After Tip Top Western Wear closes, what will happen to the buildings it leaves behind?
The closure of Tip Top Western Wear will not just leave a hole in the local retail scene, it leaves another hole in the middle of a downtown Fort Smith that is already pocked with vacant buildings.
Tip Top, which has provided an abundance of boots, hats, jeans and belts since the 1940s, will shut down at the end of March. The closure leaves behind three adjoined buildings under 512 Garrison Ave. and a fourth at 518 Garrison used for storage.
“That business has been around a long time. It’s been around since I was a child," said Kelly Newton, owner of nearby Newton's Jewelers at 701 Garrison Ave. "I used to go down there with my father and my grandfather.”
While Owner Sam Wald did not say all the reasons that led to the closure, he said less manufacturing of western wear during COVID-19 was one of them. Wald previously said e-commerce had cut into his profits, which worsened during the pandemic.
The closure adds another empty space — or four, depending on how the properties are counted — to the 22 empty properties in the Garrison Avenue area, according to 64.6 Downtown records. The empty spaces downtown comprise an estimated 118,264 square feet, roughly half of which is in the 11-story Garrison Building that towers over the thoroughfare. A group planned in 2016 to renovate the Garrison Building but the project never came to fruition.
Tip Top will only add about 8,000 square feet to the empty space downtown, but it will have a larger impact than its square footage lets on because of its storefronts on Garrison, said 64.6 Downtown Director Talicia Richardson.
Richardson also believes the sale of the space presents an opportunity for downtown.
“The way I like to look at things with downtown is, what can we do to make it better? What can we do to take it to the next level?" she said.
Uptown Courtyard at 901-911 Garrison Ave., for example, will add living and retail space to the east side of Garrison Avenue with 12 upstairs apartment spaces and a courtyard.
The push for retail
Downtown options have diversified in recent years, but Wald and others believe retail is still possible in the space.
Belle Starr Antiques & Vintage Market owner Beth Price, who has spoken in the past about adding more retail to the area, said she would "love" the space to keep that purpose. While downtown Fort Smith has seen an advent of bars, restaurants and coffee shops in recent years, it has proven retail can coexist with and even benefit from food and beverage businesses in certain settings.
Price pointed to the Bakery District, where Fort Smith Coffee Co. has helped business at Kindred Roots plant store.
“I hope we can continue to grow and evolve in this way — a combination of both, because I think that offering all of these amenities for patrons, whether they are living downtown or shopping downtown, I think playing off of each other is essential," said Price, a member of the Downtown Business Association.
Richardson agreed that downtown needs more retail, adding she would like to see a local business use the space. If this happens, they need to harness e-commerce to compete in the market, she said.
Richardson said a developer could divide the building into separate business spaces or put lofts in the second story. She also said a large commercial retailer could move into the space and become an anchor for the downtown area.
"There are many opportunities and many ways we can look at this closure," Richardson said. "I take the stance of, this could be an opportunity for downtown development."
Keeping Tip Top a retail space would pay homage to downtown's past as a shopping hub. Wald remembers the 1970s and 1980s, when Garrison Avenue had large retailers like JC Penney alongside his store and other local businesses like Newton's and Rik's Shoes, which are still in business.
Wald wasn't ready to put a price on the buildings this week and also wasn't ready to discuss the possibility of selling the three storefronts separately. But he said the buildings "will be for sale" for potential buyers.
But he has doubts about finding a retailer to use the space in downtown, which he said has become "more an entertainment district."
“I wish we were one big building instead of three small buildings, but that’s just the way downtown Fort Smith is," he said.
But Wald also said Tip Top, which is in a former theater and furniture store, could easily be transformed into anything a buyer would want it to be. The hall with the store's main entrance holds a high ceiling above the drop ceiling and office space that used to be a stage.
“It’s a large space, a great location," Newton said. “I would feel somebody would be inclined to jump on that as soon as they could.”
'We're doing one thing at a time'
The future of the Tip Top buildings is unclear, but downtown shareholders are anticipating what's to come.
Price hopes the new owner is someone "who's motivated, who's dedicated to downtown, who is wanting to further contribute to our community here." She said the person, brand and work behind the scenes are what makes a business.
"I want to see the individuals who want to contribute, and again, play off all of us," she said.
Richardson said 64.6 will support Wald as needed.
But for now, Wald and his son, Tim, are mainly focusing on liquidating the store and selling merchandise, 70% of which had been sold Thursday.
“There’s a lot of decisions to be made, and we’re doing one thing at a time," Sam Wald said.
Price is sad about Tip Top, which she called a "beloved institution" in Fort Smith. Many of her customers came to Belle Starr after coming to town specifically to shop at Tip Top.
Wald expects the reality of the closure to set in on Memorial Day weekend when he usually gets traffic from the parade on Garrison and residents showing their grandchildren the town.
Nonetheless, he is hopeful for the future of downtown.
“I see people remodeling buildings, I see people wanting to live downtown or in close proximity," Wald said. "There are some developers that have done a great, great job."