After more than a year of work by about 100 residents of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, the Go Forward Pine Bluff Task Force is ready to announce their recommendations for growing the tax base and improving the quality of life in Pine Bluff.
On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Southeast Arkansas Arts and Science Center, the task force will present their report and outline recommendations, which Mary Pringos, who has served as chairwoman of the task force, said will take about two years to implement.
“Some things will not be finished in two years, but we believe they will be well on their way,” Pringos said when she sat down with reporters from The Commercial last week.
The idea for the task force was announced in November 2015 by George Makris, chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corp., which provided the funding through a grant to the Simmons Foundation.
“Simmons is not part of the plan but they provided the funding to hire consultants [from the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock] to lead the process and provided an unbiased approach,” Pringos said.
Four pillars — or steering committees — were created by the plan. They include economic development, education, infrastructure and quality of life. Pringos said the committee conducted two separate surveys to get an idea of what was important to residents.
The first of those was with high school students, the second with adults who either lived in or worked in Pine Bluff and who were not a part of the planing process, Pringos said. The group also used a survey by The Commercial on its Facebook page.
The initial focus was on the 20/20 initiative, which former Mayor Carl A. Redus created in 2007 when he brought together more than 40 community leaders for a series of meetings to create a citywide vision and strategic plan for Pine Bluff. Those plans included a multipurpose center, recreational center, reducing crime, increasing the city’s fire rating and developing a pool of funds that could be utilized to attract businesses to the city.
“We wanted to see if those goals are still relevant or if some of those are things we don’t need anymore,” Pringos said.
In 2008, an effort to pass a half-cent sales tax county wide sales tax for economic development failed to win voter approval after Redus and several members of the Pine Bluff City Council, along with several community organizations, opposed it.
Three years later, in 2011, voters approved a one-cent sales tax, with five-eights of a cent designated for improvements to the city including a new fire station, remodeling two existing stations, remodeling the Joe Thomas Public Safety building, and the multi-purpose center. Ground will be broken for the first phase of that center, an aquatics center, in the spring. Supporters are trying to raise funds to construct the rest.
The remaining three-eights cent was devoted to economic development, and those funds have been used to attract Highland Pellets, to ensure the former SAJ distributors remained in Pine Bluff after the company was sold, a project at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, and to purchase land for the proposed natural gas-to-liquid fuel plant planned near NCTR.
That tax is currently due to sunset in 2018, and Pringos said committee members and others would like to see it renewed.
Pringos also praised the diversity that the committees have, saying that the foundation accepted everyone who applied. One of the goals was to have 40 percent of its members under the age of 40, which was accomplished, she noted.
Additionally, Pringos said that significant funds are going to be needed to accomplish the goals of the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan. The funds are going to have to come from a variety of sources, including not only foundations and the business community, but also individuals, who Pringos said had not been approached before.
While she admitted that some of the goals will take time to achieve, Pringos also said, “It’s important for people to see change on the front end.
“I see this as a process that is going to be on-going. As we get into this, there are going to be things we didn’t think about or talk about that are going to have to be addressed.”
While she would not address specific recommendations until the report is issued, Pringos said it is going to be very important to have a good, solid infrastructure and to deal with blight by re-purposing buildings if possible. All the members of the task force signed confidentiality agreements.
Two days before the report is made public, the logo for Go Forward Pine Bluff will be introduced at a press conference at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Ryburn Community Room on the mezzanine level at Simmons Bank.
Pringos said students from area high schools have submitted logos for consideration, and they and their art teachers are being invited to the press conference where the winner will be announced.
“It’s obvious from looking that those kids put a lot of thought into their designs,” she said.