Chaffee Crossing

Where it came from, and where it’s going

Posted: November 5, 2017 at 1:13 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Chaffee Crossing Illustration

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Chaffee Crossing Illustration

It was an important day in the history of western Arkansas. On Sept. 30, 1941, ground was broken between Fort Smith and Barling for what would become Fort Chaffee.

War seemed imminent. The U.S. Department of War was determined to double the size of the U.S. Army and had paid almost $1.35 million to 712 property owners for 15,163 acres in far western Arkansas.

Maranda Radcliff wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the land purchases were from "families, farms, businesses, churches, schools and other government agencies. ... It took only 16 months to build the entire base. The first soldiers

arrived Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The installation was activated March 27, 1942. From 1942-46, the 6th, 14th and 16th Armored Divisions trained there. During World War II, it served as both a training camp and a prisoner of war camp. The major purpose of the camp was to train soldiers for combat and prepare units for deployment. But from 1942-46, there were also 3,000 German POWs there. The creation of the camp caused the nearby town of Barling to experience a tremendous boom in housing and businesses."

The camp was named for Major General Adna Chaffee, a World War I artillery officer who was an early advocate of using tanks in battle.

The 5th Armored Division called Chaffee home from 1948-57, and the name became Fort Chaffee in 1956. Field artillery operations moved to Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 1959. In 1960-61, the 100th Infantry Division was headquartered at Chaffee.

"In 1961, Fort Chaffee was declared inactive and placed on caretaker status, though it was reactivated again later that year and on several other occasions through 1974," Radcliff wrote. "During the Vietnam War, the fort was used as a test site for tactical defoliants like Agent Orange. From 1975-76, Fort Chaffee was a processing center for refugees from Southeast Asia. The facility processed 50,809 refugees of the Vietnam War, giving them medical screenings, matching them with sponsors and arranging for their residence in the United States."

Fort Chaffee would continue to be in the news from time to time.

It was in the news beginning in May 1980 when Cuban refugees who had been picked up at the port of Mariel were sent to a resettlement center there. The refugees rioted and burned two buildings, an incident that Republican Frank White would use successfully against incumbent Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton that year. White stunned Clinton in that November election. By 1982, 25,390 Cuban refugees had been processed at the facility.

It was in the news in 1987 when the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center began operations there. The center moved to Fort Polk in Louisiana in 1993.

It was in the news in 1995 when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the closure of Fort Chaffee. Several ranges and training areas were kept as a subinstallation of Fort Sill. The federal government declared 7,192 of Fort Chaffee's 76,075 acres as surplus property and turned them over for redevelopment. The remaining acreage was given to the Arkansas National Guard.

The change-of-command ceremony took place on Sept. 27, 1997. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was established to redevelop the almost 6,000 acres that had been turned over for non-military use. The rest of the land became part of the Arkansas Army National Guard Joint Maneuver Training Facility.

In 2007, economic developer Ivy Owen moved from Mississippi to become executive director of the Fort Chaffee Development Authority. He had more than four decades of experience, including seven years with the Mississippi band of Choctaws.

A story about Owen in this year's edition of America's Defense Communities said the developer "made friends with the tribal chief who cared more about what he could do than where he was from. He spent many nights in community meetings with an interpreter translating his smart growth and new urbanism concepts and how they could benefit the tribe."

"They were already pretty successful with a lot of industry, two huge casinos and two championship golf courses," Owen told the publication. "They were also pretty clannish and didn't like outsiders coming in and telling them how to design and implement a land-use program. It took seven years, but by the time I left, the council had approved the first smart-growth plan for the area adopted by any tribe in the nation."

Construction crews seem to be everywhere at what's known these days as Chaffee Crossing.

"I never would have believed it 10 years ago," Owen says as he sits in his office in what once was one of the base buildings. "You could have fired a shotgun through here in 2007 and not hit anyone. I think people in this region are finally seeing that this is really happening. The redevelopment of this acreage isn't just a pipe dream anymore, and they know that. The thing that helped us most was when work began on the extension of future Interstate 49 through our property. People finally saw dirt flying around out here, and it was exciting."

