GEORGE MCGILL knows Fort Smith. He knows her like a favorite book he’s paged through too many times to count. He knows her rivers, hills, all the sights, the way she behaves every season. He knows her strengths and flaws, both on the scale of his own life and on the broader scale of a community. He refers to the city as a “her,” as though his hometown were a girl he’s been friends with since they were little, a sort of friendship that endured life’s many odd twists and turns. And in a way, it is.
It’s a city he’s tramped and wandered for so long now. He was born and grew up there with his many brothers and sisters, just a short walk from the Arkansas River, where he swam when his parents weren’t watching. He has many fond memories of playing baseball and pedaling around town, his mitt hanging from the handlebars. Fort Smith is also where he opened his first business—an insurance and financial services operation he ran for nearly 30 years and sold in 2010, three years before he became a Democratic member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. And just when he thought his relationship with Fort Smith couldn’t get any stronger, it did.
Back in August, George won the Fort Smith mayor’s race, and when he takes office this month, he’ll be the city’s first black mayor in its 200-year history. “I’m going to be a voice for the people,” he says during a phone conversation in which he stresses, multiple times, his deep conviction in the community’s willingness to bring about meaningful change. “I’m going to state their concerns and honor the wishes of the people, first and foremost.”
On becoming the first black mayor in Fort Smith
“First of all, the idea of me being mayor was something that wasn’t on my radar until the people of Fort Smith began to put it in front of me and encourage me to think about it. I thought, What a humbling experience it is, first of all, for them to even consider me being a mayor of the second-largest city in the state. Then when it actually happened, when I was elected, it was a special feeling that’s hard to describe. As I watched from my vantage point, the people who surrounded my campaign all across the city, I began to think, Wow, how beautiful this is. This is the city I’ve always dreamed of seeing, and it’s right in front of me, live and in color. There was the African-American community, certainly, but then there were my white friends—from the rich to the poor—and the Latino community, the small African community and the Asian community. All across the board, they were there. It’s probably the most beautiful sight I’ve seen. They were people who said, We believe what you believe, and we’re willing to help make this city be what we want it to be. It was a feeling that I still have and will always embrace.”
On the importance of listening
“The characteristic that most people mention about me is that I listen. I’m sincerely concerned about the issues that people may have. I tell them the truth. I give them my honest assessment as to what the issues are and how I feel about them. One of my colleagues at the House of Representatives said: There’s some talk around the chambers about you. I said: What would that be? He said: The word is, that you are a master of constituent services. That was quite flattering, to the extent that I was not interested in who said it. I just accepted that and made sure that their assessment was correct by delivering the best service to the constituents of Fort Smith.”
On his vision for the city
“Like many cities, everybody has to run on a tight budget. I wish we had a lot of the resources we want to do all the great things we have a vision for doing. We have to do what most good stewards do: We have to take care of the most important things, but at the same time make sure that we do some of those quality-of-life things that bring happiness and allow families to enjoy outdoor recreational activities. We must be mindful of the things that young employees want to do when they get off work. We must make sure that we have trails that are fun to walk and run and bike on. We have to make sure that we have the kind of nightlife entertainment that’s fun and exciting. We have to make sure we have those if we’re going to be a city that attracts quality jobs and increased-pay jobs that we want. That’s where the competition is. Everybody wants those opportunities in their cities. We must make sure that we have them.”
On young entrepreneurs and leaders
“One of the most exciting things about all of it is the number of young people that are doing so many great things. They’re starting new businesses. They’re filling these high-tech positions, and they have developed a love for the area. They’re getting involved in the decision-making process by serving on boards and commissions at City Hall. They’re getting involved in building the city that they want and helping solve the problems they perceive. That’s so refreshing.”