Removal of about two dozen park benches from downtown Fort Smith by the city administration is being met with both condemnation from some and acceptance from others as part of a long-range effort to alter homeless activity.
Park benches were taken out during a new round of Double Up Food Bucks funding — a boost for local farmers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants.
The market is at Second Street and Garrison Avenue downtown next to the Park at West End.
According to Amanda Pereira, the farmers market’s assistant manager, the park bench removal had a "negative impact" on turnout and participation for the SNAP program that is largely used at the local farmers market by the elderly and disabled.
“We get a grant each year and this year we got it late,” Pereira explained. “If we’d known the city was going to take out the benches we could’ve planned to have some other benches here … That’s the main problem with this. There was a lack of communication and there’s no excuse for it. There’s no reason for there to not be a notice.”
Pereira has asked the city to replace at least three of the benches that were paid for by the Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID) Commission specifically for the farmers market. She has not received a response. Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman told the CBID last week the benches were city property.
The farmers market is now open Saturdays only, 7 a.m. to noon, through May, when it will again be open on Tuesdays. Private donations allowed the market to buy six park benches to be used during market hours. A Halloween event will be held Saturday at the farmers market.
According to Karen Santos, communications director for the city of Fort Smith, the park benches were removed Sept. 27-28. Complaints from a downtown business owner coincided with a “cleanout” of what’s known as the “south camp,” a homeless camp along the Arkansas River.
“Large on our radar was the big ‘south camp’ cleanout — months in the planning, involving several partner authorities and multiple city departments — set to begin on Tue., Oct. 2, after our final coordination meeting, which was set for Mon., Oct. 1,” Santos wrote in an email. “Part of the months of discussions and planning involved preparing for the people who would be displaced — where they would migrate, what were the considerations and implications, and how to manage it for all concerned.”
Pereira noted that if the “south camp” removal was months in planning the city should have had time to give notice to all parties involved before the benches were removed.
When she called the Fort Smith Parks & Recreation Department to ask why the park benches had been removed, Pereira said she was only told that the order came from City Administrator Carl Geffken after a business owner complained. There was no mention, she said, of a long-range plan to manage the homeless population.
“If this was in the works, there was plenty of time to tell people so they’d know about it,” Pereira said. “Why was this not discussed with the Fort Smith Board of Directors, or with the CBID, or the Farmers Market?”
When asked how long the city planned to remove the benches, Santos wrote, “it was a suggestion submitted to City Administration on Tue., Sept. 25.”
Around Sept. 25, the city administration also met with 64.6 Downtown to plan and coordinate the grand opening of the new Skate & Bike Park downtown, and the Unexpected public arts festival.
Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, said this week amid the activity of the Unexpected festival the organization was not going to take a stance on the park benches. However, she said the city is in a “difficult situation” regarding management of the homeless population and encouraging economic development and engagement downtown.
“I think we can find a way to coexist,” Richardson said. “I encourage people to come downtown and look around. I’m excited to see the farmers market brought benches out.”
James Robertson Jr., a local homeless man who stays at "south camp," said Monday he was not opposed to the removal of park benches downtown because he has seen "drunks" sleeping on them at times when he needed to sit for a rest after walking back from working at the Fort Smith Stock Yards in Moffett.
Robertson also said the city should give the Police Department better resources to deal with those who violate public intoxication laws.
"Set them in jail until their court date, so they get a hard sober-up," Robertson said.
Eric Hahn, a fellow "south camp" resident walking on Garrison with Robertson near the farmers market on Monday said he also approval of the park bench removal.