Fort Smith Mayor George McGill looked back at challenges Fort Smith conquered over the years and toward what he believes is the city’s bright future. He spoke during his State of the City address Wednesday (Feb. 6) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
The address was hosted by the UAFS chapter of the American Democracy Project and the university’s political science department.
“The state of city is strong, very strong. We are strong. We’re proud, and we’re getting ready to move forward,” McGill said of Fort Smith, noting that the city has been around for 200 years and during that time has faced many challenges that could have hurt the city but Fort Smithians persevered.
“There is something about us that makes us strong,” McGill said. “The resilience of the people of Fort Smith is second to none. Through the peaks and valleys of our collective existence, we have shown an incredible amount of grit and stoicism in the face of adversity.”
Two of the challenges McGill noted were the closing of Fort Chaffee and the closing of Whirlpool.
“(When Chaffee was closed), people thought we would die,” McGill said. “Fast forward, and we are now a strategic piece of the U.S. Armed Forces with the 188th Air National Guard. The mission it has is phenomenal.”
The 188th, an Air Guard unit based in Fort Smith, changed in June 2014 from a manned flying mission to an unmanned mission. The 188th’s three primary missions are Remotely Piloted Aircraft (MQ-9 Reaper); Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); and Targeting (Space-Focused). According to the Air Guard, the unit has an annual impact of $40 million on the local economy.
Likewise, when Whirlpool closed its Fort Smith plant and moved those operations to Mexico, the impact was hard on Fort Smith, but now almost all of those jobs have been recovered, McGill said.
However, federal data still shows the region has not fully recovered lost jobs. While the Fort Smith metro jobless rate fell to 3.4% in November from 3.5% in October, the number of jobs in the region continues to decline, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Regional employment totaled 113,337 in November, down 1% from the 114,539 in November 2017 and down slightly from 113,521 in October. The November employment is down 12,089 jobs from peak employment of 125,426 in June 2006, a drop of 9.63%.
McGill said the entrepreneurial spirit of many of the residents have kept the city bursting at the seams with opportunity and enterprise and noted, spotlighting both Mars Pet Care and Glatfelter for taking a chance to bring operations to Fort Smith.
He also drew attention to Fort Smith’s medical community, noting that most people would be overjoyed to live in a city with a medical resources as strong as the city’s and congratulated Mercy Fort Smith for now having two neurosurgeons practicing in the city.
McGill also complemented city personnel for working with the money and resources available to maintain and improve the city’s infrastructure.
“As we move forward, our infrastructure is going to be one that people will look to as an example of what you need to do to become attractive to industry. And we are getting there quickly,” McGill said.
The mayor said Fort Smith residents should be proud that many give of their time in volunteer positions and their resources through philanthropy. He also noted citizens of Fort Smith should be equally proud of all the art in Fort Smith, drawing attention to the statues of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and Gen. William Darby and the planned statue of Judge Isaac Parker.
“It’s a great thing to see people who say, we love this city, we love its history, we are willing to commit to it,” he said.
McGill also said he intends to spend his time as mayor communicating and making city government transparent to the citizens. He also hopes to see all lawsuits against the city resolved by the end of this first year in office.
The mayor finished his speech by embracing his role as Fort Smith cheerleader, talking about downtown development, the Fort Smith music scene and all the ongoing work to make the city prosperous, and asking all citizens of Fort Smith to cheer with him.
“It’s the people in the river valley who make it what it is,” McGill said. “I challenge each of you before the end of the day to say two or three things good about our hometown. … We each hold the key to the city’s future. Let’s use it to unlock the floodgates of potential and opportunity. We will prosper. We will continue to grow. And we will be diligent about what needs to be done for our city.”