The Pine Bluff Citizens Advisory Commission on Crime spent nearly an hour Thursday focusing on the Merrill Center and the effect it and other youth facilities could have on reducing crime. Among other things, the commission advises the mayor and City Council of concerns citizens have about crime and on methods and goals that may lead to a reduction of crime.

Commission Chairman Jean Painton brought up the subject of the Merrill Center, which she described as being in “her area.” She said the entire area needs to be addressed, specifically burned out and boarded up buildings, overgrown lots and a “bayou or ditch” near the center.

“(Former) Alderman Glen Brown (Sr.) called it a swamp,” Painton said. “If you’re going to reduce crime, you’ve got to clean up and fix up the neighborhoods.”

Commission member the Rev. Kerry Price Sr. suggested that the city consider closing the Merrill Center and moving its activities to Southeast Junior High School. That suggestion was met with objections from a couple of visitors to the meeting, as well as some members. Joseph Branscomb, an outreach/case manager for Ambassadors for Christ Youth Ministries, said he grew up in the neighborhood, attended Taylor Elementary School, and walked to the Merrill Center.

He said his mother always knew where he was and the atmosphere was safe.

“It was a place to stay out of trouble,” Branscomb said. “I don’t think moving kids to other side of town would offer that safety.”

Commission member Doug Smith described the Merrill Center as a “community asset that we need to make use of.”

Commission member the Rev. Jesse Turner said, “Why not use both the Merrill Center and Southeast? We could also ask (Pine Bluff School District Super9intendent) Dr. (Michael) Robinson if we could also use other schools.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, who arrived after the meeting had begun, said, “At one point I didn’t know where to go (on the center) but I have been going to the Merrill Center at various times, and while you might see one car there, you walk in and it’s bustling with kids. During the school year there are 60 or 70 kids there after school.”

Washington said an assessment of the center was done in 2013 that showed that the building was structurally sound and she has asked architects to take another look at the building and see where it is today.

“There have been some flooding problems at the back of the building but we’ve found some money in Economic Development to see if we can deal with the drainage problems,” Washington said. She also reminded the commission that until earlier this month, the Merrill Center was under the control of the Parks and Recreation Commission, which the City Council abolished.

“We’re currently doing an assessment of all the parks,” Washington said. “Be patient with us. We’ve been here six months, and we’ve had to do a lot of research. “We’re beginning to get the grasp of things and we’re going to begin moving forward in the next six months but in 2018 we’re really going to start to ramp up.”

“If we don’t do it right, we are going to get things we don’t need,” Washington added. “We’re going to do it slow and do it right.”

The Crime Commission meets on the last Thursday of each month in the conference room adjacent to the City Council chambers.