The Banquet Hall at the Pine Bluff Convention Center was filled Thursday morning with friendly conversation, the smell of breakfast sausage and ideas on how to maintain Arkansas highways provided by the Business Expo 2018 keynote speaker, Arkansas Highway Commissioner Robert Moore Jr.


Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted its 31st annual Business Expo, which is dedicated to showcasing products and services available to the Pine Bluff community, according to chamber officials.


Business Expo 2018 Chair Tisha Arnold of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff led planning efforts for the day’s events. This job included choosing the expo’s beach-inspired theme: “Seas the opportunities.”


Shortly after breakfast, Moore told the audience about upcoming, underway and future highway projects, along with plans to solve problems concerning roads and highways.


In 2011 and 2012, the commission began making efforts to reduce road congestion. These projects were voted on by the people and equal up to $1.5 billion and $2 billion, respectively. A temporary half-cent state-wide sales tax was put in place to raise funds for these projects, but Moore reassured the audience the tax does expire in 2023, and all projects are currently on schedule.


According to Moore, Jefferson County is rehabilitating the last 10 miles of I-530 which is due to be completed within the next year.


The commission also plans to add a two-lane connector from Interstate 69 to U.S. 425. Moore explained that the commission finds this particular project important because there is currently no federal money being dedicated to the improvement of I-69. Completing these plans will help the commission make a footprint on the highway.


With 16,000 miles of highway, Arkansas is the fourth largest highway system in the country. Costs of maintaining and reconstructing roads and highways are rising, but the Arkansas State Highway Commission’s general and federal funds have remained stagnant over the years, Moore said. With the proposed reconstruction efforts planned for the near future, this poses a problem for the commission, he said.


As of late, Moore said that there are not many positive details about big funding programs for rural states like Arkansas at the federal level. They have made it harder for states to receive necessary funding for highway and road projects by requiring a greater mass of state funds to get federal funds. There are also plans to diminish the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is where states receive federal money.


The Arkansas State Highway Commission has only raised half of the money needed to fund these highway reconstruction projects, and as Moore explained, to have better roads, “you need the money to do it.”


In order to solve this issue, the commission has made it their goal to not take away money from the existing budget but transfer new revenue growth. As suggested by Moore, this can be done with rehabilitation programs, temporary taxes, and transferring sales tax from new and old vehicles and auto parts. Two of these suggestions, rehabilitation programs and temporary sales taxes, were implemented in 2011 and 2012.


Moore acknowledged that efforts to generate new revenues is difficult because nobody wants to raise taxes or decrease general revenue, but this is a problem that everyone must consider because it affects future generations.


HONOREES


The chamber celebrated area businesses and non-profits with awards in different categories following Moore’s speech.


Pine Bluff Downtown Development received an award for Non-Profit Organization of the Year. Janice Acosta, of Relyance Bank, took the win for Business Person of the Year. LaTasha Randle, also of Relyance Bank, was the winner of the Young Professional of the Year.


Aside from the main categories, the chamber also presented people and businesses awards for Creative Booth and Chairman’s Club Member of the Year, which were Jenkins Memorial/Jenkins Industries and Roy Ferrell, respectively.


At 9 a.m., guests began visiting the many tropical-themed booths set up by businesses around the Pine Bluff community. The expo highlighted 18 local charitable organizations, showcased 2018 automobiles from Toyota’s new clearance event, and featured the JRMC Health Fair, which provided free health screenings for health issues such as blood sugar and cholesterol.


Among these businesses on display at the expo was Arkansas Printing Co., which provides locals with commercial and digital print services that include screen printing, embroidery, promotional products, and most recently, a newly-opened sign shop. Mark Pierce and Laura Robbins decorated their booth with product samples and décor to match the event’s theme to wow guests for this year’s expo.


There was a wide range of companies represented during the expo, including one person dedicated to making people laugh. Bob “Hubba Jubba” Moss, San Diego native, has dedicated the past 13 years to teaching children and teens in the Pine Bluff area.


“What I want to do is establish enthusiasm instruction,” he said.


His booth displayed recent news article clippings of Lunch, Learn and Laugh seminars, photographs documenting his journey, and handmade “Hubba Jubba” stickers which feature smiley faces and other handmade drawings. His purpose in creating his booth for this year’s expo was to show guests what they looked like laughing and smiling and evoke laughter from everyone who stopped by. Moss left all his visitors with Polaroid photos of them mid-laughter to brighten up their day.