Is an indoor sports complex something Fort Smith needs? The Fort Smith Advertising & Promotion Commission is poised to find out.
The A&P commission approved $7,250 toward a feasibility study for an indoor sports facility at its April 27 meeting. In order to have the necessary funds for the study, the commission needs to chip in $7,500, so the question will return to the board at its meeting Tuesday (May 25).
“I made an error and thought we needed $7,250. I’m not sure why. We need to amend it to $7,500,” said Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau.
If the amended funding is approved, it will be combined with $7,500 from the City of Fort Smith as the matching funds for a $15,000 50-50 matching grant from Arkansas Tourism for the money necessary for a study by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, an advisory and planning firm based in Minneapolis.
Jacobsen said Arkansas Tourism has a grant available for attractions and facilities that has matching funds up to $15,000. The money would be completely conditional on whether or not the Fort Smith A&P received the state grant, and they will not know whether they will receive those funds until July, when the department’s new fiscal year begins.
Jacobsen said Arkansas Tourism offers the grants each year. In 2019, there were three funding cycles with those receiving grants being notified about 45 days after the application deadline of their award. No one applied for the grants in 2020 because of the pandemic, Jacobsen said.
“I tried to get one when I first got here, but they told me that while it was true no one had used any of the funds in 2020, I had missed the application deadlines,” he said.
Jacobsen said City Administrator Carl Geffken had confirmed that the city would put in $7,500 for the study if the grant is received. Jacobsen said he feels an indoor sports facility will spur economic development to complement the Fort Smith Convention center and other amenities downtown and along the riverfront area.
“I believe it would work in conjunction with the convention center, not be competition,” he said.
The convention center has the capacity for meeting, feeding and breakout sessions or meeting, feeding and exhibits. An indoor sports facility could add to that by allowing the meeting, eating and breakout session at the convention center while exhibits could be at the other facility, or other combinational use of the two facilities, which could work to bring bigger conferences to Fort Smith, he said. The facility could be used for basketball, volleyball, concerts, weddings and much more.
“Everyone knows about cheerleading, dance, volleyball, those. But wrestling is the fastest growing indoor sport for tournaments. There is so much more out there,” Jacobsen said.
He said there is a void of this type of venue from Colorado to Tennessee, and Fort Smith needs to look at the feasibility of having one before Little Rock, Fayetteville or Springdale.
“If we’re going to do it, we need to do it before someone else does. There will only be the need for one,” he said.
Jacobsen said his research has shown that a 150,000-square-foot facility would cost about $40 million. He said he has no idea how that will be paid or whether the facility should be private or publicly funded, private owned or city owned, and if city owned whether a management company should run it. Those things, he said, are topics for the feasibility study.
Bill Krueger with Conventions, Sports & Leisure International outlined a proposed scope of work and associated fees for the study in a March 16 letter to Jacobsen. Krueger said the feasibility study would take “a multi-faceted, market-based approach that focuses on the specific needs and characteristics of existing and potential new sports tourism and other amateur sports facility user groups, both from a local and non-local perspective.”
Among other things, the study would include primary local market research, an analysis of industry trends, program and site analysis and cost analysis and economic impact. The study should take 12 to 14 weeks to complete and cost about $30,000, Krueger said. Conventions, Sports & Leisure International expects to complete the study in 12 to 14 weeks, according to Krueger. Total expenses associated with the services he proposed wouldn’t exceed $30,000.
Jacobsen knows of Fort Smith’s history and failure with an outdoor sports complex, but said this would have no correlation because the concept that will be studied is an indoor sports complex.
Former Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, and Fort Smith businessman Lee Webb partnered to build the now defunct River Valley Sports Complex in 2012, and in 2014 they convinced the city of Fort Smith to invest $1.6 million into the project. The project was to be a tournament-quality softball complex with eight softball fields, two concession stands and associated parking. Acting on the advice of Geffken, the Fort Smith Board nixed the sports complex plan effective Jan. 31, 2017, after more than two years of delays on the project.
In 2017, several lawsuits were filed by the city and subcontractors over the unfinished RVSC. Files would eventually be found guilty of wire fraud and money laundering related to use of about $27,000 in state General Improvement Fund grant money for the sports complex. The city spent $1.8 million on the project and incurred about $100,000 to $200,000 in legal fees associated with the project. In January 2020, the board approved the sale of 68.15 acres of property at Chaffee Crossing formerly designated for the complex to XFED Commercial Properties for $210,273.