Fort Smith (AR) Regional Chamber of Commerce – Entrepreneurship Center

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. The region is also competing for businesses with surrounding areas. Bentonville (Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters), Fayetteville (home to the University of Arkansas’s premier campus) and Little Rock (the state capital) have seen considerable success in business attraction. To address these challenges, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the city of Fort Smith and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, commissioned TIP Strategies to assist in the planning and implementation of a new innovation and entrepreneurship center. The project was funded under a federal grant administered by the Western Arkansas Planning & Development District.

ApproachThe creation of an innovation center was one of three significant proposals put forward in The River Valley: At the Tipping Point, a regional economic development plan prepared by TIP Strategies for the chamber and its allies in 2005. To help make this recommendation a reality, TIP worked with regional leaders to conduct focus groups, hold community forums, and survey the local business community in order to define the specific needs the center would address. Based on this information and our understanding of entrepreneurship, TIP assisted the steering committee in a number of tasks, including creating a legal structure for the entrepreneurship center, developing a 3-year business plan and 12-month budget, creating an entrepreneurial infrastructure, identifying a site for the center in downtown Fort Smith, recruiting a full-time director, and creating a board of advisors from leaders in the community.

OutcomeThe Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center of Fort Smith (the IEC) is a joint effort of the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith (UAFS), the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Fort Smith, and reflects their collective commitment to building a robust regional economy. Housed in space donated by a major local bank in downtown Fort Smith, the IEC serves as a one-stop shop, event and meeting space, as well as a place to “plug in” with extra work spaces for entrepreneurs in the area. Under an agreement with UAFS, the center’s executive director is an employee of the university. This arrangement creates stability for the organization and benefits the executive director by providing a stable salary, benefits and support.

The Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center serves the Greater Fort Smith Region through:
1. Coaching: one-on-one coaching for your business, large or small
2. Connections: local, state and national resources to help you with your business
3. Capital: information on available capital sources within the region

The IEC is an important asset for the greater Fort Smith area and continues to serve as a valuable model for the rest of the state.

TIP Contact Jon Roberts

Photo credit Adam Bartlett

Photo credit Lance Hawvermale

Photo credit Justin Cozart