UAFS officials working to expand business development, workforce training in 2021

With the Peak Innovation Center set to open in August and work moving along on the UAFS facilities at The Bakery District in downtown Fort Smith, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley believes 2021 will be an exciting year for the university.

UAFS at The Bakery District will become the new home for UAFS’ Center for Business and Professional Development and the Family Enterprise Center, both are now housed in the Flanders Building.

The Bakery District is a developing hub for community events at 70 S. Seventh Street, in what was the 1920s-era Shipley Baking Co. The UAFS facilities there, which are expected to be open and operating by fall 2021, will focus on business, training, consulting and economic development in the Fort Smith region.

The Family Enterprise Center “serves as a regional catalyst for the bedrock of our community, the family in business,” and the Center for Business and Professional Development provides customized training/consulting for area business and industry and professional development opportunities, the UAFS website states. Riley signed a memo of understanding (MOU) with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock early in December to have an Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center at the site as well. All the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Centers have to be associated with a university.

“UALR was watching these appointments happening in Russellville, and … more than half of these appointments were coming from Fort Smith or Van Buren. … And they are having to go all that way,” Riley said. “As entrepreneurs they want to save every penny they have and every bit of time they have towards building a business plan or applying for a small business loan or doing professional development to know how to run this business, to hire people, to know how HR is run. … They have to spend time and money to go learn how to do this, and it just didn’t make sense when we are the second largest city in the state.”

UALR and UAFS created a partnership to have a center in the UAFS facility at the Bakery District. UALR will use some CARES Act funding to provide for the first year all of the salary, startup cost, travel, etc. for the person to run the operation. UAFS will provide the space, administrative support, utilities, etc. Starting in year two, the two universities will split the cost, Riley said. The acting dean of the UAFS College of Business, Dr. Latisha Settlage, will supervise the position, who will support Sebastian, Crawford and Scott counties.

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley

The UAFS space at the Bakery District will allow the university to provide non-credit training for blue-collar workers and C-Suite executives “where the people are,” Kendall Ross, director of the CBPD, has said. Plans for the UAFS space include 10 offices upstairs in the building with a large meeting area and smaller workstations and collaborative space. Downstairs there will be a large conference room that can be divided into two classrooms, one large enough for 45 students, and the other for 75 students.

Riley said the idea of having space in The Bakery District is attractive because it allows the university to take some things off campus and put them where they really belong, where they will be most accessible to anyone who is external to the campus, not a normally registered student, faculty and staff. It allows them to locate these things where people are really confident and comfortable and also has “a ton of synergy with the other things happening (downtown.)”

The Peak Innovation Center will be a collaboration between Fort Smith Public Schools and UAFS. Fort Smith Public Schools officially broke ground on the Peak Innovation Center Dec. 7. The center will be a regional career and technology center with a focus on instructional strategies within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines.

Fort Smith voters in May 2018 approved a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, raising the millage rate in Fort Smith from 36.5 mills to 42 mills. The new rate was expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. The millage plan also included the $13.724 million career and technology center, now the Peak Innovation Center, featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

In February 2019, the estate of William Hutcheson Jr. donated the former Hutcheson shoe manufacturing building at 5900 Painter Lane to be the Peak site. The 181,710-square-foot building that sits on almost 17 acres at the corner of Zero Street and Painter Lane will save the district at least $3 million that had been budgeted to buy an existing building for the career center.

In January, Gov. Asa Hutchinson pledged $2.1 million in state funding from the Office of Skills Development (OSD) of the Arkansas Department of Commerce to be used for advanced manufacturing equipment for the center. It was announced in September 2019 that FSPS will receive a $1.4 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) to help build the center. On June 4, the Gene Haas Foundation announced a $1 million grant for expansion of the computer integrated machine lab at the center.

“Because of community support, the Peak Innovation Center will deliver cutting-edge career and technology education for high school students across 22 regional school districts, as well as district-specific visual arts programming,” FSPS administrators have said of the center.

Students attending the center will receive a hands-on approach to career-focused curriculum and programming taught by UAFS faculty as an extension of the Western Arkansas Technical Center.

“Programming will provide students access to state-of-the-art equipment and industry exposure. Students will receive a direct connection to career opportunities in Western Arkansas, and those who successfully complete these courses have the ability to earn a competitive salary upon high school graduation and will be better prepared to thrive in college,” a press release on the ground-breaking said.

After renovations, the facility will be 160,000 square feet with the availability for future expansion on the 17 acres, the district said. Phase One learning space will be approximately 80,000 square feet with a facility and equipment investment of $20 million, according to the school district.

“We have a number of (public school) students who graduate from high school and do not go on to higher education experience…, we knew we had to do a lot more to support them. But we also support 22 school districts with our WATC program,” Riley said.

Phase One programs at the Peak Innovation Center will include advanced manufacturing, information technology and healthcare sciences serve the following school districts: Alma, Arkansas Connections Academy, Arkansas Virtual Academy, Booneville, Cedarville, Charleston, County Line, Fort Smith Public Schools, Future School of Fort Smith, Greenwood, Hackett, Johnson County, Westside, Lavaca, Magazine, Mansfield, Mountainburg, Mulberry/Pleasant View, Ozark, Paris, Scranton and Van Buren.

“In the background, we’re aligning the curriculum, hiring faculty members to teach in the programs, helping them to get accreditation for those programs to start in August. It’s been quite a process,” Riley said.

UAFS has been part of writing grants and raising funds for the Peak center and has been part of “every step of the process,” she said. And the university leadership is excited about its opening in August, Riley said. With both new locations opening in the fall, the university will be able to expand their workforce development reach to better serve the entire Fort Smith area, she said.

“We are super excited about the addition to the workforce development plan we have as an institution,” Riley said. “A huge strategy will be accomplished in 2021. … Two major developments: a new place to offer career and technical education and a new place for our workforce development. I am so excited. These are cool places to be.”

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UAFS officials working to expand business development, workforce training in 2021