FORT SMITH -- A unique project proposed to the city could take a lot longer to come to fruition -- if it all -- if voters decide not to continue a city sales tax.
Bobby Aldridge, president of the Fort Smith-based Frontier Engineering, presented the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation and Central Business Improvement District commissions a concept for a $4.8 million canopy trail and soft-surface trail project in May. The project would be located on 330 acres on Riverfront Drive by the Arkansas River, acreage Fort Smith city directors approved buying for $103,914 in 2018 from the Kansas City Southern Railway Co.
Doug Reinert, parks director, believes the project would be a "huge economic impact piece" attracting people to the community.
Frontier's concept cited a 2018 study by the nonprofit organizations Walton Family Foundation and PeopleForBikes that looked into the economic benefits of trail development in Arkansas. It stated bicycling contributed about $137 million in total economic benefits for the region in 2017. This included locals spending about $21 million on bicycles and bicycle goods, equipment and events, as well as tourists spending about $27 million.
However, Jeff Dingman, deputy city administrator, said during a June 15 Improvement District Commission meeting all the park money the city has to spend coming in with the remainder of its 1/4 cent sales tax for parks and fire service has already been dedicated to the department's five-year capital improvement plan. He said for more money to come in to pay for projects in the plan, either the sales tax would have to be renewed or other sources of money would have to be found.
Reinert said the department gets half the proceeds from the tax, or 1/8 cent, which goes to pay for projects, capital equipment and indirect and operating costs outlined in the capital improvement plan. The tax began in 2012 and is due to sunset Sept. 30, 2022.
Reinert said other funding sources the park department would probably seek out if residents don't vote to renew the tax would mostly include grant opportunities for specific projects and private donations, in addition to partnerships with local businesses.
However, Reinert said such avenues are "harder to come by." Without the guaranteed money coming from the sales tax being renewed, the department won't be able to address as many wants and needs from the community at once. The department would primarily focus on repair and maintenance, and its capital improvement projects would be considerably slowed.
"We can address a lot of issues with the 1/8 cent sales tax, but those issues will be farther and farther down the road if it doesn't get renewed," Reinert said.
Dingman expressed hope longtime residents can remember when the Parks Department didn't have a dedicated money source with which to carry out projects.
"I mean, yeah, parks projects got accomplished, but they were slow and few and far between kind of things," Dingman said. "And so what the sales tax has allowed us to do is to accelerate a lot of projects and make a good improvement to our parks and trails and facilities that people in the community can use."
Reinert said the Parks and Recreation Commission will have to vote to add the canopy trail and soft-surface trail project to the Parks Department's capital improvement plan for it to move forward. The amended plan will then be presented to city directors for its approval.
Should the project be incorporated into the plan, but the sales tax isn't renewed, Reinert said the lack of money the city could allocate toward it would result in the project taking much longer to build, leading to disappointment in the community. As it stands now, it's just a concept.
"It's not been designed, there's been no engineering drawings, none of those things," Reinert said. "If there's enough money to actually design it, then it could be designed and then put on a shelf until we have the funding source for it, or it could just be the concept and it gets put on a shelf and not designed or not anything. It could just be an idea that just gets put on a shelf and then we'll pull it out later if somebody wants to tackle that capital improvements project."
The biggest part of Frontier's concept is .85 miles of canopy trail, meaning a 6-foot wide elevated boardwalk allowing users to see what's going on among the trees and have an aerial view of the ground below. The feature would make Fort Smith home of the longest canopy trail in the country, although longer examples can be found in Europe, according to Aldridge. The current longest American canopy trail, in Midland, Mich., is about a quarter-mile in length.
The canopy trail part of the project would also feature a viewing observation area on the edge of the river, along with a gathering space and a play space with a tree house. The plan also includes about 5 miles of multi-use soft-surface trail, boardwalks, and a bridge on the north side of the property, among other things. Visitors would be able to access the soft-surface trail at various points from the nearby Greg Smith River and Rice Carden trails.
Aldridge estimated it would take about 18 months to build the canopy trail portion of the project and about six-12 months for the soft-surface trail. The $4.8 million cost estimate for the project, of which the canopy trail comprises more than $3.8 million, doesn't reflect any maintenance costs. Private money would be necessary to make the project happen at any level.
"Our public sector is just simply not capable of building and maintaining a project of this magnitude, and it's not possible if we can't find private funds in order to do this, no matter what the costs are," Aldridge said.
Dingman described the canopy trail and soft-surface trail parts of the concept as two projects. He said while the soft-surface trails would be feasible to program into the Parks Department's capital improvement plan, especially if voters decide to extend the sales tax, the expense of the canopy trail would likely require the city to pursue outside money sources or help from other entities to accomplish.
The Parks Department's capital improvement plan for 2021-25 estimates receiving more than $2.77 million from the sales tax annually should it be renewed. It estimates receiving just more than $2.08 million in 2022 if voters don't continue it.
The Parks Department received $839,761 in grants and other outside contributions in 2020, and more than $1.5 million this year, according to the plan.
A date for an election to renew the sales tax hasn't been set yet, according to Dingman.
Fort Smith sales tax
The city’s current tax rate is 9.75%. 6.5% goes to the state, 2% to the city and 1.25% to Sebastian County. Of the city’s 2%, 1% is dedicated to streets, drainage and bridges; 0.75% is for redemption of sales and use tax bond issues; and 0.25% is for Fire Department and parks operations, as well as capital projects.
The 1.25% for Sebastian County is split between 1% for public safety, public library, park capital maintenance, senior citizen programs, downtown development and projects, public transit and privilege license replacement; and 0.25% for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Source: Fort Smith Finance Department