Go Forward Pine Bluff Chief Executive Officer Ryan Watley spoke Tuesday about the progress the non-profit is making since voters approved a five-eighths cent sales tax in June to fund the economic development initiative. Addressing the Pine Bluff Rotary Club, Watley said Go Forward’s goals are to expand the city’s tax base, keep residents from leaving, attract new residents and make the city a destination for visitors.

Since the tax passed in June, Watley said Go Forward has begun the process of hiring office staff; sought to build relationships with those who opposed the tax initiative; and worked with the city on “low-hanging fruit.”

Watley hailed the Pine Bluff City Council’s decision on Monday to reinstate an urban renewal agency in the city. Mayor Shirley Washington will appoint five board members to oversee the agency, which will likely have the power to condemn property, leverage bonds and use eminent domain.

“That’s very significant in our plan because we plan to deal very aggressively with the blight in our city,” Watley said, mentioning the roughly 500 condemned properties in the city, especially downtown. The agency will help “demolish, redevelop and repurpose those properties. After that, they will go into the redevelopment process. Some will be[come] affordable housing on those properties. Some will be community gardens.”

Watley referenced a resolution approved by the City Council to work with the University of Arkansas Cooperatives Extension Service to plant a community garden in each ward of the city. The city will receive a grant of $37,000 for the project, with the goal in the future of providing a local food source through the gardens to Pine Bluff and the surrounding area, Watley said.

Watley said he had also met with city officials to discuss beautifying the city, for example by planting flowers in the many open ditches that line the city’s streets.

“We don’t have the capital to fill in all the ditches,” he said, but the city could make them more attractive by planting flowers in open ditches. “That will immediately start to beautify the city with low hanging fruit.”

He introduced Stephen Luoni, the director of the University of Arkansas’ Community Design Center. Go Forward has retained the UACDC to create a master plan for streetscapes and planning to develop neighborhoods, particularly downtown.

Luoni said the plan would take 10 to 12 months to develop. It would likely include creating attractive public spaces, streets, squares and parks around focus areas such as Main Street, the new library and the Boys & Girls Club. The goal would be to create a landscape attractive to private investors to build around the recreational infrastructure. Luoni said he does not know Pine Bluff well, but he “can see a city that was enormously wealthy, culturally, socially and economically.

“Keep in mind that every major city in the U.S. in the last 50 years has been a shrinking city,” he said. “Many have come back – New York, Philadelphia, L.A. – but a lot haven’t. So how do we reclaim that prosperity?

“The cities that have come back have defined prosperity through livability. Walkability. Mixed use. Cities give us something unique. I’m not suggesting that everybody should live in a city, but everyone should have a right to the city. That’s what’s lacking here. We need to figure out how to take downtown, these old buildings, [and build around them].”

Watley added that he had hired an office manager / human resource director for Go Forward Pine Bluff, and was in negotiations to hire two more people. They would include a chief operating officer and a director of the innovation hub. The director of the innovation hub would also assist with the education pillar of the Go Forward Pine Bluff Plan, dealing with schools.