FAYETTEVILLE -- The partners behind the SLS Community and South Cato Springs development hope the project will become a model nationwide for neurodiverse adults and their families to better integrate with society.
City leaders first became aware of the idea for the project about six years ago. Ashton McCombs III approached Mayor Lioneld Jordan's administration with a "crazy idea," Devin Howland, the city's economic vitality director, said Tuesday.
"This idea was different," Howland said. "This idea was, 'Can we better the lives of neurodiverse residents and families in a way that's never been done?'"
Howland; Jordan; U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers; members of the McCombs family; and members of the development team behind the project spoke to a crowd at a groundbreaking near Kessler Mountain Regional Park. The South Cato Springs development will sit on about 231 acres north of the park. A home for the SLS Community, which stands for "supporting lifelong success" for neurodiverse adults, will lie within the larger development.
Neurodiversity or neurodivergence refers to people with autism, Down syndrome, or other intellectual and developmental differences. The idea for the SLS Community project is to provide neurodiverse adults with a place to live, work and play while receiving clinical services and job-skills training.
Ashton and Betts McCombs founded SLS Community in 2016. Their daughter, Anna, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum with pervasive developmental disorder at 2 years old. The family had difficulty finding services for Anna in Arkansas and placed her at institutions elsewhere in the country. Along the way, the couple met other families who similarly struggled to find services for their loved ones with neurodivergence.
Ashton McCombs III died in November 2021 from a malignant brain tumor. His son, Ashton McCombs IV, is now executive director of SLS Community.
Ashton McCombs IV said the "philosophical bend" of the project is toward inclusion, understanding and relationships between neurodivergent adults and the community at large.
"We want to intentionally create a community that, through partnership, brings together housing, services, clinical care and employment opportunities weaved throughout a supportive neighborhood that cultivates positive interactions between neurodivergent adults and the broader community," he said.
Betts McCombs said there was a time after her husband died when she wasn't sure what would happen with the project. But a robust support network spanning public, private and philanthropic sectors stepped up to keep the dream alive, she said.
"While my future changed enormously, this hasn't," she said. "It still has the same fire to make a difference."
The city was awarded $3 million last year in federal community project money at Womack's request to pay for a sewer connection running through the property.
The city also plans to build an access drive to the project from Cato Springs Road that would connect to Kessler Mountain Regional Park. Its estimated budget is $3.48 million using money from the economic development bond issue voters approved in 2019 and other city sources.
Infrastructure work is scheduled to start before the end of the year. The total project will likely take 10-15 years to develop, said Matt Zakaras, lead developer on the project.
"I think what we hope people see is that the development integrates well with the surrounding landscape," he said. "We're trying very hard to do that, to be intentional with that."
Conceptual drawings created by the Office of Strategy and Design in New York were on display at the ceremony. They showed rows of homes; a commercial area; outdoor spots for recreation and leisure; and facilities providing medical and basic services.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is planning an outpatient multispecialty facility focused on the health and well-being of neurodivergent adults, according to a news release from SLS Community. Specialty medical and allied therapeutic services will be provided, with accommodations for the special needs of the neurodiverse population.
Womack said supporting the project was an easy sell. He said he believes his 4-year-old grandson, diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, will benefit from it. However, Womack got involved in securing financial support for the project before his family knew of the diagnosis.
"Economic development is economic development," Womack said. "But when you can impact people in such a profound way, like how the SLS Community is about to do, it is particularly a source of personal pride to be involved in something like that."
Jordan marked the day as the start of one of the most significant economic development projects to ever happen in the city. The city has always been a welcoming one, and that includes neurodiverse residents and their families, he said.
"It is significant because it's striving to tackle a significant issue, and that is ensuring our neurodiverse residents get the health care, job-skill training, employment and housing opportunities they deserve," Jordan said.
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Source: SLS Community