A Fresh District Rises

Aug 1, 2020 | People

[title subtitle=”WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGE K&W Properties”][/title]

Fort Smith’s downtown landscape got a whole lot tastier this summer with completion of the initial phases of the Bakery District. The one-of-a-kind project, seamlessly combining the city’s past, present and future in one stylish mixed-use development, celebrated its Grand Opening in June.

“Downtown Fort Smith is a beautiful historic area that has a wonderful stock of historic buildings that are untapped and untouched,” says Tom Hanna, portfolio manager for K&W Properties, which owns and developed the site. “One thing that was really attractive was this idea of creating a new development while retrofitting an existing facility.

“The whole idea behind the Bakery District is we really wanted to create live, work and play aspects to it, while also promoting walkability throughout the neighborhood. That’s another reason to be located downtown.”

The development, featuring roughly thirty-five thousand square feet of event and retail space and an additional twenty-five thousand square feet of open outdoor space, is unlike anything to be had in the downtown district. Gleaming white paint, exposed original brick and clean architectural lines offset striking murals on two antique silos, which were completed by Mexican muralist Hilda “Poni” Palafox through The Unexpected art project.

Two tenants, Fort Smith Coffee Co. and Bookish bookstore, quickly snapped up spaces in The Bakery District. Tom says negotiations with a third tenant, which he declined to name, were close to being finalized.

“The additional tenant is going take up ten thousand square feet,” he says. “That’ll be the final piece. Once we get those guys in here, we’ll be just about fully occupied.”

Considering the long history of the property, its newest chapter has happened with lightning speed. The Bakery District’s main structure was built in 1921 as the Shipley Baking Company which operated for seventy-five years before being acquired by Flowers Foods in 1996.

Flowers Foods operated it for a decade before shutting down in December 2006, only to reopen in February 2008, providing a glimmer of hope for the local economy and, more directly, nearly fifty full-time permanent workers. That hope was short-lived, however, as the operation closed for good in January 2009.

Meanwhile, right across the street from the historic commercial bakery, sat Hanna Oil & Gas headquarters, which gave Tom and his brother Griffin a front-row seat to the property’s later stages, including its shuttering and inevitable decline.

“This building sat vacant for a number of years,” Tom says. “It got to a point where there were weeds growing out of the walls and it was really an eyesore. We officed across the street and, after seeing the facility decay over a matter of years, we decided to look into acquiring the property.”

“We kept an eye on it for a few years,” Griffin says. “Finally, Bill Hanna, our father and the president of Hanna Oil & Gas, said if they’re not going to keep up with cleaning the place and inhabiting the place, maybe there’s an opportunity to buy it.”

So began a protracted negotiations process with the property’s owner that took years to finalize, Tom says. But as it turned out, purchasing the plat was only the beginning.

“It took us a few years to decide what we wanted to do with it,” Tom says. “The facility itself was absolutely stunning. It had original brick walls and was the classic construction of the 1920s and ‘30s that you can’t find anymore. The quality of the workmanship is superior to anything built these days. So, we knew we wanted to do something with it, we just weren’t sure what. It’s been an evolving process.”

The Hanna brothers may not have known precisely which tenants would ultimately fill the place (some of the original ideas included a brewery and a pizza restaurant, both of which fell through) but they knew exactly the kind of vibe they wanted to create. It was a vision crafted out of personal experience growing up in Fort Smith.

“As a Fort Smith native, I remember in high school there was nothing to do. There were no places to hang out for kids that age,” Tom says. “There’s always been a population of younger families and younger people within Fort Smith, but real estate developers have not really catered to them. There’s always been this gap in the development to where there’s either bars or playgrounds. There’s really nothing for that in-between age.”

Griffin says the project went through as many as ten different designs before settling on its current configuration. Along the way, the developers solicited input from the city to help gather ideas of how the Bakery District could fill holes in the downtown area.

“Working with the city, we let them tell us what the space needed to be, as opposed to us being visionaries and trying to do it all on our own,” he says. “Concept-wise, I would say we’re way out in front because I don’t think there’s many people in Fort Smith who have developed a space to this level. But by no means would we say we were visionaries or that we invented the wheel.

“This [type of development] is done in a lot of other communities and it’s done very successfully. It serves almost like a social gathering hub with the coffee shop community adding a really unique sense of culture to the space. It’s a hangout where you don’t have to drink and that’s a unique communal space for Fort Smith. So, while I wouldn’t say this is a completely new idea, it’s fairly new for this community.”

Innovation always carries a certain amount of risk but Jordan Dart, K&W Properties marketing intern, says the Bakery District strikes all the right notes with twenty-somethings such as herself.

“I’m a student at UA Fort Smith and I know a lot of young people who want to leave Fort Smith after they graduate,” she says. “Whether they’re looking for a job or want to start their own business, they don’t really see Fort Smith as a great place to do that.

“The Bakery District is attractive for young people and can put that possibility in their mind early on where they can see themselves living downtown, owning their own business or working downtown. The Bakery District is going to spark that interest and keep people here instead of losing them to larger cities around us like Fayetteville, Tulsa or Dallas.”

The Hannas aren’t finished with the neighborhood just yet. Tom says next up is to add a taproom and after that, refurbishing an adjoining building the company owns into apartments within the next eighteen months. All told, the projects will completely reimagine a slice of downtown once thought destined for the rubble heap.

“Downtown Fort Smith, in recent years, has been a little down and depressed. I’m really happy to be a part of something that provides a space for all ages,” Tom says. “We’re betting on downtown Fort Smith. We foresee a great future ahead for this area.”

The Bakery District
63 South 6th Street, Fort Smith, Arkansas


Do South Magazine

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