THE ISSUE: The King Cotton basketball Tournament. THE IMPACT: Although this tournament could have a large economic impact on the city, many contend that Pine Bluff isn't prepared for such an event.
The Pine Bluff Civic Auditorium Complex Commission voted Tuesday against hosting the King Cotton basketball tournament at the Pine Bluff Convention Center in 2017 after hearing Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley discuss his reservations. The King Cotton Holiday Classic was a nationally renown high school basketball tournament held in Pine Bluff. It was founded by Travis Creed, a bank executive from Pine Bluff, in 1982 and continued until 1999.
Watley came to the meeting after being invited by the commission.
“The community is not ready based on the amount of amenities that we offer, the prevalent blight, the relationship between the Plaza Hotel and the Convention Center, and the need for upgrades on both of those,” Watley said. “And part of our mission is to make Pine Bluff a point of destination. If these conditions are present, once tourists and tournament participants arrive, they will not be impressed with the aforementioned conditions.”
Tournament organizer Chris Norris did not attend the meeting. He said his group will host the King Cotton Classic from Dec. 21, 2017, to Dec. 23, 2017, at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
“It will happen with or without the city of Pine Bluff support or the Go Forward support. We are getting a bunch of grief,” Norris said. “We are paying from our pockets. I will cash in my 401K to bring the King Cotton tournament back to Pine Bluff. You are going to work with us or not. If you stand in our way, we are going to bulldoze over you. This is not about talking or meeting 15 times per week. … We have two professional basketball players who performed in the King Cotton tournament who will visit Pine Bluff in December 2017.”
Watley applauded Norris for planning this tournament but said he worried that Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington's office and the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce were not notified until last week about Norris' plans.
“Based on the 2017 time-line, we cannot endorse the tournament and because the Holiday Classic is one of the 27 (Go Forward) initiatives, we must separate Go Forward Pine Bluff from this proposed tournament,” Watley said. “The King Cotton had a brand of excellence associated with it. While we recognize the importance of partnership, it must serve the best interests of the city of Pine Bluff. Having a tournament in 2017 does not allow the proposed Go Forward Pine Bluff initiatives to help facilitate the value associated with the King Cotton. We only get one shot to do this, and everything must be together from the planning, sponsorship and the city for the sustainability of the tournament.”
Commissioners were concerned about whether the basketball tournament would benefit Pine Bluff merchants. They were wary about renting the Pine Bluff Convention Center if it would not generate money among hotels, gas stations, restaurants and other merchants. Commissioner Lisa Kosmitis made a motion to oppose using the convention center for this basketball tournament. Commissioners Ethel Cogshell, Gary Wilson, Monique Benford, La'Tasha Woods and Kosmitis approved it.
“We appreciate the work Mr. Norris has done so far, but we feel the city is not ready to host this tournament,” Kosmitis said. “We would like to work with him in the future to put our best foot forward.”
The commissioners voted for a motion to move forward with Norris if he removes the name King Cotton from the basketball tournament.
Wilson and Kosmitis said they are concerned the tournament backers are looking to use the convention center without bringing money to Pine Bluff merchants.
“My concern is we are being used,” Kosmitis said. “How much benefit are we going to get from this as far as restaurants, hotels and publicity?”
Pine Bluff Convention Center interim Executive Director Sheri Storie said she spoke with a King Cotton representative in April who requested hosting the tournament in Pine Bluff in December 2017. Storie said that organization has not paid any money to the Convention Center and has not signed a contract.
“I have requested additional information,” Storie said. ” … In the big picture, we have to look at is this going to bring in any revenue to the city. Are we really looking at out-of-town teams or local teams? What kind of sponsors?”
Norris cancelled a press conference Tuesday that was supposed to take place at the convention center and feature a coach from Southwest Christian High School, a referee, and former University of Arkansas basketball player turned announcer Pat Bradley. Norris said he took this action in response to the commission opposing his tournament.
“It would have been nice to be invited to the meeting,” Norris said. “I do not know Mr. Watley. We spoke on the phone. If you are building a house, you start with the foundation. At the same time, people in Pine Bluff are not going to care about the tournament happening in Pine Bluff even if Pine Bluff is not immaculate. We have permission to use the name.
“I would love to work with anyone who wants to make it happen. The police chief is ready to go. The only reason we intended to have a press conference is to show that we are ready. The only way Pine Bluff is going to be built up is to put aside selfishness.
“It does not take seven years to put a basketball tournament together. If you do, you had better bring in Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. We want Pine Bluff natives who want this thing to happen this year. We have 2,000 volunteers on our Facebook page who are ready to put this on this year. We have permission from Mr. Creed to use the name King Cotton.”
Asked about his planning, Norris said his partners and he have spent two years to produce the tournament in Pine Bluff.
“We have already paid for travel,” Norris said. “We really do not need Go Forward Pine Bluff. I want to make Pine Bluff better. They are going to drag their feet. I do not want their money.”
Norris has invited these teams: the Oklahoma City Storm; Riverdale Baptist High School; Carroll High School in Monroe, Louisiana; Guy Perkins; Little Rock Christian Academy; Bentonville West; Springdale Har-Ber; Fayetteville; North Little Rock School District; Little Rock Parkview; Southwest Christian Academy; Pine Bluff Schools; Sheridan-Girls; and Conway-Girls.
Norris said most teams will spend nights in Pine Bluff, although Little Rock teams may return to Little Rock. He said that people travel great distances to reach Pine Bluff for University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff homecoming.
“Ryan Watley is upset that we beat him,” Norris said. “We are going to do something for Pine Bluff. We will do the best tournament they have ever seen. We came to ask them to join in. … I hate that this is going this way with these guys.”
Informed of Norris' comment, Watley responded: “Our wish is to have the tournament according to what citizens voted for. We have a proposed timelime of 2019. However, we are willing to work with Mr. Norris on a potential 2018 tournament. There are a host of concerns around tangible financial resources with Mr. Norris and the proposed tournament. As of today, there was no deposit placed on the convention center and there were many conflicting statements Mr. Norris said regarding the structure of the proposed tournaments.”
Storie said Norris submitted an event funding request form. She said she needs a contract with all parties who plan to rent space at the convention center. Commissioner Wil Jenkins was absent.