Companies with large facilities at Chaffee Crossing include ArcBest, Walther Arms, Phoenix Metals, Mars PetCare, Affinity Chemical, Graphic Packaging and Glatfelter. New subdivisions are springing up among the businesses. There are 24 neighborhoods already finished or planned, and Owen says there soon will be 2,300 housing units (ranging from apartments to single-family homes) on the grounds. Chaffee Crossing is now marketing itself as "the economic engine of western Arkansas."

In June, employees began moving into the ArcBest corporate offices that had been under construction for two years. The 200,000-square-foot four-story building will house almost 1,000 people. The project cost $32 million, and ArcBest purchased 70 acres from the authority to accommodate future expansions.

In August, the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine welcomed its first class of 162 students. In November 2009, Sparks Health System was sold for $136 million to a company then known as Health Management Associates. Once liabilities were settled, there was $62 million remaining in the Degen Foundation (Sparks' charitable arm that wasn't a part of the sale) account. Work began on a 102,000-square-foot three-story building in February 2015. It was finished at a cost of $34 million and will serve more than 600 students once all four classes are full. Students were recruited from across the country.

The 228-acre health complex eventually will include a 60,000-square-foot health sciences facility and two additional buildings. An anonymous $15 million gift that was announced this summer will allow construction to begin soon on the health sciences building. The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education--the parent of the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine--hopes to offer physician assistant, therapeutic doctoral and other master's and doctoral degrees once the new building is completed.

An 84-unit apartment complex was built adjacent to the medical school so students could walk to class. Additional neighborhoods and retail shops are expected to be constructed on the 228 acres as additional health programs are added.

Last year, Glatfelter, a Pennsylvania-based company, purchased the former Mistubishi Power Systems building for a facility that will produce absorbent papers used in personal hygiene and cleaning products. The project is expected to result in more than 80 jobs.

Last December, Mars PetCare announced a $72 million expansion that will result in 130 additional jobs for a company that already had 250 employees at Chaffee Crossing.

In 2012, 2016, and again this year, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority received the John Lynch Base Redevelopment Excellence Award from the Association of Defense Communities. Michael Cooper, the Association of Defense Communities president, calls Chaffee Crossing "one of the greatest redevelopment community success stories across the country." The authority says that total capital investment in the project is now more than $1.5 billion.

"We've just about run out of big pieces of property," Owen says. "We've been selling property so quickly that it's hard to keep up. We started out with just more than 6,000 acres, and we're now down to about 1,600 acres that we can sell. With more people living here, the next thing you will see is a lot more retail. Once we've sold all of the property, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority will go away and the assets will be split between Sebastian County, the city of Barling and the city of Fort Smith. That should happen in the next five to seven years. I can tell you that we're viewed across the country as a model for what should be done with closed bases. Things just came together for us in recent years. It has been the perfect storm."

The authority, which has more than $19 million in assets and less than $100,000 in debt, derives revenue from land sales, leases and even railcar storage. It partners with Fort Smith and Barling on infrastructure projects.

Judith Hansen of the Southwest Times Record told America's Defense Communities: "Everyone wondered whether Ivy would be able to pull it off, but he has been there the longest and done the most with it. Before he arrived, the land was so open and empty that I used to give my kids driving lessons out there. Now, there's manufacturing, light industry, retail, restaurants, housing, schools and nonprofits--and there's still so much building going on that, as Ivy will say, 'If you haven't been to Chaffee Crossing this week, it's as though you hadn't been there.' I don't know where folks are taking their kids for driving lessons now."

She said Owen "sought a variety of perspectives and was willing to consider different options that would benefit the people throughout the region, not just Fort Smith. He also had the patience to wait for the right opportunities to come along rather than just jumping into projects that wouldn't be the right fit."

"I can tell you that this has been the best 10 years of my career," Owen says. "The local officials and the members of the Arkansas congressional delegation have been great to work with. If they get that new bridge across the Arkansas River and Interstate 49 is completed one of these days, this will be some of the most valuable property in the state."

Editorial on 11/05/2017