Fort Smith to Commemorate Bicentennial in 2017 with Year-Long Celebration

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It is a celebration that will be nearly three years in the making … well, more accurately 200 years in the making. The City of Fort Smith will turn 200 on Dec, 25, 2017, and city officials plan to mark its bicentennial with a year-long series of festivities and special events.

Mayor Sandy Sanders announced tentative plans for the 200th birthday celebration in conjunction with the unveiling of Go Fort Smith in early February. He noted that a committee had been formed for the project and the group wanted to use the milestone as a way to “highlight the unique stories about our past and to recognize and celebrate the impact on our history by real people.”

Festivities will formally begin in December 2017, the city’s 200th birth month.

“It was Christmas Day that year that when Major Bradford and his troops disembarked here and began constructing Fort Smith,” said Sanders. “Our goal is to have some sort of event on that day, even though it is a major holiday. We just aren’t sure what that will look like yet. We are open to ideas.”

The year will be divided into four quarters that each emphasize various aspects of the city’s history. The first will include a showcase of the arts, which will involve the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum (RAM). Executive Director Lee Ortega, who serves on the bicentennial planning committee, will collaborate with the group to encourage regional artists to use their talents for the celebration.

According to the Go Fort Smith website [2], the first quarter will highlight the city’s “rich culture of arts and history.” During these months, organizers’ focus be “on bringing life to artifacts and exhibits that make up our past, present, and future. We will also focus on uncovering new artists and talents based right here in Fort Smith.”

“We are also hoping to involve groups such as the Fort Smith Symphony and other art-centered organizations from January through March,” said Sanders. “We encourage creativity for this project and believe that these groups will be instrumental in kicking off the celebration in a unique way.”

The second quarter will center around Fort Smith’s remarkable history. Tying in perfectly with the existing Western Heritage Month activities in May, April and June festivities will complement with other “True Grit” special events. Leisa Gramlich, Fort Smith Museum of History executive director, also serves on the committee and will play a key role in shaping the organization’s activities to highlight the bicentennial.

“In addition to special exhibits at the Museum of History, it is our hope that businesses, particularly those downtown, will embrace the theme and decorate store fronts for the occasion or dress in Old West costumes,” said Sanders.

“Coming Home” will be the central idea of the third quarter, with an emphasis on former Fort Smith residents returning to visit during the typical summer vacation months. The annual Mayor’s Fourth of July Celebration will be the cornerstone event of the quarter.

“We are encouraging former Fort Smith residents to return home during this time and for locals to host gatherings and family reunions,” said Sanders.

The bicentennial year will conclude with a spotlight on Fort Smith’s “Promising Future.” According to the group site, “We love where we’ve been and where we are at. It’s easy to focus on who we were, but during these months we will be focusing on where we are going. We will explore what the future holds for you and our great community.”

“We want people to think to tell us what they think Fort Smith will look like in the future,” said Sanders. “This might include a parade with futuristic floats, cars of the future, etc. Different people will have different visions for the city’s future and we want to learn what those are. It is a great way to wrap up a year focused on our rich history.”

A major component of the bicentennial celebration will be involving the public and gathering ideas from Fort Smith residents on how to mark the milestone birthday. The Go Fort Smith website and social media channels will be heavily used to gather ideas and resources for the project. They will also be utilized in promoting events and advertising activities.

“We want to hear from the public on this and get their thoughts for how to celebrate our 200th year,” said Sanders. “We have an outstanding committee in place, but the more people thinking about this and coming up with creative ways to celebrate, the better.”

Sanders and the planning team have already capitalized on the talents of several local students and individuals in organizing the project. Local businessman and designer Mason Kesner was invited to serve on the committee and share his skills to provide digital services for the bicentennial celebration. The group also partnered with University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, recruiting Professor Bryan Alexis’ graphic design students to submit logo and material designs to be used throughout the campaign.

Three finalists presented their designs to Mayor Sanders and the committee, with one, Leo Padilla, ultimately chosen for his work. Comprised of a five-pointed star, the logo was designed to serve as a reflection of Fort Smith’s history and its future. In his statement regarding being selected for the honor, Padilla noted, “I am extremely proud to be a part of such a wonderful city, and even more excited to participate in its new chapter. It is my hope that this logo will help direct the city of Fort Smith into the future while representing our heritage and pride across the great state of Arkansas and our nation.”

Sharing ideas has been made simple with an easy to complete form located on the home page of the Go Fort Smith website. Individuals, groups, and businesses can utilize the tool to tell what they would like to see happen and to communicate their plans for the different quarters.

“We want to see businesses, individuals, non-profits, schools, civic groups, and others take part in this event,” said Sanders. “We are still in the very early planning stages, so it the perfect time to begin sharing ideas.”

Sanders and the committee will make more announcements in the coming months about the bicentennial as plans unfold.

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