The Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative received a key endorsement Wednesday from the Faith Community Coalition during a meeting at Lakeside United Methodist Church.
Formerly called the Church Outreach Committee, the group of ministers said in a statement that the endorsement “is in keeping with our mission statement, which says ‘Faith Community Coalition consists of the Christian communities of Pine Bluff whose purpose is to improve the lives of its residents.’”
At a meeting in April, the group voted to endorse the Go Forward proposal after a presentation by Mary Pringos, who explained that the plan hinges on a five-eighths cent sales tax increase to generate $32.5 million to help revitalize the city. A vote on the tax will be held June 13.
The ministers were joined by a large group, including many of the 100 Pine Bluff residents who were involved in the year-long effort that went into the creation of the plan, as well as current Mayor Shirley Washington and former Mayor Debe Hollingsworth.
“We strongly believe this is the best investment of our tax dollars in recent times,” said the Rev. Jesse Turner, who was reading from the group’s prepared statement. “Mayor Shirley M. Washington has publicly voiced her support for this initiative and as members of the FCC we join her in strong support of GFPB.”
“We urge voters to make one of the greatest and smartest investments of our time by voting yes,” the ministers’ statement said. “A yes vote for Go Forward Pine Bluff will help to transform downtown into an attractive space, built around both commerce and education which will attract young talent to our city. A yes vote impacts the quality of life and quality of place for all of us. More importantly, a yes vote will create better opportunities for our children.”
The statement goes on to say, “A yes vote can create the catalyst for instilling pride and a sense of loyalty to the community, a loyalty which inspires young adults to remain in Pine Bluff, build their future here, raise a family and do business in a safe, clean and thriving city.”
Ryan Watley, who was named the chief executive officer-elect of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said after the endorsement that supporters have a large task ahead before the June 13 special election.
“We’re not only going to win, we’re going to knock it out of the park,” Watley said.
He said it will be necessary to get all the city’s residents behind the plan, adding that over time, things have been neglected.
“We’ve got an opportunity to build a brand new city,” he said.
During 2016, more than 100 Pine Bluff residents met monthly to develop a plan to address the city’s blight, declining population and tax base. The plan’s development was paid for through the Simmons Bank Foundation. 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 addition to the money to be generated by the sales tax, 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.
Washington also spoke Wednesday and reminded supporters they have to “remain focused, remain anchored and positive as we move forward.”
Early voting for the sales tax election begins June 6 through 9th at the Jefferson County Courthouse during regular office hours, and again June 12. There will be no voting on Saturday.
On June 13, the polls will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.