Several community members have pushed in recent days for the city’s elected officials leaders take action to renovate the aging Merrill Community Center. The center serves roughly 60 to 75 children each day during the school year and more than 200 during the summer, former Parks and Recreation Department Director April Layher has said. Layher said in March the center needs a new roof, dirt work to reduce flooding, new flooring, new bleachers in the gym, and renovations to the center’s kitchen and bathrooms, among other improvements.
Pine Bluff residents Jaren Jefferson, Albert King Jr. and Brenton Cole challenged the Pine Bluff City Council to use money from the 2011 five-eighths cents sales tax to renovate the center.
“If anyone has been on the council since 2013, you should be ashamed of the shape you’ve allowed that facility to be,” Cole said.
The issue of renovating the Merrill Center consumed much of former Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s first year in office in 2013, with discussion pinging between the City Council and the Parks and Recreation Commission so frequently that a former Commercial writer referred to it in print as the “Merrill-Go-Round.”
Hollingsworth pushed for a renovation of the center in her first months in office. After local architect Fred Reed conducted a scope of work, the council’s Public Works Committee recommended that the council allocate $450,000 from the five-eighths cent reserve fund to renovate the facility. The reserve fund is comprised of tax revenue collected before bonds were issued to pay for various infrastructure projects and which is not bound to a specific project.
But the council failed to come to an agreement on whether to spend money on the center. Council members Glen Brown Sr., George Stepps and Thelma Walker said funds from the 2011 tax should be put toward a multi-purpose and aquatic center rather than an old facility. Walker also questioned whether the council had the authority to allocate the money, suggesting it was the Parks and Recreation Commission’s responsibility. The matter was sent back to the commission for a recommendation on whether to allocate the funding, but no recommendation was given.
During the Jim Crow era, the Merrill Center was a segregated facility barred to African-Americans, which some believe contributes to the current-day controversy. Hollingsworth called the inability to renovate the Merrill Center the greatest disappointment of her tenure in an exit interview in December 2016.
Recently, parks officials have asked for replacements to the vans used to transport youth to activities. The current vans lack working air conditioning and frequently break down, they said. Jefferson, a seventh-grade math teacher at Robert F. Morehead Middle School, said he grew up going to the Merrill Center before going on to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. His mother used to work there, he said.
“When I walk in there, it looks a lot like it did when I went there in the late ’90s,” Jefferson said. “It’s just saddening, because there’s been funds that’s promised to the Merrill Center for improvement, and for some reason they never seem to get it. What that reason is I’m not sure why, but it shouldn’t take three and four years for a community center to receive funds to improve facilities and vans… as a whole it is not up to par. Back in 2013, they had some money to contribute to the center that the center would never receive. If you ask one person what’s going on, they’ll blame it on another person. It’s just a lot of ripping and running that’s just not right.”
King Jr. said he would like to see the gym’s floor redone, new air conditioning installed, new vans, the roof fixed, new paint with bright colors and a new name for the center.
“It used to be an all-white school years ago,” King Jr. said. “That’s why they want to tear it down.”
Cole said he believes that a renovated center could have prevented some of the fatal crime that has occurred in recent months and years.
“That building could have possibly prevented some of the kids who got caught up in some of the murders over the summer,” Cole said. “Not saying with 100 percent certainty, but we’ll never know.”
The center serves as a safe, accessible haven for many youth in the neighborhood, Cole said. Many kids also receive meals there. He said city officials had voted against the renovations without a solution.
“They voted it down, so they say, because they didn’t want to invest in the building, because it was an old building,” Cole said. “But they didn’t have a backup plan. It’s like it all got swallowed up.”
Mayor Shirley Washington in an interview called renovation of the center “very important for this community,” referring to the number of children served by it. Washington said she thought the building was needed, because it is within walking distance of many neighborhood youth. The City Council, with the mayor’s support, voted on Monday to abolish the Parks and Recreation Commission and place it under the mayor’s control as other city departments are.
Asked whether she would press to use existing reserve funds to renovate the center, Washington said she wanted to preserve the funds in case they are needed to pay for matching grants for the multi-purpose center. One is a $1.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant that would require the city to pay 25 percent of the cost. The other is a $500,000 grant from the state department of parks and tourism in which the city would be required to pay half of the cost, she said. The FEMA grant would pay for a safe room in the proposed multi-purpose center, while the state grant could be put toward outdoor uses such as parking lots, seating areas or playgrounds, she said.
Washington said she should know by January whether the matching funds will be needed. In the interim, she said she planned to speak with Reed about conducting a cost estimate for renovations to the Merrill Center. Washington said she would be working with Trudy Redus in the Parks and Recreation Department. The commission named Redus permanent director of the department without interviewing 60 candidates who applied to the position. Washington said Thursday that Redus is again the interim director.
“We have not reviewed the  applications,” Washington said. “We have to go through applications and the interview process. I’m just looking forward to having a good relationship with the department interim director at this point, and then the director.”