It's only 7 a.m., but several hundred people have gathered on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for the breakfast sponsored the first Friday of each month by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
I'm the speaker. I've spoken in past years and shown up on additional occasions to hear others speak. I'm always surprised at the size of the crowd in an era when large breakfast meetings have fallen out of vogue in other places.
I chalk it up to Fort Smith's past as a manufacturing town, filled with hard-working blue-collar types who get up early; a town of 24-hour diners meant to serve those doing shift work.
The loss of many of those manufacturing jobs and the slow population growth of recent decades (Fort Smith grew from 71,626 residents in the 1980 census to 89,142 in 2020) has been documented. While not losing population, Fort Smith's growth pales in comparison to that in nearby Washington and Benton counties.
"As recently as 2004, a Whirlpool plant employed 4,600 people, but subsequent layoffs highlighted threats to the city's investment in its manufacturing base," Ben Boulden writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "By 2011, the company employed only about 1,000 people. ... In October 2011, Whirlpool announced that it would be closing its plants in mid-2012 and relocating production to Mexico and other sites in North America."
Those announcements--along with the constant media focus on growth in northwest Arkansas-- were blows to the collective psyche of
Fort Smith (which, to be clear, considers itself the capital of west Arkansas and not part of northwest Arkansas).
On this morning, however, the mood is upbeat. I go through the food line with Mayor George McGill, who is buoyant, especially given the early hour. I'm reminded of the late Mayor Ray Baker, who always would end speeches by pumping his arm and declaring that life is "worth living in Fort Smith, Ark."
In his State of the City address earlier in the year, McGill sounded a positive note. He talked about the continued growth of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, Mercy Hospital of Fort Smith's $162.4 million expansion of its emergency room and intensive care unit, and Baptist Health's almost $100 million in capital spending.
"By every important measure--growth in our health care, new and innovative educational opportunities, the rapid pace of commercial and residential development--our future is very promising," McGill said. "People are seeing us and paying attention."
The story that tops all others in Fort Smith these days is the planned fighter mission for Ebbing Air National Guard Base. Last summer, the U.S. Air Force selected Ebbing as the preferred location for a new F-35 training center for foreign pilots. Those pilots will come from countries allied with the United States.
At the time of the announcement, Tim Allen, the chamber president and CEO, described it as "an absolute game-changer for Fort Smith. The selection process was extremely rigorous. The months-long, meticulous, behind-the-scenes efforts between the congressional delegation, Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office, the city and the chamber positioned us perfectly to secure this project."
According to the chamber, the pilot training center could have a $1 billion economic impact. It's estimated that 345 U.S. military personnel will be part of the center along with hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of trainees and dependents from other countries. A chamber publication called last summer's announcement "one of those dates that changes the trajectory of a community."
"The selection committee recognized that Arkansas is among the most military-friendly states in the nation," says Hutchinson, a former Fort Smith resident. "Our tax exemption for military retirement income and our licensing reciprocity initiatives are valuable tools for recruiting qualified employees and their families to Fort Smith. ... We're prepared to provide a first-rate quality of life for families who will move here."
"This isn't a traditional project in terms of the economic impact it will have on our community," Allen says. "Many of the people will be moving into our region from other countries, looking for housing, education, jobs for trailing spouses and entertainment."
He says foreign visitors have been impressed that almost 30 languages and dialects already are spoken by students in area schools.
On July 6, 2020, the secretary of the Air Force signed a memorandum establishing a permanent foreign military sales training center at a single location in the continental United States for up to 36 F-35 aircraft and a Singapore F-16 squadron. It was announced that month that Fort Smith was among five finalists to host the mission. The other finalists were in Indiana, Colorado, Texas and Michigan.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency managing foreign military sales, notes that the program provides "responsible arms sales to further national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening bilateral defense relations, supporting coalition building and enhancing interoperability between U.S. forces and militaries of friends and allies."
If nothing derails the project, the initial schedule would see Fort Smith receive Singapore F-16s in 2023 and F-35s in 2024.
In 1988, the F-16A Fighting Falcon replaced the F-4C being used by the 188th Fighter Wing at Ebbing. In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure process replaced the F-16 with the A-10. The 188th received its first A-10 in April 2007. Defense spending cuts led to the removal of 20 fighter planes from Fort Smith by 2014. The 188th's mission changed to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts.
