Fort Smith Mayor McGill says city in ‘good shape,’ must work to ‘stay ahead of the curve’
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill believes $80 million in Fort Smith consent decree work, a likely new military mission in the city, a strong medical community, and upcoming construction on Interstate 49 that will connect Alma with Barling are part of what is “good” with the city.
The mayor gave his State of the City address Monday (Feb. 27) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
While the first few years of his first term in office were overshadowed by a historic flooding of the Arkansas River in 2019 and a global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, McGill said his second term, which began Jan. 1, will be filled with great things for Fort Smith. Included in that is $10.5 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursement to the city, which the city only learned of in the “past couple of days,” for damages and hardships sustained during the flooding and pandemic.
At the top of his list of positive things going for the city, McGill said Fort Smith’s strong medical community leads to a high quality of life in Fort Smith.
“This year, Arkansas College of Health Education (ACHE) is getting ready to turn out their first group of doctors,” McGill said. “Out of that group (of graduates who graduated in 2021) who are finishing up their residencies, five or six will be staying right here in Fort Smith, Arkansas. But we want to make sure there are physicians all in this region, and they are doing that.”
He also applauded the upcoming ribbon cutting on the “country’s largest health and wellness research center” in America, which ACHE will open in the former Golden Living headquarters on the south side of the city.
“They are going to have 100 to 150 research scientists living and working in Fort Smith,” McGill said.
But growth in the medical industry in the city is not limited to ACHE, McGill said, noting the almost $190 million expansion Mercy is in the process of completing on its emergency and intensive care departments.
MILITARY, INTERSTATE WORK
Two other “huge” things that will lead to great years ahead for Fort Smith are the potential new mission for Ebbing Air National Guard Base, the home of the 188th Wing. In February the U.S. Air Force continued to show the base as the “preferred” site for a foreign pilot training center.
Ebbing was selected June 8, 2001 by acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. In addition to Ebbing, the Air Force selected Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Selfridge, Mich., as the alternative site.
A final “Record of Decision,” or ROD, could come soon, and McGill said he hopes to see people and aircraft coming to the city by July.
“They will be bringing their families and enjoying the great lifestyle we have right here in the River Valley. Again, no one pulled Fort Smith’s name out of the hat for this. We had to compete with bases around the nation,” McGill said. “At the end of the day, they decided to come to Fort Smith because of the wonderful people they have met.”
Ground was broken Oct. 13 on a 13.7-mile segment of Interstate 49 from Alma to Barling. When complete, the new section of I-49 will be 13.7 miles long and include a new bridge over the Arkansas River. The work is expected to be done in multiple phases over the next several years, with major construction not expected to begin until 2024. McGill said when it is completed will have a multi-million dollar a year economic impact on the Fort Smith metro area.
MARSHALS AND POLICE
Another economic impact generator touted by the mayor and set to open much sooner is the opening of the U.S. Marshals Museum on the west side of Fort Smith along the Arkansas River.
“That’s going to be a major economic driver,” McGill said. “From around the world, they have raised $50 million to put it in Fort Smith. And our goal is to open it on the Fourth of July.”
Chaffee Crossing’s residential and commercial expansion is also a plus for Fort Smith, McGill said, noting the 3,500 new jobs created by development in Chaffee Crossing alone. But growth is happening across the city, he added, noting Fort Smith’s $360 million in building activity in a record-making 2022.
“Business and manufacturing had record numbers (last year). There are major infrastructure projects happening all over the city,” McGill said. “In the last four years, we as a city have invested over $80 million into our drainage and wastewater consent decree work.”
The city also paved over nine miles of street in 2022 and made many improvements to parks and work on trails throughout the city. The city’s fire and police departments are also making improvements, he said.
“While people wring their hands across the nation, our chief (of police) and the officers (with Fort Smith Police Department) have reduced the crime rate (in the city) by 10%,” McGill said. “We have leadership who come in and work tirelessly every day to make our city amazing.”
But the work isn’t done, and citizens and leaders cannot afford to sit idly by and bask in the glory of the city’s accomplishments, McGill said.
“If we want to expand our population, we must promote Fort Smith as a good place to live,” McGill said.
He said leadership is going to do some things that “are aimed at our future” and may not pay off in the next month or year.
“We are going to stay ahead of the curve and make those hard choices that make sure our future is secure,” McGill said.
That means the city needs to make certain it has an adequate water supply to promote the potential growth in population. It also means leadership has to make sure the police and fire department has the best equipment and training available.
“When problems arise, we won’t panic. We will collect our thoughts and be the professionals we are. … Fort Smith is a magical city,” McGill said.