Editor's note: Because of production deadlines, this article only mentions a brief part of the topics covered during the Go Forward Pine Bluff meeting Thursday night. The Commercial will publish a follow-up story Sunday with more details and more of the responses to questions asked by the audience or submitted in advance.
While the announced format of the Go Forward Pine Bluff meeting Thursday night at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas was to answer questions about the proposals, it also heard comments from a number of city residents, some of them critical and others offering suggestions.
The meeting was a follow up to the Jan. 12 announcement of the 27-point plan to improve the city of Pine Bluff that was the result of a year’s worth of work by more than 100 residents.
At that meeting, more than 500 people showed up, it was standing room only and 150 had to be turned away, Jim Youngquist, who is with the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said.
The institute was hired to facilitate the committees and to ensure that they stayed on track.
Youngquist, who said he had more than 40 years of economic and community development experience, said the nearly 100 people who volunteered to be on the committees were almost “equal black and white, and nearly equal those under 40 and those over 40.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the discussions, if there were diversities, it was between those over 40 and those under 40,” he said. “They had nothing to do with color."
The Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative was paid for by Simmons Bank, which gave the Simmons Foundation $300,000 to develop a plan for improving the city.
“In my 77 years, I’ve watched this community grow from a cotton and timber town to the number two city in the state,” said Buzz Roberts of Pine Bluff, who was one of around 150 or so who showed up Thursday night. “Now we’re something like 18th. Nothing in this community ever came easy. We’ve had to fight for every penny we got. We still have people willing to work but our city council puts petty issues and fights over the needs of the city. The City Council is an embarrassment, and until this local government works together to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, we’re not going anywhere.”
Pine Bluff resident Sam Whitfield said that the plan called for the use not only of the Institute for Economic Development at UALR, but the School of Community Design at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He questioned why the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was not included.
“We use local resources when we can,” Tommy May, the retired CEO of Simmons Bank and chairman of the Simmons First Foundation, said. “UALR had an area of expertise we were looking for that UAPB did not. So did Fayetteville. We use one of the best talents at UAPB, and that’s their chancellor. He’s on our board.”
Carla Martin, who was chair of the pillar group of the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan and is a vice-chancellor at UAPB and a graduate of the school, said that the university figures in to a number of the recommendations made by the committees, including a proposed Torii Hunter Baseball Tournament and a basketball tournament. The School of Education at UAPB will play a major role in recommendations regarding the city school districts.
In order to pay for the plan, Go Forward Pine Bluff is proposing a five-eights city sales tax which would sunset after seven years, an idea that former Pine Bluff Alderman Jack Foster was critical of. He suggested that Go Forward Pine Bluff should agree to let the current three-eights cent sales tax for economic development sunset, a plan which May and others disagreed with.
Nick Markis, who served as chairman of the Economic Development Committee of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said 27 people were on that committee and “there was not one bad word said about the three-eights cent sales tax.”
Markis said that because of the tax, the county was able to land what will be the largest-ever investment in the State of Arkansas with the ESP (Energy Security Partners) plan to build a natural gas-to-liquid fuel facility in northern Jefferson County.
“There have been 1,100 jobs created, and we believe the tax is working,” Makris said.
Foster, who describes himself as a community activist, said the tax does not offer any incentives for small business and neither does the plan offered by Go Forward Pine Bluff.
“If the tax does not pass, where will you be?” Foster asked. “What’s your plan B?"
“We would be up the creek without a paddle,” May said. “I really believe in my heart and my mind that this is our last real chance to turn things around. If individuals believe what we are proposing then they will vote yes, and if they don’t, they will vote no. That’s their choice, but we will have accomplished our objective. We can’t do these things without money. No pain, no gain.”