Rod Coleman, developer, sees a new culture at Chaffee Crossing.
Rod Coleman would be more accurately shown on video – he’s always talking, always in motion. He waves his long arms, too, describing concepts, reaching over to pat his wife, Kathy’s hand, or pointing to a plat map of his next real estate development project at Chaffee Crossing.
All over that map are the precise shapes delineating property his company already has, or will soon, develop into new neignborhoods. ERC, his family-owned company, has likely put more lines on that map than any other developer.
One reason is because Chaffee Crossing is in his backyard. With his father, Ernest R. “Buddy” Coleman, for whom the company was named, Rod grew up and attended elementary in Barling, Ark.. The year he was born, his father began buying property and developing neighborhoods. When Rod stepped up to CEO in 1985, ERC was growing quickly through both local and regional projects. Rob Coleman is the third generation, now developing ERC’s newest branded communities called Thrive in northwest Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
“My dad was the first chairman of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority in 1998,” Rod explained. “That was not a fun time, because anytime you begin to give birth to anything that includes so many people - Barling, Fort Smith, Sebastian County, Greenwood – it’s hard to get them all on the same page. We’re talking almost 20 years. It’s like raising a child.”
He agrees that a daily presence of almost 300 students and faculty at ARCOM is a tipping point in the population who daily live, work or attend school in Chaffee Crossing.
“Community” is not just a promotional description any more. “It’s good for him to see that,” he said of his dad, respectfully.
People, relationships among them and their quality of life are foremost to the chairman of ERC. “Experience” is what the development company’s leaders, employees and its marketing all describe. In Rod’s case, planning with the end human experience in mind (rather than only the houses that will be built, or streets that will be paved) is genuine. It’s his passion.
He immediately grasped this magazine’s interest in the cultural influence that a fully developed Chaffee Crossing may have. His opinion, naturally, is the cultural change will be in the style in which people will want to live – in denser, intentionally planned neighborhoods and on smaller lots with slightly smaller homes.
“People will begin to understand that this will work and also is very acceptable in view of land saving and cost saving,” when they see designed development of that style at Chaffee Crossing, he explained. “It’s just a conceptual change from living in 5,000 square feet on a big lot.”
To experience the satisfaction of knowing your neighbors, walking not driving to a restaurant or nearby market – or to work – enjoying common outdoor spaces, more people are going to live a bit closer together, said Rod.
“These are the things that have got to happen,” he said. “We’re doing this.” Chaffee Crossing is not the only part of Fort Smith where denser living and mixed-use development are happening.
“We have to change the concept of how we live. For you or me to go and live in 1,500 square feet in downtown Fort Smith is something a lot of us would have never considered, but Rodney Ghan has done it and is having a blast,” he observed of a friend, another visionary, local developer. (Ghan’s home is a second floor residence in a renovated, former commercial building off Garrison Avenue, recently finished.)
Every study by every planning consultant, Coleman noted, every decade, recommends a mixed-use concept that draws people closer.
“We’ve got to make this stuff mesh together,” he continued. “Kyle Parker, ARCOM, sits over here with (a future) 1,000 students. Those students will ride a bike or walk somewhere to do something. We don’t want a spread-out city or ‘this is the mall, separate from this is where you live,’” he said. Design for the rest of the college’s acreage, which densely mixes retail and residential, exemplifies concepts ERC also will increasingly develop, he said.
Kathy identified another demographic that is beginning to embrace this new lifestyle – theirs.
“People who are 55 and over and who are looking to downsize like it,” she said. “They love this idea - live here, eat here, have a glass of wine at a restaurant patio, walk the trails with their grandchildren.” Developers and home builders at Chaffee Crossing are in sync with Fort Smith’s walking trails master system, Rod added.
A lifelong resident, he can name off a cohort of family-owned businesses he credits with “keeping Fort Smith going.” Some heads of those businesses were his Northside High School classmates; others are friends through business, his church life or volunteer work such as Partners in Education. Their companies employ 50-100 people, he said. “Because they stayed here, they had an impact.” Retaining their second and third generation is key, as well as welcoming new residents. He keeps in touch with a wide circle of influencers whom he regards as positive forces.
“Fort Smith has the opportunity to have two bookends to a story: downtown Fort Smith, which is very important to the success of this area, and Chaffee Crossing. Some people think they play against each other – but they don’t.”
Currently, ERC has roughly 160 more acres to develop at Chaffee Crossing. “We have developed that much already,” he said. “This is acreage that we own, bought or have optioned with the trust. We have a lot of opportunity.”
He acknowledges that developing at Chaffee Crossing will probably occupy the rest of his working life. Rod embraces the challenges and unique nature of participating in the conversion of the 7,000 acres of Fort Chaffee into part of Fort Smith and Barling, his dual hometowns.
“I like to be identified with it,” he said. “It is going to be the future of Fort Smith.”