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Northwest Homegrown 3

Breathing New Life into Fort Chaffee

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In a nondescript building on the east side of Fort Smith, a group is adding fuel to the “economic engine of the state.” Housed in a World War II Commander’s Office, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority is working tirelessly to make the most of the land they’ve been given.

chaffee historic distric bannert

The area now known as Chaffee Crossing was originally part of Fort Chaffee Army Base in Fort Smith and Barling. Established in 1941, Fort Chaffee has served as an army training camp, a prisoner of war camp, and a refugee camp over the years. In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) included Fort Chaffee Army Base. The closure of the base resulted in the majority of the land being leased to the Arkansas National Guard, and 7000 acres being given back to the community. “The purpose was to redevelop this area to replace the jobs and revenue lost in the BRAC closing,” said CEO and Executive Director Ivy Owen.

After the base had closed, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) was created in 1997 to oversee the development of the property. It’s the only economic development trust in the state, making it a unique area.

The group started with their 7000 acres, and they began master-planning the area including industrial, residential and public use. Owen came along in 2008 during the recession, when economic growth had stalled. However, Chaffee Crossing didn’t follow that trend. “After the first piece of property sold, it hasn’t stopped. It grew all during the recession. We had property sales; we had development. We had highways being built, streets being built. It just hasn’t stopped. It has kept snowballing and snowballing, and I’ve just sat back and watched it.” At this point, only 2200 acres are left open. He explained, “Some people think we’re a city. We get calls from people asking who the mayor is.” Chaffee Crossing belongs to the cities of both Fort Smith, Barling and Sebastian County.

The FCRA is seeing their plans come to life as this area is booming. It’s now home to 14 residential developments with 1600 homes and the amenities residents use daily including new gas stations, restaurants, banks and parks.

For the communities, they’ve brought in industry and jobs. “We were charged with getting the property back on the tax rolls, redeveloping it with something physical on it that would generate taxes for both of these cities. We were also tasked with replacing all the jobs that were lost in the BRAC closure. We did that in a year or two. Now we’re up to about 1300 jobs that we’ve created here.”

The industrial area in Chaffee Crossing is home to over 120 businesses including Mars Petcare, Umarex USA, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Current construction includes a new headquarters for ArcBest Corporation, scheduled to open in the next year. It will house 850 employees of ArcBest corporate, ABF Logistics and Panther Premium Logistics.

One of the most exciting projects is the construction of the proposed Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, scheduled to complete construction this spring. The FCRA donated 200 acres to the project, allowing them to being construction quickly.

medical school

Other projects that are in progress include a new Mercy Clinic, a new home for the Montessori School of Fort Smith, the new Fort Smith Brewing Company, and a mall. Owen explained that the locals were very interested in the progress of the mall. It was moving right along a couple of years ago, but progress stalled when the landowner died. However, her family is moving forward, and excavation will begin in the next few weeks. Owen said that most of the spaces in the new mall are already leased – so be on the lookout for announcements in the future!

The FCRA is seeking to preserve the history of the area along with stimulating new growth. There are 45 buildings in Chaffee Crossing that are on the National Register of Historic Places. Forty-two of those include WWII barracks.

fort chaffee barracks

There used to be many more barracks and historical buildings here, but they burned in two fires which consumed over 260 of the historic buildings. Small businesses are currently using several of the barracks, and they are hoping more will move in soon. Tax credits are available for rehabilitation and renovation of these buildings. They hope the Fort Chaffee Historic District becomes a cherished part of the area “That’s a part of Fort Smith’s heritage we wanted to keep,” Owen explained.

Two museums here give a glimpse into the history. The Vietnam Veteran’s Museum highlights those who served and the Chaffee Barbershop Museum is where Elvis Presley got his famous G.I. haircut.

barbershop museum

They also recently received a grant to preserve and renovate the barracks where Elvis stayed, so the Fort Chaffee Barracks Museum will be open soon featuring exhibits on the American soldiers, WWII German P.O.W.s, Cuban and Vietnamese refugees who called Fort Chaffee home over the years.

Part of the land was designated for public use which included parks, wetland restoration and preservation, a landfill, and also creation of the 1-49 corridor through the area. From April 2008 until it opened in July 2015, there was daily construction on the new interstate. The plan is for I-49 to span from New Orleans to Winnipeg, and Owens reports that only seven segments are unfinished. Of course, here at Chaffee Crossing, they’re most interested in the two surrounding segments – 13 miles from Barling to Alma (crossing the Arkansas River), and 180 miles from Fort Smith south to Texarkana.

Future plans include widening roads and extending utilities. The FCRA works in close collaboration with the cities of Fort Smith and Barling, along with Sebastian County and all projects are split between the development trust and the city. It’s a great partnership. Owen explains, “We have a great relationship with both cities. We work very closely with both cities. They’re easy to work with.”

As the development of this area continues, they estimate completion in eight years or so. Owen said, “I want it to become an area for both cities that the entire populations of Fort Smith and Barling can be proud of. Proud that this is a new development area of ours that we’ve expanded. We grew, and look what we’ve done. Look what we have. I want this to be a place people come to work, play, worship and go to school. We’re just working like the dickens to make that happen.”

For more information on the Fort Chaffee redevelopment, visit and see it for yourself, or find the FCRA online.

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Arkansas Women Blogger member Brittney Lee is a native Arkansan with a love for bright lights and big city. She often escapes her 20-acre home south of Fort Smith to shop, eat, and catch a concert in the big city. She blogs about her life, her faith, her adventures, her dogs, and her country home at RazorbackBritt.com.

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3 responses to “Breathing New Life into Fort Chaffee”

  1. […] on the El Dorado Court square, the museum with “Bauxite teeth”, or even the barber shop where Elvis got his first military haircut. Even beyond that, our state is full of fantastic antique stores and flea markets (believe me, […]

  2. […] Presley sat in the chair under the scissors of Jimmy Peterson at the Army barracks barbershop at Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith, Arkansas, many people feared the haircut would hurt the famed musician’s blooming […]

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