Today’s article deals with some things that are coming to our community in the areas of arts, education, economic development and ultimately quality of place. I hope you will read this carefully and share this information with all of your friends because what I’m talking about today is vitally important to our region. In fact, it is a game-changer!

Last week, Community School of the Arts hosted Mr. Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, in a meeting with the CSA board and then with corporate and community leaders. The purpose of his visit was to share about the importance of developing the arts within a community and to unveil the details and workings of something called an Opportunity zone.

In a nutshell, an Opportunity zone is a defined area of land or space where corporations and individuals can invest their capital gains funds to build facilities which will boost the economy of that community and create a stronger quality of place. By investing those funds, the company does not pay tax on those funds for as long as 10 years, and in some cases, there will be permanent exclusion from tax. This tax incentive relates to federal tax law which Arkansas is now taking advantage of.

Preston and his team at AEDC, along with our Gov. Asa Hutchinson, worked with leaders statewide to identify 85 zones. Hutchinson then named three of these zones right here in Fort Smith, including along the riverfront.

You probably remember the CSA announcement a few months back in which we shared that a gift of nearly 11 acres of riverfront land just north of the U.S. Marshals Museum was given to CSA by the Robbie Westphal family. The purpose of this gift is to build an arts education and performance facility that will serve children and youth from across the region. This state-of-the-art facility will have a three-fold mission:

• To offer arts-based preschool programs.

• To offer after-school arts programs for children and youth of all ages, levels and socio-economic backgrounds.

• To offer intense high school arts programs that work in connection with regional schools.

Through these programs, literally hundreds of students will come through this facility daily within a 60-80 mile radius. Cutting edge educational programs will be established and events, concerts, shows and festivals for the community will abound.

In addition, students, as a part of the school’s mission, will be actively involved in community service and outreach which means there will be wonderful collaborations across the area for all to benefit from.

So, our riverfront property is in ‘The Land of OZ’ and it has now become a magical place. It is a place where folks can invest their money tax-free, help build an arts school and begin creating a beautiful riverfront that many of us have dreamed about.

For me personally, building an arts school is about creating a place where children and youth can go to connect, develop their talent, build self-esteem, instill leadership skills and ultimately come out ready for life. That’s what the arts do for young people. It’s truly amazing!

Let me give you some information that will provide you with further insight into the Opportunity zone. If you will visit Facebook.com/CSAFortSmith, you may watch the session that CSA offered with Preston on June 11. The session lasts about 45 minutes. You may also go to rRoby@TalkBusiness.net and search for the April 29, 2018, article titled "'Opportunity zones’ could stimulate economic efforts in struggling areas of Arkansas." Also, visit the AEDC website for future updates about the Opportunity zones. Preston and Hutchinson will be talking further about these zones over the next months.

As I close, let me say a couple of things. First, Preston shared with us that his wife, Anne, attended a high school for the arts and it was that experience that has made her career as a national news anchor. In fact, she learned more about leadership in her arts high school than in any other experience. So, Preston encouraged our community to support CSA in the endeavor to build the arts facility. Second, Preston also shared the importance of creating quality of place — things that the arts provide like culture and entertainment. That’s what people and companies are now looking for as they move into a community.

Over the next few months, there will be a huge push for companies across the nation to invest in our Opportunity zones. It is a winning situation for all involved. Folks get to protect their money from taxes and our beautiful riverfront gets to be developed!

As everyone listened to Preston speak, the comment that kept coming up was, “This is almost too good to be true.” While it does seem that way, the reality is that Opportunity zones are incredible opportunities that have come to our city at this moment in time, and we all need to take advantage of them. So let’s get started!

Dr. Rosilee Russell is the founder/executive director of Community School of the Arts. Contact her at Rosilee.Russell@CSAFortSmith.org, call (479) 434-2880 or visit CSAFortSmith.org.