"The decision was far from certain," says Mike Preston, the state's commerce secretary. "Economic development is a team sport. In the same way that we work on traditional economic development projects, our state and local officials went to work to secure this mission for Arkansas."
When visitors from the Royal Singapore Air Force expressed concern during a March 2021 site visit that the runway at Fort Smith was too short, Hutchinson committed $17 million in state funds toward the $22 million cost of extending the runway an additional 1,300 feet. The Fort Smith Board of Directors approved the remaining $5 million.
"Until the final decision, we're continuing to work to improve Arkansas' military capabilities," Preston says. "We're working to expand the airspace available for this mission to provide a full spectrum of training options. This will be on ongoing team effort."
In June, Hutchinson met in Washington with Emily Haber, the German ambassador. The ambassador later announced that German pilots will be among those learning to fly F-35s at Fort Smith.
With the excitement surrounding the fighter mission, some may have failed to notice that Fort Smith's manufacturing base is also coming back. Among the larger announcements the past two years:
• Hytrol Conveyor Co. of Jonesboro announced that its second manufacturing facility in the state would be in Fort Smith. Hytrol relocated from Wisconsin to Jonesboro in 1962. The $20 million Fort Smith project comes in response to the growth of e-commerce. The facility is dedicated to the production of parcel equipment. It originally was designed to create 250 jobs. Eight months later, Hytrol officials announced they would add another 100 jobs.
• Owens Corning is building a 550,000-square-foot plant. Its existing Fort Smith facility was constructed in 1984. The project on the east side of Arkansas 45 will cost more than $115 million. Owens Corning, based in Toledo, Ohio, manufactures roofing, insulation and composites for home construction.
• Mars Petcare announced in January 2021 that it would build a $145 million expansion and add 120 jobs. Eight months later, it announced an additional $177 million investment that adds another 142 jobs. Demand for pet foods soared during the pandemic.
Manufacturing still accounts for about 15 percent of the workforce in the Fort Smith region.
"Our access to interstate highways, rail and river transportation puts us in a great competitive position when we're compared to other areas of the country," Allen says. "Fort Smith's history of being a strong supporter of the manufacturing sector and our highly skilled workforce are also huge factors.
"It has been and continues to be important to be united in our efforts to attract business. You have to have everyone pulling in the same direction to make progress happen."
Though the facility was beset by flooding following heavy rains in June, area economic developers continue to promote Fort Smith's Peak Innovation Center in a former shoe factory at Painter Lane and South Zero Street. The Hutcheson family donated the 181,000-square foot building to the Fort Smith School District.
The center opened to students in late March. It's a collaboration between the district and UAFS that serves about 280 students from 22 school districts across Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties. There are courses for automation and robotics, computer integrated machining, electronics technology and industrial maintenance, emergency medical responders, medical office assistants, network engineering and unmanned aerial systems.
The center is the last of the district's projects to be completed under a strategic plan known as Vision 2023. A focus of the plan was to improve students' ability to identify career goals earlier in the educational process. Voters approved a millage increase in May 2018 that generated almost $121 million to implement the plan.
Educators and business leaders began meeting in 2016 to rethink the way they approached career and technical education. The group went to Danville, Va., to see that city's efforts along those lines.
"They had identified middle school students as the starting point for an education schedule that would result in high school graduates being ready to join the workforce right out of school or continue their education at the local community college," Allen says. "We looked at the Fort Smith economy and decided we needed to do something similar."
A study during the next two years identified advanced manufacturing, health care sciences and information technology as focus areas. A visual arts component later was added.
"The three original career pathways make up about 35 percent of our local gross domestic product, so they're very important in building the workforce of the future," Allen says. "That gave us a good basis for conversations with the region's employers, educators and other potential stakeholders."
Money from the millage increase was combined with grants from the federal Economic Development Administration, the state and the Gene Haas Foundation. Major private-sector gifts came from Mercy Health, Baptist Health, ArcBest and ABB (formerly Baldor).
"Beginning with a big, open shell gave us a starting point and provides the space to add programs fairly quickly as they are identified," says Gary Udouj, the school district's director of career education and district innovation. "Our advisory board will be doing needs assessments every two years to make sure we're offering programs that are still in demand."
From a pyschological standpoint, Fort Smith's belief in itself might not be fully back to where it was before the manufacturing layoffs began in the early 2000s. But with a major boost from the Air Force, it's getting there.