On the Rise

WORDS Bob Robinson
IMAGES courtesy The Bakery District

Mar 1, 2023 | Featured, People

It’s been over one hundred years since the Shipley family built the structure in downtown Fort Smith, Arkansas which was home to Shipley Baking Company for three generations, from 1921 to 1996. The facility continued under new ownership until 2006, closing permanently in 2008, where it then sat, largely abandoned for ten years.

When the aging building was purchased in 2016, owner Bill Hanna and his family’s plans for the site were wide open and largely unknown. The building, located directly across from Fort Smith Convention Center, came as is, with baking equipment still in place. In the months that followed, Bill, and his eldest son Griffin, explored the site and began brainstorming ideas for its use that would go far beyond baking bread.

These explorations drew them into the building’s past. Bill and Griffin respected the storied history of three generations of Shipley’s operating the family-owned business and they knew immediately, regardless of the ultimate use of the site, they wanted that history preserved. In keeping with that desire, the site became known as The Bakery District.

The first order of business was a major cleanup, but not a complete facelift. The exposed brick of the worn floors and the chipped plaster on the walls would remain, but the building did receive updates to the sound, lighting, and HVAC systems. As cleanup progressed, areas were opened for local organizations to host activities. The overwhelming response from the community drove Bill and Griffin’s first directive, to create the 8,000-square-foot Collection Room Event Center.

To best plan the next stage of renovations, a whiteboard was posted on the Collection Room’s wall, asking visitors to list businesses they wanted to see at The Bakery District. The top request was a coffee shop. Griffin, a regular customer at Fort Smith Coffee Co. in downtown Fort Smith, began discussing the possibility of opening a second location at The Bakery with coffee shop owner, Kaity Gould.

Kaity was on board as their original location was literally bursting at the seams and a second location would give them the space needed to increase production. She also liked having a large casual area for patrons to gather. To the enjoyment of many, Fort Smith Coffee Co. opened their second location at The Bakery in June 2020.

The next business to join The Bakery District family was Bookish, Fort Smith’s only independent bookstore. Owner Sara Putman knew the spot next to Fort Smith Coffee Co. was the perfect space to relocate her bookstore, which she did in August 2020.

During this time, Bill and Griffin also began converting an adjoining wing of the building into a 5,800-square-foot outdoor patio to be shared among The Bakery District community. Lachelle Warden, property manager at KMW, and Rham Cunningham, also known as the Director of Fun for The Bakery District, have worked together to fill The Bakery’s social calendar rotating food trucks and entertaining activities such as trivia night, disc golf, bocce-ball, shuffleboard, ping pong, live music, open mic nights, and other seasonal events.

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It didn’t take long for Bill’s two other sons, Sam, and Tom, to join The Bakery team. The brothers’ millennial vibe was right in line with Bill’s overall vision, and they were eager to lead further restoration plans. This added manpower was helpful when University of Arkansas Fort Smith (UAFS) Chancellor Dr. Teresa Riley visited The Bakery District in search of space to house the Center for Economic Development (CED).

“We had been considering a move to a downtown location for some time,” explained Kendall Ross, Executive Director of the CED. “We were just waiting for the correct opportunity.” Kendall worked with the Hanna’s to redesign the 10,000-square-foot space while maintaining the original plan to preserve the industrial feel of the former bakery. One example of this preservation is seen in the repurposing of the bakery’s beautiful, original hardwood floor, now utilized as a backdrop wall for the reception area.

Opening their doors in April 2022, the Center for Economic Development created office space for their employees, three classrooms with seating for thirty-four, plus a training area that accommodates 120 people. The move has been a success for UAFS, having hosted sixty-nine events over the last six months designed to advance area businesses and individuals’ career goals.

Along with the original Shipley building, KMW Properties also purchased the adjoining Willard Smith attorney building. When brainstorming plans for developing the structure, one idea was a co-workspace environment. The team noticed how many people worked from their laptops in the coffee shop or outside on the patio and Tom had experienced similar environments when living in Denver, Colorado. “The Bakery District community is trying to target the collaborative economy,” explained Tom. A collective workspace was a natural progression for many in the community to grow their ideas, and so, the development of The Mill & Exchange became the next chapter in The Bakery District story.

Bill invited his friend, Phil White, who has renovated buildings in downtown Fort Smith since the mid-70’s, to partner on The Mill & Exchange project. Phil and the Hanna brothers began to envision how the new project could contribute to The Bakery District community, even traveling to other cities for ideas on how to best create this collaborative work environment.

While Tom demonstrated his passion for real estate and development, handling the day-to-day work with contractors and laborers, Phil believes his major contribution was the design flow. ”We wanted to present a unique experience, visually and emotionally, that hasn’t been seen in Fort Smith,” Phil stated. It was Phil who pitched the idea to turn the back of the building into the front to tie the new project in with the rest of The Bakery District community. Another one of Phil’s ideas was to create a hole through the second floor to allow for an atrium with a beautiful twelve-foot crystal chandelier at the entry staircase. The architectural influence from Phil and Kelly Wilson of Beshears Construction, greatly contributed to blending the old with the new to accomplish the professional industrial look they sought.

Located on the second floor of the building, co-workspaces at The Mill are fully outfitted. Whether you are a student, a budding entrepreneur or an executive, The Mill offers a range of membership options including a day pass, social memberships, dedicated desks, as well as private offices. Membership includes office amenities such as conference rooms, printers, mail service, patio space, kitchen, and free fresh coffee. A cost-effective option for small businesses, The Mill’s open workspace environment is an excellent hub for inspiration and creativity.

The Exchange occupies the first floor and basement. The first floor is organized as an open-market space, no separating walls, with businesses complimenting one another in a collaborative environment. As of this writing, the businesses that will occupy The Exchange were unknown, but Tom believes they will be selected with the goal of serving the fresh food needs of the downtown community.

The basement was designed to be a single open space or two separate areas using a pullout divider wall. Stoned Epicureans has located production of their nutritious microgreens and Spicy Salt, a hot pepper blend of natural sea salt, to one of the spaces as they scale up distribution across Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and northern Texas. Bookish will relocate in early spring to another space inside The Bakery to provide customers with an entry from South Sixth Street. That space will become Concourse at The Bakery, filled with rotating art exhibits.

So, what’s next for The Bakery, perhaps a residential concept? There is still much planning to do and ideas to be developed, but one thing is certain, The Bakery is once again on the rise.

70 South 7th Street, Fort Smith, Arkansas
479.522.3999 | bakeryfs.com
Follow The Bakery District on Facebook.
Find more photos at DoSouthMagazine.com.

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