FORT SMITH — Mayor George McGill declared he would like to say the city “thrived, almost” in 2020 despite the covid-19 pandemic.
McGill, giving his state of the city address March 24, said the city general fund grew $5.3 million during that time, resulting in a $3.5 million surplus.
“And through today, almost 1,000 new jobs have been created here in the River Valley, in Fort Smith,” McGill said. “In the first three weeks of the year, we announced close to 400 new jobs, most of them paying north of $20 an hour, in the River Valley.”
The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce announced in January the Jonesboro-based Hytrol Conveyor Co. Inc. would invest more than $20 million to open a manufacturing operation in Fort Smith, which would create 250 jobs over five years. The chamber also announced that month Mars Petcare, headquartered in Franklin, Tenn., would spend $145 million to expand its manufacturing facility in the city, which will create more than 120 full-time jobs.
At-Large Position 6 City Director Kevin Settle said he believed this influx of jobs shows Fort Smith and the surrounding area have a good labor force, among other positive qualities, and that companies see that people want to come to live and work in the city.
“We have those quality of place attractions that people want and see that allows us to continue to grow,” Settle said.
McGill said businesses made a capital investment of $250 million in Fort Smith in 2020. Building permits in the city reached a 12-year high that year of more than $215 million through November.
McGill’s declaration of a general fund surplus came after a year that saw budget cuts by the city and overall positive sales tax figures.
During a news conference April 17, City Administrator Carl Geffken said he asked city department heads for 10% across-the-board cuts in the budget. Geffken said in May all departments had curtailed their spending as if the proposed cuts had already been implemented, with any change to the budget requiring the consent of the city board of directors.
Fort Smith took in more sales tax revenue in 2020 than it did in 2019 and exceeded budgeted expectations for the year, according to the city’s sales tax reports.
Settle said he believes the surplus is due to many people in the area staying at home and shopping locally for their basic needs because of the pandemic, rather than traveling elsewhere.
Using this surplus is a “team decision” to be made by city directors and the city administrator, Settle said. However, he also wants to ensure there is enough money in the general fund reserve to allow the city to continue providing services to residents if sales tax revenue declines.
Regarding the future, McGill said a delegation from Singapore visited Fort Smith last week to assess the Ebbing Air National Guard Base and find out more about the city. The base was selected in July as one of five possible sites in the country to host both the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and Singapore’s General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon squadron, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton.
Barbara Barrett, then secretary of the Air Force, signed a memorandum in July to establish a permanent Foreign Military Sales training center for 24 to 36 F-35 aircraft and Singapore air force F-16s based within the continental United States. Singapore’s air force is an F-35 Foreign Military Sales customer that wants to have its F-16 squadron, currently at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., with its F-35 aircraft at a long-term site.
McGill said he believes Fort Smith is “the favorite” to receive this mission.
“Certainly, I understand that favorites don’t always win, but if I were a betting man, I’d be betting on Fort Smith, Ark., because of its people, because of all the great people that live in this area,” McGill said. “Their kindness, their generosity, their friendliness and their willingness to help one another make us a prime candidate for any company.”
Between 350 and 400 people based out of Singapore would relocate to Fort Smith if Ebbing is picked for this mission, according to McGill.
Fort Smith’s unemployment rate was 11% in June. As of Jan. 30, the rate was 3.7%.
Source: Fort Smith Mayor George McGill