More than 1,000 people packed the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas Wednesday evening for the roll out of the Go Forward Pine Bluff report, which contains 27 separate recommendations and a more than $50 million price tag.
It was standing-room only as curious residents jockeyed for a position to hear the presentation.
“This is one of the most exciting nights I can remember in a long time,” said Pine Bluff resident George Stapleton, who stood near the packed theater’s entrance.
To pay for the recommended improvements, the Go Forward Task Force is proposing a five-eights cent city sales tax increase, which they say will generate $32.5 million over seven years. That money will go along with another $20 million in grants and donations. The tax will sunset in seven years unless it is renewed, and it will be collected only in Pine Bluff, because all the money will be spent in the city.
With input from 100 members of the Pine Bluff community, the plan calls for the creation of a Municipal Master Plan to include a complete redo of city codes and enforcement as its top priority.
Members of the Pine Bluff City Council got an advance look at part of the plan Thursday afternoon from Tommy May, chairman of the Simmons Foundation, Mary Pringos, who was chairwoman of the project, and Carla Martin, who supervised the four committees, called pillars, which worked on the project.
May said the last time the city codes were redone was in 1976.
“This is a plan that was offered by citizens, and we can’t tell you what to do or not to do,” May said to members of the council. “We need to manage the conditions about the way people have to live.”
After the creation of a city master plan, the next four priority recommendations deal with downtown, an area that May and others have described as a”war zone.” Plans include the formation of a downtown square with city-proposed programs such as the Streetscape project, which is already funded, and sculpture gardens, which are not funded.
Go Forward Pine Bluff recommendations also include the creation of a Delta Festival, Delta basketball and baseball tournaments, permanent food trucks, “and one or more nice restaurants.”
Another component is the creation of an Historical District to restore certain buildings like the Sanger Theater, Masonic Temple, the (Train) Depot museum and other buildings. Additionally, the plan calls for the creation of living quarters, office space and incentive programs to encourage locating downtown.
May said those incentives could include offering free rent or leases for three years, and an additional two years at half the normal lease or rent rate, with a penalty for leaving before the five years are up.
“There are a lot of buildings that need to be condemned, but there are a lot more that have sound foundations and could be re-purposed,” May said.
With a new library planned downtown, May said he hoped it will be on Main Street, and the task force is recommending programs to support and complement the library.
Also related to downtown, May said the plan calls for the creation of an Innovation Hub to be housed in the Arts and Science Center annex, which is located between Sixth and Eighth avenues, in partnership with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College.
The proposed plan also includes the elimination of residential blight and the introduction of affordable housing and special loan programs.
Education was also one of the top priorities, and the plan calls for forming an Educational Alliance with all three school districts in Pine Bluff to find ways to improve educational performance through programs that have worked in other areas, such as joint teaching programs for by teachers qualified to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
“What I wanted was to consolidate all three school districts … we spent a lot of time with the State Department of Education, and they said that would be like merging three bad districts into one bad district,” May said. “We brought in the superintendents from the three districts and the chairmen of the boards of the three districts and they can’t resolve the problems by themselves because of government involvement. But they said they would do everything they could do to make things better for the kids.”
In addition to supporting the equipment needs of first responders, May said the proposal calls for the reintroduction of the Civil Service Commission.
“There was a lot of discussion about that but we believe it would be a positive step,” he said.
Supporting and matching funding for an “All Purpose Facility for Youth” was also on the list of the top 10 recommendations, and May said there was a lot of debate about that before it was included.
Pringos said that because all the committee members had signed confidentiality agreements, “that was one of the better things we did [and] there were very open discussions.”
“When there were disagreements, and there were plenty of them because people were passionate about their ideas, but they were told to leave their personal agendas at home … the consultants from UALR [the University of Arkansas at Little Rock] were there to make sure things stayed on point,” May said.
Simmons Bank gave the Simmons Foundation $300,000 to hire those consultants.
May said that most of the difference of opinion exhibited during the committee meetings were not about race, but rather members under 40 verses members over 40.
When the committees were recruited in November 2015, the goal was to have 40 percent of those members under the age of 40.
While it was not among the top 10 recommendations, May said that the task force is recommending that the three-eights cent county wide sales tax for economic development approved in 2011 be renewed. That tax is due to expire in 2018.
“It’s critical that we continue to use that to attract business,” May said.
He said that Mayor Shirley Washington and former Mayor Debe Hollingsworth “don’t agree with all the recommendations but they agree with the concept. The future is now or never. We’re at the tipping point and we can do something about it.”