A Simple Idea

By Jefferey Spivey
Photos: American Ramp Company

Fort Smith, a city of approximately 88,000 people, sits along the Arkansas River and is best known for its historical attractions—the National Historic Site’s military exhibits and buildings, the Massard Prairie Battlefield Park, and the Chaffee Crossing Historic District. But thanks to the recently opened Riverfront Skate and Bike Park, Fort Smith will forge a new reputation—a premiere destination for skating and biking enthusiasts across Arkansas and the rest of the United States.

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The park opened to great fanfare, with close to 2,000 people in attendance and several local businesses on hand at the October celebration. Together, Frontier Engineering and First National Bank raffled off 20 bicycles for children in need. Champion Cycling also provided bicycles for attendees who wanted to test out the park. Boardertown Skate Shop & Park gave away skateboards and additional prizes. Several attendees competed in bicycle time trials and free ride skate competitions, with prizes donated by Kip’s Kids Fund and the Tony Hawk Foundation.

Even beyond the grand opening, the enthusiasm for the park remains high. “The amount of usage of this park is beyond anything that any of us could’ve imagined,” says Bobby Aldridge, P.E. of Frontier Engineering, Inc. Aldridge was a key player in the construction of the park, from inception to execution.

The community has now welcomed the park with open arms, but initially, it was nothing more than a simple idea.

A Burst Of Inspiration
There was a clear need for new facilities for Fort Smith’s skating and biking enthusiasts. “Some of the local businessowners said they’d like to see something like [the park] at the riverfront,” says Doug Reinert, Director of Parks & Recreation for Fort Smith. The original plan was to remodel the city’s existing skate park at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, but First National Bank President and CEO Sam T. Sicard had a burst of inspiration.

“He and his son had been to Oklahoma City, to their adventure park,” Aldridge says. “And they really liked the pump track idea.” Pump tracks are off-road terrain trails designed to be ridden by cyclists who “pump,” or create forward momentum through up-and-down body movements.

Sicard saw the pump track as a unique way to attract people to the riverfront. Once talks began with local officials, the idea grew. But it was the involvement of local entrepreneur and startup investor Steve Clark that pushed the group to get creative. Clark was involved in developing The Unexpected, an art festival and series of installations that span downtown Fort Smith.

Next, Aldridge reached out to John Hunter of American Ramp Company to discuss the specs of the park. Members of several local interest groups also made suggestions for the park. And soon the project swelled into 13,750 square feet of asphalt and concrete.

“It started off to bring the pump track and give the kids in downtown Fort Smith something to do. And then it developed into a destination point,” Aldridge says.

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The $1.3-million project was financed through Sam Sicard, the city of Fort Smith, Steve and Jamie Clark, and the Walton Family Foundation. Private donors also contributed.

The funding was used to create a skate and bike park that’s unlike any other athletic facility in the country. Among its many features, Riverfront Park houses a bicycle playground, skills-challenge tracks for beginners, intermediates, and experts, and a skate park. Even more unique is the fact that the space is fully lit. “To our knowledge, there is nothing like that anywhere else at all,” Aldridge says.

The park also features unique art, like a painted steel arrow, which can be skated, a plexiglass wall that can be skated or biked, and a vertical installation of a concrete state of Arkansas.

Hiccups Along The Way
The Riverfront Skate and Bike Park was originally slated for an August opening. However, it was pushed back to October due to some uncharacteristically bad weather and problems unique to the site.

“We found a sinkhole. We had to fill the sinkhole in, and we had to cap it so that everything wouldn’t settle and things would remain where they needed to be,” Reinert says. The site was once the home of debris piles from a devastating 1996 EF-3 tornado that destroyed historic buildings and residences in Fort Smith and neighboring Van Buren.

A significant part of beginning construction on the park involved excavating the site and removing massive pieces of leftover debris that no one expected to encounter.

But now the park is part of an ongoing effort to develop the riverfront. The U.S. Marshals Museum, a $50-million project already under construction, is set to open in September 2019. Fort Smith’s downtown is also home to the recently expanded Greg Smith River Trail. And there’s still more potential for the area to grow and take on additional projects.

“We have a vast, blank canvas along the Arkansas River that has untold potential,” Aldridge says.

Reinert echoes that sentiment. “We’re trying to promote more walkability, more bikability,” he says. “We’re trying to achieve connectedness. There’s a lot of space that wasn’t being utilized at all. We’ve got a lot to offer.”

Looking Forward
Aldridge confirms that the next phase, which is already funded, will involve adding nearly 7,000 square feet of bouldering activities for all ages and skill levels. Additionally, the Walton Family Foundation has pushed for a more advanced pump track. The goal is to become a full-fledged adventure park.

However, even without those additions, the park has become a symbol of community pride.

“The users don’t just drop the trash. They actually take care of themselves and each other,” Reinert says. “If there’s trash, they go pick it up. They don’t feel like they’re entitled to the space. They feel like they’re part of the space.”

Surely that sense of ownership will continue to grow as the park expands.

Reinert adds that, since the opening, “There hasn’t been a single day that it hasn’t been skated on, even in the rain.”

What started as a burst of inspiration has become a must-see for biking and skating enthusiasts and a new catalyst for Fort Smith’s growth.

Jefferey Spivey is a freelance writer living in Bentonville, Ark. Reach him at jefferey@uptownbourgeois.com.