Leaders in Pine Bluff’s business, civic, philanthropic and political arenas presented an array of daring plans Tuesday night in a call to arms to transform the city.
Meeting under the umbrella term “Pine Bluff Rising,” the eclectic coalition proposed more than a dozen ideas to the roughly 100 residents in attendance at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, and urged all residents to get involved.
“It’s about each one of us doing something,” said Ryan Watley, assistant director of development at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
The board of directors for Pine Bluff Rising is comprised of Watley, William Carpenter, Caleb McMahon and Tom Reilley.
Some of the plans or announcements to come out of the night included: a citizen-driven social media campaign to promote positive news about the city; negotiations currently underway with Union Pacific to establish a quiet zone for trains passing through downtown; the introduction of the transportation service Uber to Pine Bluff; the conversion of the Greystone residence into a bed and breakfast; establishing neighborhood cleanup groups; and information on local volunteer and youth mentorship programs.
Goals for the next month include resolving issues of blighted property downtown, raising capital for city improvements and improving collaboration between Pine Bluff Rising, the Go Forward Pine Bluff group, city leaders and other stakeholders. Many of the goals align with recommendations of the Go Forward Pine Bluff campaign.
Any one of the announcements would be newsworthy. Together they present an aggressive campaign to overcome some of the city’s most intractable problems that organizers hope will launch all Pine Bluff residents into a flurry of public service and acts of civic pride.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first of monthly “summit” meetings to discuss community progress made in the previous 30 days and discuss goals for the next month. Members of the public are encouraged to come and participate in the meetings, organizers said, and to get involved in the various initiatives.
LaTonya Richardson, a professor of English, Theatre and Mass Communication at UAPB, spoke about a coordinated plan for residents to share positive stories of Pine Bluff on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
“With social media, we can root for Pine Bluff,” she said. “One Tweet, one snap, one Instagram post at a time. And you’d be surprised by how big it can be.”
Getting the audience to repeat the chant used frequently at NAACP meetings, “Fired Up! Getting ready to go!” Richardson recalled how a picture of Lake Saracen she shared on Instagram drew praise from her followers spread all over the world.
“No one will know if we don’t show it. We have to share our stories,” she said. She also asked residents to speak about the positive sides of Pine Bluff in conversations with the television and print news media.
“If you have a negative conversation, tell someone else,” she said.
Positive stories can be spread more widely on social media if they are accompanied by hashtags such as #wearepinebluff, #pinebluffrising, #goforwardpinebluff or #shoplocalpinebluff.
Pine Bluff Shirley Washington echoed Richardson’s call for residents to highlight the positive things in Pine Bluff. She touted news that the Parks and Recreation Department has secured a $150,000 grant for a new playground, while another $150,000 grant was acquired to spend toward construction of the new aquatic center.
Pine Bluff Alderman Win Trafford said he has been having discussions with Union Pacific to establish a quiet zone for trains in downtown Pine Bluff. The quiet zone would start at the railyard and end at the 17th Avenue crossing at Miramar Drive, he said. He hopes to have a letter of intent to present to the mayor and City Council soon.
“So no more trains coming through with their whistle as you’re trying to have your meeting, or your dinner, or your lunch,” Trafford said.
He also called for attendees to spread the word about the Pine Bluff Rising meetings in order to draw more people to next month’s meeting.
“As you look around, you’re seeing someone who genuinely cares about Pine Bluff,” he said. “Next month, we can double or triple this crowd. Tell people. Put it out there. Say, Pine Bluff is my home, Pine Bluff is great, I want to be here. Tell another person, get them here.”
Later, Highland Pellets Chairman Reilley announced that he and Trafford will be acquiring the historic Greystone residence and turning it into a bed and breakfast. They have contracted with Little Rock interior decorator, who decorated the White House during the Clinton presidency, to transform the structure, he said.
“So is it really going to happen?” one woman asked.
“It’s really going to happen,” Reilley responded. “Contract’s signed, money’s paid to Kaki, so it better happen.”
McMahon, director of economic development for Jefferson County, touted the economic successes of companies such as Kiswire Pine Bluff and Highland Pellets. The alliance is currently in the process of bringing in companies to the industrial park and in talks with others to come downtown, he said. He said that there are many jobs available within Jefferson County, and job training programs were crucial to provide residents with the qualifications.
