Fort Smith (AR) Regional Chamber of Commerce – Economic Development & Marketing Strategy

ChallengeLocated in the heart of the Arkansas River Valley, the greater Fort Smith area faces a number of challenges common to manufacturing dependent communities: relatively low levels of educational attainment, out-migration from the urban core, an under-performing downtown, and the ever-looming threat of layoffs and plant closings. To address these challenges, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce commissioned TIP Strategies, Inc. to prepare an economic development plan and marketing strategy for the five-county region. Early in the course of this project it became clear that there were systemic issues facing the River Valley, issues that both compromised the ability to recruit new industry and that threw a stark light on economic vitality.

ApproachAn assessment of the region’s economic position helped identify available opportunities and pressing challenges facing the River Valley. To maximize participation, we held workshops in Fort Smith, as well as regional Town Hall meetings in Van Buren, Arkansas, and Poteau, Oklahoma. Our work was also informed by focus groups with representatives from education, major employers, retailers, local developers, and economic development organizations.

At each of these meetings, the following questions were aired:
What challenges face the River Valley?
How well is the region positioned to cope with these challenges?
How can the region position itself for long-term success?

A project website, including an on-line survey, was also used to solicit input. In addition, the team surveyed more than 60 companies in the five-county region (including 45 manufacturers), to ascertain barriers to growth and opportunities for expansion.

OutcomeStrategies outlined in the plan provided a framework for economic growth and helped define the River Valley in the minds of businesses and residents throughout the region. Key recommendations included leveraging the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith, capitalizing on development opportunities along the Arkansas River, working with the local redevelopment authority to maximize the re-use of Fort Chaffee, and positioning the region to capture outward expansion from Northwest Arkansas. The community’s response to the River Valley planning effort has already been positive; a fund raising campaign undertaken by the Chamber after the plan’s release raised more than $4 million—double the original target.

TIP Contact Jon Roberts

Photo credit Chris Litherland

Photo credit peggydavis66