result in some positive things for the city and tourism industry,” Claude Legris, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. “It resulted in a bond issue in Ft. Smith.”

Voters passed a half-cent sales tax hike in 1999 to fund three major projects. The bonds were primarily used for an addition to the city’s convention center, but also for a riverfront redevelopment plan and a new building for the main library and for three branches.

The convention center, located downtown, received a $34 million expansion and an increase of 40,000 square feet. The $6 million riverfront development project included meeting space and served to bolster the city’s music and festival scene. The five-acre riverfront development now contains a 1,500-seat outdoor amphitheater; an events building with community meeting facilities; and a pavilion that seats about 200 people for small concerts, banquets, reunions and wedding receptions. It also connects the existing Harry E. Kelley Park with the new riverfront park.

The project links, via walkways, to nearby sites, including the Ft. Smith National Historic Site and Miss Laura’s Visitors Center. The historic site received some damage from the ill winds. With planning already underway for a $7.5 million rehabilitation, the federal tornado assistance money allowed the historic site to stretch its project money further. Miss Laura’s, housed in an historic building that was once a bordello, suffered more devastating effects. The roof was blown off, the south side windows blown in and the entire building was shifted slightly on its foundation. Restoration took about two and a half years at a cost of about $800,000, according to Joyce.

In addition to the government assistance to rebuild after the tornado and the city bonds for improvements, another economic upshot has been the renewed interest of private developers. “I know a number of private sector developments have taken place and it’s getting close to equaling the amount of public dollars that have been put in,” Kruithof explained.

While it was awful to see the destruction, he added, “A lot of people in the community said we need to rebuild and rebuild right. It’s been kind of a genesis for rebirth of the downtown and the city as a whole.”
New condos were recently developed for a resurgence of downtown living, he explained. New office buildings have been constructed as well. Near the convention center, a Marriott Courtyard is set for completion in September. The Park at West End, an old-fashioned amusement park along the riverfront, is expected to open in May. Architectural elements of the park, such as some stone work, are from the buildings that were destroyed in the tornado.

“It’s been 10 years and a lot of work has taken place in that time,” Kruithof said. “We still have a lot we have to accomplish.”

While the development plans enhance the area for community-wide use, it also creates a bountiful tourist destination. Much of the city’s rich history is preserved in its downtown area near the Arkansas River and the Arkansas-Oklahoma border making it a mecca for convention use and tourist activity.

Its history stems from the frontier days of Indians, federal marshals, outlaws, and Hanging Judge Parker, all of which is chronicled at the Fort Smith National Historic Site. Other tourism magnets include: the Belle Grove Historic District with nearly 25 homes spanning 130 years of varying architectural styles; trolley tours; the National Cemetery; and, various museums. It’s a vibrant area with shopping, tourism and business activity during the day and restaurant and nightlife action in the evening.

Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

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