THE ISSUE: Youth centers in Pine Bluff.THE IMPACT: As the city decides the fate of the aging Merrill Center, others are building facilities with private funds. Youth centers can have a great impact on the lives of kids, studies have shown.


At the Merrill Center for youth late last week, dozens of kids scrambled around between pool and ping pong tables to other games. In the gym, older kids, drenched in sweat, played hoops with the same level of gusto as if they were part of March Madness at the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.


The aging facility was hot inside — and noticeably run down.


As the city grapples with either renovating the Merrill Center or constructing a new building, others in Pine Bluff are pouring private funds into youth facilities. A little over three miles to the southeast of the Merrill Center, a dedication ceremony was scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday for a new, 21,000-square-foot youth center at New St. Hurricane Baptist Church in east Pine Bluff.


New St. Hurricane pastor Derick Easter said the facility — bright and state-of-the-art — should help the community by providing youth a safe, fun environment.


“A big part of addressing crime in our city is preventing it from occurring in the first place, and giving young people an alternative to going down the wrong path,” Easter said.


New St. Hurricane Baptist Church, located at 3319 S. Ohio St., began planning and fundraising for the youth center two years ago, Easter said. Construction commenced in November 2016 and finished at the end of June 2017. The new building, called the Hurricane HYPE (Helping Young People Excel) Center, is located next to the church sanctuary. The facility cost a little more than $2 million to build, Easter said, with the congregation raising about a quarter of that amount and the rest coming from loans.


Successful results from the church’s tutoring programs in local schools inspired confidence that a youth center could have a major impact, Easter said.


“When we presented this, everyone was all on board with it,” he said.


New St. Hurricane has a youth ministry of roughly 150, an average Sunday attendance of 363 and a membership of more than 600, Easter said. The gleaming new facility has something for everyone. There are dedicated rooms for young children, young teens, older teens and seniors. A computer lab will offer coding classes, Easter said. There is a workout room with weights, mats and exercise balls, and next door there are showers and restrooms.


A concession stand will offer popcorn, corn dogs, chili dogs, nachos and other concessions. In the rear of the facility is a large kitchen, connected to a banquet room with a projector to play movies. The teen rooms feature a pool table and air hockey table, and most every room comes equipped with a television connected throughout the building to a wireless internet network.


The largest space is a gymnasium with a full-size basketball court and four basketball goals on the sides, giving the option of holding multiple games at once.


Easter said the church saved money on the facility by using a “design-build” model. He had a clear idea of what features the facilities should have, Easter said, and Little Rock contractor CBM Construction, Inc. then implemented the project. Interlocking plastic tiles were used for the basketball court, which lie on top of a layer of rubber padding over the facility’s concrete slab. The method of flooring is often used in AAU basketball tournaments, Easter said, and costs about half of a traditional wood basketball court.


The future of the Merrill Center


Former Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth pushed for a renovation of the Merrill Center, which serves as many as 300 kids a day during summer months, 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. A few years ago, 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.


And now the future of the facility seems in limbo. Several Pine Bluff residents, including Pine Bluff residents Jaren Jefferson, Albert King Jr. and Brenton Cole, have 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 recently.


Asked whether the facility could influence the City of Pine Bluff as it contemplates a proposed multipurpose center and possibly fixing up the Merrill Center, Easter said he thought it could.


“Absolutely it could serve as a model,” he said.


The church is in planning for a summer camp, a sports league and after-school programming for the coming school year.


The data


According to youth.gov, a government-sponsored website offering information on issues affecting youth, effective after school programs bring a wide range of benefits to youth, families and communities. After school programs can boost academic performance, reduce risky behaviors, promote physical health, and provide a safe, structured environment for the children of working parents.


The website says that:Attending after school programs can improve students’ academic performance. A national evaluation found that over 40 percent of students attending 21st Century Community Learning Center programs improved their reading and math grades, and that those who attended more regularly were more likely to make gains.Effective after school programs can improve classroom behavior, school attendance, academic aspirations, and can reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out.Participation in after school programs has been associated with reduced drug use and criminal behavior.After school programs can play an important role in encouraging physical activity and good dietary habits. Participation in after school programs has been associated with positive health outcomes, including reduced obesity.Working families and businesses also derive benefits from after school programs that ensure that youth have a safe place to go while parents are at work. Parents concerned about their children’s after school care miss an average of eight days of work per year, and this decreased worker productivity costs businesses up to $300 billion annually.


Let the games begin


Several events are scheduled for the days following the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The film “Sing” will be screened during a movie night at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 25. A lunch with pastors, community and business leaders is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Friday, July 28. Those interested in attending are encouraged to RSVP by July 26 at 536-8337 or newsthurricane@cablelynx.com.


Later that day on Friday, all youth in Pine Bluff are invited to attend “Hurricane Hype Night,” billed as “an evening of food, fun, games and music.” The center will be open to youth in 1st through 6th grades from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Youth from 7th through 12th grades are invited to attend from 8 to 10 p.m.


Commercial Managing Editor John Worthen contributed to this report.