FORT SMITH, Arkansas — President Donald Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure investment over ten years that he said would rebuild American cities and create millions of new jobs. Here in Arkansas’ second-largest city, where Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016, residents eagerly await details of a bill and see it as key to turning their fortunes around.
Fort Smith holds a Gallup poll distinction most cities want desperately to avoid — its residents reported the lowest well-being of anywhere in the United States, in part due to 12,000 manufacturing jobs lost here since 1999. Locals say the most devastating closure was the shutdown of the iconic Whirlpool factory, which at its peak employed 4,500 people.
But the mayor and other community leaders insist that the tide is turning. An out-of-town developer that targets distressed communities, Phoenix Investors, recently purchased what was left of Whirlpool’s facility and plans to redevelop it. Other businesses are opening and making improvements around the city.
But local boosters are looking to one infrastructure project in particular to provide a massive jolt to Fort Smith’s economy: the completion of Interstate 49, which when finished would stretch from New Orleans to Canada.
“We’re ready for them to start moving dirt,” says Ivy Owen, who leads a multi-state coalition pushing to complete the project.
Today, Fort Smith is home to an unconnected six-mile stretch of highway funded in part by President Obama’s stimulus bill that opened in 2015. It is flanked by new development and green road signs proclaiming it “Future Interstate 49,” but on both sides, it dead-ends.
For around $3 billion, the government could complete Interstate 49 in Arkansas and create an uninterrupted 1,700 mile trade corridor that runs right through Fort Smith, something supporters say would transform the city’s fortunes.
In a chopper flying over the lonely six-mile stretch of the highway, Owen said he believes Trump can get it done.
“Mr. President, you campaigned on jobs. Finishing this highway will produce jobs.”