Ryan Watley has been named the chief executive officer-elect of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a multi-faceted plan designed to help revitalize the city after years of decay. Watley is an assistant professor of chemistry and the assistant director of development for athletics at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
During 2016, more than 100 Pine Bluff residents met monthly to develop a plan to address the city’s declining population and tax base. At the conclusion of the planning process, Go Forward Pine Bluff made 27 recommendations designed to halt population decline and increase city revenues. Recommendations were made in the areas of government and infrastructure, education, economic development and quality of life.
Implementing these recommendations is expected to cost almost $50 million during the next seven years. In June, Pine Bluff voters will decide on a five-eighths cent sales tax to help fund some of the improvement efforts during the next seven years. The sales tax will generate almost $32 million over seven years, according to projections. Go Forward Pine Bluff has already received pledges from the business community of $6 million against a $7 million goal, and plans to raise additional funds through donations and grants, plan officials said. In his new job, Watley will be responsible for coordinating with city officials and representatives of other organizations to ensure the proper execution of the plan.
“Dr. Watley is the perfect person to oversee our efforts,” said Tommy May, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Simmons First Foundation. Simmons spearheaded the Go Forward plan by funding its creation.
“This is Pine Bluff’s best opportunity to attract businesses and ensure a promising future for our young people. We’ve seen the city’s population decline from 57,140 in 1990 to 44,772 in 2015. We must act now. Watley is from Pine Bluff and understands the importance of moving forward before it’s too late. He shares our sense of urgency.
“Watley is an outstanding person, leader and difference maker. Recently, he told me how much he valued his mom, Annitha, and dad, Roland, for providing structure, guidance and the hope of accomplishing all his heart’s desires. He also praised his brothers, sisters, family and mentors who have fostered his growth to become the person he is today. Dr. Watley is the right person, at the right time, to work with the city and other organizations in helping facilitate the growth of our community.”
Watley said that “as a native of Pine Bluff, a graduate of UAPB, and an experienced development officer, I feel I’m positioned to lead this effort. This role requires a keen focus on execution. I’ve established a reputation of producing results.”
Mary Pringos, who chaired the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force, said: “We were fortunate to have had Dr. Watley as one of our 100 volunteers during Go Forward Pine Bluff’s planning process. It was an opportunity to see his forward-thinking approach to the issues we face, his commitment and his enthusiasm. He served at the same time on the board of Pine Bluff Rising and worked to get residents involved in proactive community efforts. He also was instrumental in establishing the Construction and Trade Alliance to help keep jobs in Pine Bluff as we begin implementing the Go Forward Pine Bluff recommendations.”
Watley majored in chemistry at UAPB and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 2009. He played football at UAPB and ended his football career in the top 20 in school history for receptions, despite missing one-and-half seasons due to injuries. He received his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Oklahoma. During his time in Oklahoma, Watley was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and a research associate in the Organic Chemistry Division.
In 2015, Watley served as the assistant to the athletic director for community outreach and fundraising at Rose State College in Midwest City, Oklahoma. Despite offers from several other schools, Watley said he chose to return home to Pine Bluff in August 2015 to work in both the Department of Chemistry and Physics and the Athletic Department at UAPB.
“I’m passionate about Pine Bluff,” Watley said. “I hold myself to a higher standard than any employment contract.”
Watley was the founder in 2011 of the Community Christmas Potluck, which feeds hundreds of people. While in Norman, he founded a drive that gathered excess food from football tailgate parties and delivered that food to the homeless. Watley served as the fundraising liaison between UAPB and the Southeast Arkansas United Way and will be the chairman of the 2018 United Way campaign.
He’s a graduate of the 2015-16 Leadership Pine Bluff class and serves on the executive board of the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce. Watley is also a member of the board of the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas and the board of Pine Bluff Rising.