Fortifiers: Steve Clark
Unexpected is a descriptive word that entrepreneur Steve Clark has embraced as a brand. It’s the name of the unlikely art festival he sponsored and presented last year that covered the walls of downtown Fort Smith with street art created in a few days by artists from around the world. It was wildly successful. “Unexpected” also describes the challenges he faced when he decided to bring a landmark building back to life.
At this interview, held in the corner office of the newly completed Friedman-Mincer building, he explained that the first time he saw it, the third floor where he was now sitting was pancaked down onto the second floor. The roof had collapsed; so had most of the third floor. While the previous owner had been gutting the building for an intended renovation, the collapse drove up its projected cost so much that demolition was imminent.
Clark turned to qualified architects and engineers for a bold and admittedly expensive solution: to fortify the building with an interior steel structure and preserve its historic exterior. It is now a building within a building.
It also is an active address, as of last month. One floor down, some 40 local staff members of Propak Logistics Inc. are fully operational, having been transplanted, over one weekend, from their former suites on Rogers Avenue to Friedman-Mincer. Clark commended Propak’s tech team for achieving the transfer of digital services with only minimum down time.
In adjacent, glass-walled offices, Propak CFO John Cooley and vice president Brandon Cox direct the logistics company, which has about 1,500 employees nationwide at facilities in 19 states (and growing). Propak serves all of North America. Although Clark founded the corporation in Fort Smith, he could have chosen almost any other U.S. city for its headquarters.
Between tall windows that overlook Garrison Avenue from one side and Rogers Avenue on the other, Clark has seen a stream of visitors in recent weeks for intense conversations around the vision for Fort Smith this resurrected building represents. He has engaging, even provocative, ideas to discuss.
Disrupting – in a positive way
“I would love for what is now unexpected to become the expected for our city and for Garrison Avenue,” said Clark, adding that he knew the inaugural street art event last year would be provocative, even disliked, by some people.
“To me, it was this great social experiment and it had to be of highest quality. That’s what I talked with Charlotte (Dutoit, the curator of the festival) about. We had to get the best the world has to offer.”
As the enormous images of fanciful insect beings and even an almost obnoxious mole quickly emerged on the walls of downtown buildings, Clark heard some of the reactions he had anticipated: Why such an ugly animal? Why not historical subjects? What does this have to do with Fort Smith?
When the murals were finished, however, it was as if everyone, collectively, “got it.” Thousands of people of all ages walked through downtown as if awakened all in one weekend – smiling, bicycling, skateboarding, strolling, taking selfies in front of the murals and talking with the international artists.
“I will say in all sincerity, Fort Smith rolled out, supported them, loved on them, gave them insane Southern hospitality, if you will,” Clark said about the artists of the murals. “They loved it.”
A Google search proves that The Unexpected put Fort Smith on many maps, not only in the art scene. It also served as an image lift for the city. That’s a short-term benefit the town will or won’t fulfill for itself, Clark said.
“If you desire to be a progressive city, you have to do the things progressive cities do. If you’re not prepared to do it, that’s fine, but you just can’t get your feelings hurt if things don’t go your way,” Clark explained. Personally, he chose to make a long-term investment in downtown Fort Smith.
“These things aren’t free and they don’t happen by accident, so what I try to tell folks is that parts of our city will take care of themselves because of location but some are so important that we have to be much more deliberate.”
Downtown is that important, he said.
“To me, Garrison Avenue has to have walkability, quality of life, quality of space, quality of place. You can’t have the kind of city you want without a healthy, vibrant downtown. To me, this is as much about economic development – the foundational element of not just attracting but keeping the talent we need; keeping the businesses here. This has to be a desirable place not just to visit but to come and live and move your business and stay.”
Leverage – and how to use it
Does Clark think his investment will influence other businesses to start new ventures here? “Well, that would be awful presumptuous,” he said, pointing out significant projects by others such as Griffin Properties and Lance Beatty’s renovation of the former Masonic Temple, nearby.
“Let’s think about it like this: mass creates gravity; gravity attracts. If we create a space that people want to be, then people will be there. If people understand that parking concerns downtown can be overcome; that within a few block of here are six good restaurants ... am I levering people? I’m pitching every day. Absolutely, I see some people coming along.”
He anticipated the next question. “Are we just rearranging deck chairs, just moving from one area to the other? My counter to that is that if someone is looking to move, we’re probably not their only option. If we convince them to move to another area of Fort Smith and stay, I view that as a big gain.”
Unexpected – with high expectations
Another art festival will happen this year and it will match or exceed the effect of the first event, Clark said, but with different expectations that also reflect on his reasons for reviving the century-old building.
“I want everyone to own it. I don’t want people to ask me if we’re going to have food trucks. I want the food trucks to believe they should be there, and drive in and do it. Are we gonna do a chalk walk this year? I don’t know. Whoever did it last year needs to think about if they want to do it. Not my deal,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is create the ecosystem that fosters this organic creativity.”
He has conceived, and heard, many worthwhile proposals, commercial and cultural, to keep up the momentum toward a richly attractive, well-designed downtown.
“Part of my thought process is that I won’t live long enough, if things happen in a linear fashion, to see what I want to see. We have to be very strategic about disruptive events like The Unexpected or rallies or festivals. I’m not trying to be northwest Arkansas – they’ll take care of themselves. I’m trying to be the best version of us that we can be. Uniquely us.”
By Lynn Wasson
This article appears in the April issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.
Photos by John Cross and article, ©Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine