OPINION | REX NELSON: Chaffee’s new era

I  never drive around Fort Chaffee without thinking about its rich history. From German prisoners in World War II to refugees from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War and Cuban refugees in 1980, it has played a role in Arkansas history for more than eight decades.

Ground was broken Sept. 20, 1941, for what originally was Camp Chaffee near Fort Smith and Barling. The U.S. Department of War knew the country might soon be drawn into World War II and set out to double the size of the U.S. Army. Less than three months later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had indeed entered the war.

The federal government paid $1.35 million to acquire 15,163 acres from 712 property owners. These included businesses, churches and families. The camp, which would grow to almost 76,000 acres, was named for Maj. Gen. Adna Chaffee Jr. As an artillery officer in Europe during World War I, Chaffee determined that the cavalry was outmoded, and that tanks should be used.

The first soldiers arrived the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. The camp was activated March 27, 1942. Three armored divisions trained there, and 3,000 German prisoners of war were housed on the base from 1942-46. Fort Smith and Barling saw a boom in businesses opened and houses built.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "From 1948-57, Chaffee was home to the 5th Armored Division. On March 21, 1956, Camp Chaffee was redesignated as Fort Chaffee. The Army generally refers to something as a fort when it is a more permanent installation than a camp.

"In 1958, Chaffee was home to its most famous occupant, Elvis Presley. He received his first military haircut in Building 803. In 1959, what was dubbed the Home of the U.S. Army Training Center, Field Artillery moved from Fort Chaffee to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. From 1960-61, Fort Chaffee was the home of the 100th Infantry Division."

In 1961, the fort was declared inactive. It was re-activated later that year and on several other occasions.

During the Vietnam War, tactical defoliants such as Agent Orange were tested here. Things got busy again in 1975-76 when the fort was a processing center for refugees from Southeast Asia. There were 50,809 refugees processed. Many of them stayed in the Fort Smith area, adding greatly to the culture of west Arkansas.

Fort Chaffee was back in the news in May 1980 when it became a Cuban refugee resettlement center. The center became necessary when American boats were allowed to pick up refugees at the port of Mariel. Three weeks after the center was activated, some of the refugees rioted, burning two buildings.

The Arkansas State Police used tear gas to break up the riots, and 84 Cubans were jailed. The incident dominated the news in Arkansas for the next week, and Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton later blamed his November 1980 loss to Republican Frank White in part on that news coverage. Fort Chaffee wound up processing 25,390 Cubans during a two-year period.

Soldiers were trained there again when the Joint Readiness Training Center opened in 1987. In 1995, however, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) recommended Fort Chaffee's closure. Later that year, the federal government declared 7,192 acres of the fort's 76,075 acres to be surplus. Remaining acreage was turned over to the Arkansas National Guard to use as a training center.

"A change-of-command ceremony was held Sept. 27, 1997," the Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes. "Command was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Arkansas Army National Guard when the U.S. Army garrison was deactivated. Fort Chaffee became the Chaffee Maneuver Training Center for Light Combat Forces. Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was established to begin redeveloping land that was turned over to the state."

In the cover story for today's Perspective section, I outline the things that are coming together to create a new golden era for Fort Smith. They include a mission at Ebbing Air National Guard Base for foreign pilots of F-35 and F-16 jet fighters along with the development of a cultural and educational corridor along the Arkansas River, anchored by the U.S. Marshals Museum.

A big part of the positive economic equation is the success of Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, which has set records for real estate sales during the past two years. Chaffee stands as one of the shining examples of a successful public-private partnership following the BRAC process. In fact, the pace of construction at what's now known as Chaffee Crossing almost made me think I was in Benton County.

"Of the excess property following BRAC, 5,104 acres were conveyed to the public trust that became Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority," authority executive director Daniel Mann tells me as we sip coffee in his conference room. "We still own 1,300 acres, some of which will be used for a 37-mile trail system. There will be about $2.5 billion invested in Chaffee Crossing. There are 3,602 jobs here now, and we project that will grow to 4,621 direct jobs."

Capital investments in the mixed-use development are about 40 percent industrial, 33 percent residential, 8 percent retail, 7 percent government offices and 7 percent schools. There are six churches. Mann says the infrastructure investments are $273 million with $140 million coming from the federal government, $44 million coming from the state and $14 million coming from the development authority.

"Most of the top BRAC redevelopments are on the East Coast or West Coast," Mann says. "But this one in the middle of the country ranks near the top. In addition to what's happening on the commercial side, more than $822 million in capital will be invested in 45 residential neighborhoods. We project there will be between 5,000 and 7,000 housing units when all is said and done."

A rapidly growing historic and entertainment district at Chaffee Crossing boasts a whiskey distillery, a brewpub, coffee shops and a winery. The Barracks at Chaffee, a $30 million mixed-use project to renovate 32 former military buildings, is moving forward. Developer Rival Commercial hopes to have more than 100 residential units, between eight and 10 restaurants and breweries, and more than 30 retail and commercial spaces. The authority has invested more than $2.2 million in the district to improve streets, parking lots and utilities.

Last year, the authority board approved the sale of 61 acres in Barling along Arkansas Highway 22 to Van Trust Real Estate for an 825,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center. Development in the industrial sector is expected to continue in the years ahead with the expansion of Interstate 49 through Chaffee Crossing.

Meanwhile, the Colorado-based owners of Axe & the Oak Distillery purchased Building 339 in the historic area. The 49,000-square-foot former military laundry is being converted into a distillery for bourbon, rye, vodka and gin. The company already distributes products in eight states and Germany.

Some of the greatest growth continues to come from Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, which has launched an occupational therapy degree program to complement its physical therapy degree program, master's degree in biomedicine degree program and its Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In late 2009, Sparks Health System was sold for $136 million to a company then known as Health Management Associates. Little Rock-based Baptist Health purchased the system in 2018. Once liabilities were settled from the 2009 sale, the hospital's foundation had more than $60 million to invest. Almost $34 million was used to complete the 102,000-square-foot building at Chaffee Crossing that houses Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

An anonymous $15 million gift in 2017 allowed for construction of the 66,000-square-foot College of Health Science building, which houses the physical and occupational therapy programs.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.