Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington called on all Pine Bluff residents to help transform the community in an emotional State of the City address Thursday night at the Convention Center.
Washington touched on the achievements of her first three months in office and sketched a vision for a future Pine Bluff:
A bustling downtown, jobs for unemployed adults and youth, clean streets and neighborhoods and several community centers for youth recreation.
She challenged all Pine Bluff residents to get involved in the community, whether in their church, neighborhood school or civic organizations. And she argued that the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative was the best way to achieve the city’s goals as she prepared to serve the remainder of her four years in office.
“I encourage you to embrace a plan that will help us make strides towards each of the goals I have described tonight,” Washington said, noting that the plan is being considered by the City Council and with its approval will be voted on in June by citizens. “I believe that the Go Forward initiative will give us the tools and the resources we need to revitalize our city by improving education, creating jobs, and increasing quality of life.”
Ten weeks into her term, Washington ticked off several achievements. The mayor’s office organized a “unity” breakfast attended by more than 500 pastors, churchgoers and community residents in which the crowd was urged to improve the city.
Two community-wide days of service cleaned up parks and neighborhoods and planted community gardens. And a faith coalition of community pastors has been formed to concentrate on seven “pillars” to improve the city: education, mental health, children and families, violence against women and girls, healthcare and eldercare, economic development and the justice system.
She thanked representatives from the state legislature and the City Council for attending. When the council members stood, she referred to one of her campaign promises, which was greater civility at city meetings.
“Let me give you some good news: We are getting along,” Washington told the capacity crowd of about 300. “Not some of the time, but all of the time.”
Washington said that more than 500 youth who qualified for the city’s summer youth employment program last summer were turned away due to lack of funding. One of her goals is to double the number of youth receiving jobs in the program. About 150 kids worked in the program last year.
Washington also suggested expanding an existing program that offers students free bus rides to the library by extending that offer to students in the summer employment program so that they can get to work.
She called on school districts to work with the city parks department to repurpose shuttered schools and school district properties as community recreation centers.
“Let us transform vacant school properties across our city into community centers with pools, recreational facilities, and tutoring centers that revitalize our neighborhoods,” Washington said.
Other priorities include cleaning up streets and doing away with blight, and the mayor intends to apply for state and federal funding to build more affordable housing units.
Washington also spoke about compensating teachers, police and firefighters more. Chiefs of both departments have spoken about their difficulty retaining officers because they cannot offer competitive salary and benefits.
“It is time for our community to appreciate them not just with our words of thanks but with incentives that attract and keep the best and the brightest public servants in our city,” she said.
A former school principal, Washington choked back tears while recounting the story of a Pine Bluff youth named De’unta Davis, who turned his circumstances around after he was expelled from school for fighting. Davis later graduated from high school with the help of his church, community and family, Washington said, and this summer he will join the City Year service program to mentor at-risk youth.
Washington called the situations faced by Pine Bluff youth such as Davis — when they must decide whether to drop out or continue school — the most important issue to the city. She said that a new downtown library and aquatic center, scheduled to break ground later this year, will help youth, as will a planned multi-purpose community center.
Still emotional from telling Davis’s story, Washington ended her speech with a call for unity.
“The time for rivalry, distrust, and division is over,” she said. “The time for shouting something down just because it was not our idea must end. It is time for us to begin embracing our diversity and differences because we are one Pine Bluff: stronger together.”
Following Washington’s speech, elementary school student Naomi Jimenez read a poem called “A Winner’s Attitude” that the mayor asked her to read. Washington and Jimenez both attend Old St. James Missionary Baptist Church, according to her mother, Teki Winston.