The Pine Bluff City Council on Monday voted unanimously to activate a long-dormant urban renewal agency.


An urban renewal agency is a public entity created to transform blighted urban areas into productive property. Such agencies typically possess powers including eminent domain and the ability to take out bonds. Pine Bluff created an urban renewal agency in 1961 and dissolved it roughly a decade later.


Mayor Shirley Washington will appoint five members to the board of the revived urban renewal agency, which will likely eventually receive funding from private or public revenue as part of the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan. Alderman Bruce Lockett said he supported the agency and believed it was the right vehicle to address blighted areas in the city. However, he said the council must make sure it provides proper oversight.


“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got transparency and accountability, because this agency will have the power to leverage [development in Pine Bluff] in the next generation,” Lockett said.


Former Alderman Glen Brown Sr. criticized the council’s decision in public comments at the end of its regular meeting, saying the urban renewal agency would be too powerful and not responsive to voters.


“If you enact [the urban renewal agency], you say you’ve underpowered the city government,” Brown Sr. said.


The council also decided against a proposal to spend $400,000 on renovations to the Merrill Community Center, although it voted to order the Public Works Committee to explore smaller renovations to undertake before the end of the year.


Mayor Shirley Washington said the center would be either rebuilt or renovated, but that funds are needed until January 1 for potential matching grants for other recreation facilities such as the proposed aquatic center.


The council did approve an $80,000 budget request by the Parks and Recreation Department. The total includes $60,000 for two new vans to transport youth to various activities, three air conditioning units at the Chester Hines Community Center and $10,000 for softball nets at Pine Bluff Regional Park.


Washington, addressing the need for upgrading the Merrill Center, said the city had to take needs one by one and check them off a list, but that it will happen.


The council suspended its rules to pass an ordinance transferring administration of a pension investment plan for police officers who retired prior to 1983. Officers who retired after 1983 receive retirement benefits paid through the statewide Arkansas Local Police and Retirement System (LOPFI). There are 71 enrollees in the pre-1983 police pension plan, including spouses of officers and one adult son. City Finance Director Steve Miller has said transferring the administration of the plan would cost the city more in annual pension contributions over the short-term but likely save money on the back end of the plan.


A first reading of a request to rezone residential property on South Cherry Street to operate a bed-and-breakfast drew several public comments. Alderman Win Trafford and his partners Tom Reilley and Nate Drinkwine are renovating the historic Greystone residence at 4001 S. Cherry in hopes of converting it to a bed-and-breakfast.


They propose to have six bedrooms and hold up to 24 events per year with up to 125 people, with permission to hold them either indoor or outdoor up until 8 p.m. Several neighbors spoke against the proposal, saying it could bring noise to the neighborhood. Keidra Burrell, the chief of staff for Washington, said she lived in the area and although she had no doubt it would be a beautiful facility, she still opposed it.


Burrell said the 24 events could be condensed into three or four months, which would be a burden to the neighborhood. And she said the change in zoning for one property could lead to similar requests in other residential neighborhoods.


“My neighbors are proud of our homes and our neighborhood, and… wouldn’t necessarily like a party every weekend with people who don’t live in our neighborhood,” Burrell said.


Another speaker, Jack Foster, suggested the city could face litigation if it approved the re-zoning, because the planning commission turned down a 2014 request by an African-American woman to operate a restaurant at the defunct Eden Park Country Club, which is next door to the Greystone residence.


Drinkwine said the first priority of he, Reilley and Trafford was to create a nice place for people to stay, calling the events a secondary aspect of the request. The bed-and-breakfast would serve visiting businesspeople, families of college students and families of loved ones at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, among others.


“We’re looking to create a very special place for people to come and stay,” Drinkwine said. “We plan to have events. There will be a tent pad. It’s such a beautiful property, it would be a shame to watch it decay.”


The council also passed several resolutions. One resolution would authorize the mayor to execute a memorandum of understanding with the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees for cultivation of four community gardens. The city will receive a $37,000 grant and plant a community garden in each ward.


It also passed a resolution committing the city to spend $30,000 in matching grant funds over two years for the development of the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Cultural and Entertainment District. Finally, the council passed a resolution to support federal and state legislation to ensure the proper assessment and collection of sales tax from all online and Internet sales.


The council passed an ordinance to update the city’s guidelines for purchases, in a move aimed at paying contractors who are cutting overgrown lots for the city’s Quality of Life Division.