Fort Smith lost an icon on Monday.
Monday afternoon, news began breaking that Bill Neumeier, a longtime restaurateur and concert promoter who helped launch the Peacemaker Arts & Music Festival, the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival and other musical series, died at 54.
Neumeier was the owner of a pair of stalwart dining locations — Papa’s Pub and Pizzaria and Neumeier’s Rib Room — and was considered the king of downtown Fort Smith. On his watch, the city has seen a resurgence of music and culture come downtown. Namely, he was instrumental in helping to establish both the aforementioned Peacemaker Arts & Music Festival and the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival, with each festival drawing acts like Jason Isbell, Hayes Carll, Gov’t Mule, Grace Potter, Rival Sons, Gary Hutchison & Kirby Kelley, and more, all while bringing revenue back into the city.
Talk Business & Politics reports that his family issued a statement Monday afternoon that said Neumeier died following a decades-long battle with depression.
The statement offers some history on his musical endeavors.
He “started out with a diner, Coney Island, which opened in 1988. In 1990, Coney Island added a Downtown Pizza Wagon service. In 1994, the diner and its patio became Coney Island Beer Garden at the same location, 817 Garrison, becoming a popular place for live music,” the statement reads. “In 1995, the Beer Garden hosted its first national touring act – Poppa Chubby. In 1996, Bill put up the Garden’s first “real” stage. Through his love of music and taste in bookings, he attracted an SRO audience. The crowds encouraged him to upgrade 817 Garrison Avenue as Neumeier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden in 2009, where he continued to serve his award-winning barbecue along with outstanding music. He moved pizza sales to 508 Garrison, establishing Papa’s Pub & Pizzaria.”
The statement further reports that Neumeier was also founder of the Riverfront Blues Festival, which he started in 1991 on a flat-bed trailer stage on the banks of the Arkansas River. Later, he joined with friends to establish the Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival, which began in 2015. He leaves a legacy of making Fort Smith known for outstanding festivals.
In 2015, Neumeier sold the 817 Garrison location and continued to operate Papa’s Pub & Pizzeria, according to the statement. He renovated 424 Garrison Avenue as a new Neumeier’s Rib Room, continuing to serve his popular barbecue. Naturally, live music began to happen on the Rib Room’s patio.
“While he was widely recognized as a downtown fixture, Neumeier was a private person,” the family said in the statement. “He did many acts of kindness, often through some intermediary, but those who received them understood the deep concern he was wordlessly expressing. He will be remembered as a creative force for music, dining and culture, always supportive of progress that would make his hometown – and downtown – a special place.”
It’s impossible for us here at Shindigmusic to overstate how important Neumeier was not only to Fort Smith, but to the entire region. He was an ambassador — without him, there is no live music in the River Valley. He was a talented, kind and generous man with an enormous passion for live music.
Our thoughts are with Bill’s friends, family and colleagues.