One man asked why more isn’t being done to connect the industrial arts programs at local high schools with local companies who need skills such as welding. McMahon said it was important that students receive accreditation through the programs, and he has been speaking with Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Michael Robinson about it. He also said he would like to see SEARK, UAPB and area high schools take advantage of state funding for computer coding, as a way of training students for the jobs for the future.
He also revealed interest from Uber, the online transportation company, to come to Pine Bluff. To use Uber, people download the Uber app on their smartphones, and request drivers in their area. Private citizens can sign up to be drivers in their own cars.
“Uber has said we’ll come, we want to come,” McMahon said.
McMahon said that a question posed to residents about Uber’s viability on the Pine Bluff Commercial’s Facebook page in December was a test to see if grassroots support would coalesce around the idea. Many of the first comments were negative, he said, but then an equal number of residents said they thought the app would help. Officials from Uber were watching the response, he said, calling it another reminder that positive messaging about the city makes a difference.
Watley noted that the service could be a big deal for people who are trying to get to a job but do not currently have transportation.
He also spoke about the neighborhood beautification.
“Trash in our city is immediately noticeable,” he said. But he said citizens can change that.
He touted a recent neighborhood cleanup down 34th and 38th street he and others organized by distributing 300 flyers, which attracted about six volunteers. They plan to continue to do it.
“It looks amazing now,” he said.
They planned to ask three churches in the area to “adopt a spot” to keep clean, which he said other churches and groups could emulate in Pine Bluff.
A member of the Pine Bluff Clean and Beautiful Commission then stood up. She said they will provide cleaning materials to any people or groups who want to adopt a spot. Interested people can call 870-543-4901, she said.
Watley also touted the nursing program at UAPB, which is currently awaiting accreditation and will know by April.
Representatives of philanthropic organizations Targeting Our People’s Priorities with Service (TOPS), Pen or Pencil and Youth Engagement Services (YES) also spoke, as did one from New St. Hurricane Missionary Baptist Church.
Annette Dove, founder of TOPPS in 2002, said the organization provides 12 programs to youth, including after-school tutoring, job training, pre-college and volunteerism. Ninety percent of students it adopted went to college with scholarships last year, she said. Yet she noted they only reach a fraction of the city’s youth who live in poverty.
“Our children need us,” Dove said. “If you can’t volunteer, [give] $5, $10. We need you.”
TOPPS has been featured recently in The New York Times and other national publications. They are holding their annual girls’ conference, open to the public, on February 4. A conference for boys takes place in April. She said the group is taking 50 students to Paris, France this year.
Retired educator Mary Liddell spoke on behalf of Pen or Pencil, a mentoring program aimed at steering students away from a future in prison. Bonding with an adult encourages a student to be positive, Liddell said. She said the program badly needs mentors, and is hoping to recruit three- to five-thousand college-age or older young people to mentor students as well.
A program of Interested Citizens for Voter Registration, people interested in Pen or Pencil can go to www.penorpencilmovement.org for more information.
Liddell also touted another mentorship program, through UAPB, by Dr. Michael Eggleton. She said people interested in that program can call Eggleton at 870-575-8100.
Joni Alexander spoke about her non-profit program, Youth Engagement Services (YES). Alexander said demand for non-profits is at an all-time high, especially in Pine Bluff with a high number of kids living in poverty. For more information about YES, visit www.gofundme.com/pbyes or find it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. People can also text “volunteer” to the number 33222 to help, she said, or text “question” to 33222 for more information.
A representative for New St. Hurricane Missionary Baptist Church touted the church’s reading initiative, Pine Bluff Read, at 34th Street Elementary School. The initiative is aimed at having students read at grade level by third grade, which she said is the most important predictor for high school graduation. The program needs people to volunteer one hour per week helping kids to read, and she said kids have often improved their reading proficiency by several grade levels with that amount of help.
The church is also building a new 20,000-square-foot youth center at its Ohio Street location, which will help them expand after-school program, she said. For more information, she said contact the church’s pastor, Rev. Derick Easter at 870-536-8337.
Reilley gave an update on Pine Bluff Rising, LLC’s purchase of the Hotel Pines property downtown. Reilley said the property was a symbol of the city’s intractable problems — too expensive to renovate, yet too expensive to tear down. Engineers are currently studying the hotel’s structural integrity in an effort to keep it up, he said. But he said something will happen soon.
“It has to go up, or it has to go down,” he said. “And we’re working very hard to make it go up, but we will let you know.”