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A new book that landed on my desk, Treasures of Fort Smith, has me thinking about the state's second-largest city.

The book, which is filled with color photos of the city's old homes, was compiled by Jim Kreuz and Wayne Bledsoe and released earlier this year by Cenveo Publishing. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Fort Smith Historical Society.

"My wife Kelle and I retired from Houston to Fort Smith two years ago," Kreuz says. "We're both chemical engineers, and she grew up in Fayetteville. Her father, Jack Woody, was the treasurer at the University of Arkansas for 24 years. We purchased a two-story country Victorian home in Fort Smith and volunteered at the visitors' center after settling in. We now own two homes that are each more than a century old.

"Wayne Bledsoe was one of the first neighbors we met here, and he gave us a two-hour driving tour of homes in town. He knows more about the history of Fort Smith than anyone in our area. I asked him why he hadn't written a book. I forget what his reason was, but I suggested that the two of us do one on old homes."

Kreuz has written dozens of magazine and newspaper articles through the years on baseball and classic cars. Bledsoe is a retired educator who has owned two homes in the city's Belle Grove Historic District.

The two men write in their introduction to the book: "Fort Smith is blessed to have an abundance of magnificent century-old homes still standing, along with a number of not-so-magnificent homes that possess the potential to be magnificent. Other cities are not so fortunate, having suffered the demise of these grand old dames in the name of progress. In publishing this manuscript, we are honoring those who have in some part saved these structures and also hope to recruit future enthusiastic owners/restorers."

Those familiar with Fort Smith will recognize many of the houses in the book. There's Miss Laura's Social Club, which now serves as the aforementioned visitors' center. It was built in the late 1890s by Laura Ziegler to serve as a bordello. She paid off a $3,000 loan from a local banker in just 17 months. Her nine employees lived and worked upstairs. Ziegler sold the house to Bertha Gale Dean in 1911 for $47,000. Don Reynolds saved the house from demolition in 1963.

There's also the 1887 James Sparks House, which since the 1970s has housed Taliano's, my favorite restaurant in Fort Smith. The house was restored by Tom Caldarera and James Cadelli. Another Italian restaurant, Bella Bacio, opened last year in the 1901 Mincer-Kaufman House.

While much of the high-growth area to the north in Washington and Benton counties feels new, I like Fort Smith because it's old, real and even a bit gritty. Once the manufacturing capital of the state, Fort Smith has been stagnant since the number of manufacturing jobs in the state began plummeting a decade ago during the Great Recession.

Between 2010 and 2018, the population of the Fort Smith metropolitan area grew by less than 1 percent from 280,532 to 282,318. Sebastian County grew 1.6 percent during that period. Compare that to the northwest Arkansas metro area, which grew 18.6 percent from 2010-18. During that same period, the Jonesboro metro area grew 9.5 percent and the Little Rock metro area grew 5.9 percent.

As someone who loves Arkansas history, I can spend long days at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, the adjacent Fort Smith Museum of History and the nearby Fort Smith National Cemetery. One thing I've been heartened by (despite the stagnant growth of the past decade) is a renewed focus on downtown Fort Smith. Garrison Avenue, the widest city street in the state, is busy again. Much of the credit goes to entrepreneurs such as Jeff Gosey, who owns AJ's Oyster House and the live-music venue Harry's in downtown Fort Smith. They've taken a chance on downtown, and it's paying off.

"We have an abundance of choices," Gosey recently told Talk Business & Politics when asked about the city's restaurant scene. "Fort Smith is lucky in that respect. ... I think downtown has more options and more foot traffic than I've ever seen in my 30 years of doing something down here. Are we there yet? No. There's still a lot of work left to do. But I like what I'm seeing."

In addition to focusing on continued downtown revitalization, business and civic leaders in the area must raise the $15 million remaining in the capital campaign for the U.S. Marshals Museum.

It was highly disappointing last year when Fort Smith voters rejected a temporary tax that would have financed exhibits at the museum. While the building that will house the museum is largely completed, money still must be raised for those exhibits. Alice Alt, the president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation, remains hopeful that there will be a grand opening for the museum late this year.

The Southern District of New York of the U.S. Marshals Service recently donated items related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York. The items were given in honor of the more than 50 U.S. marshals who responded to attacks at the World Trade Center.

"We're proud to share these items with the U.S. Marshals Museum so people from all over the world can reflect on these brave individuals' actions," said Michael Greco, the U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York.

Once completed, the Marshals Museum will serve as a stop for those traveling between the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/08/2020

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Thinking about Fort Smith

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