What was supposed to be a debate between Ward 1 Alderwoman Thelma Walker and her opponent, Joni Alexander, Tuesday afternoon became an opportunity for Alexander to showcase herself without any competition.

We need to step in and prevent these kids from winding up on the streets. We need to use all our resources and partner with school districts to create programs for kids.

  Joni Alexander, candidate for Ward 1 alderman  

Walker bowed out of the event, saying she had an illness in the family.

She and Alexander will face off June 19 in a runoff election after neither received 50 percent of the vote during the May 22 Democratic Primary. The winner will face Republican Jesse Turner in November. Early voting in the runoff begins June 12.

Alexander, who worked for former Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, collected 577 votes during the primary. Walker, who has been on the council since 2005, received 404 votes. The third candidate in the race, Milton Jenkins, picked up 371 votes.

Tuesday’s event was held at the Donald W. Reynolds Community Center and was sponsored by the Pine Bluff Small Business Association.

A native of Pine Bluff and a graduate of Watson Chapel High School, Alexander received a degree from Virginia Commonwealth and taught English in Korea before returning to the city, where she created the Youth Engagement Service program and more recently has served as director of Student Achievement and Responsibility, which is modeled after the successful PARK program started by former professional football player Keith Jackson in Little Rock.

Alexander is also a graduate of the Candidates Development Institute conducted by the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce last year.

Janet Broiles, chief of staff at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, asked Alexander a range of questions, from how she would combat poverty in the city to the best way to remove blight and get people more involved in the community.

Alexander said that when she came back to Pine Bluff after being away for several years, she found the city was “at a standstill.”

“God led me to this place,” she said of her return to Pine Bluff, adding that her experience working in the Hollingsworth administration has prepared her for a seat on the City Council.

“I learned how each department functioned,” Alexander said.

And, if elected, she said she would ensure that she received input from department managers before creating legislation that affects them and their workers.

She said that, too often, legislation is crafted by aldermen who haven’t spoken with city workers or managers. Additionally, Alexander said she would like to see more city workers cross-trained so that if they have to perform the duty of a co-worker, they can do it without hesitation.

“I work at a bank, and if a customer has a question about their banking app, I can chat to our IT department and help that customer right away. There is no runaround,” she said.

On poverty and crime, Alexander said that a mindset must be changed.

“When I was younger, we took family vacations, and I was exposed to responsible adults who laid my foundation and who are still a major part of who I am today,” she said. “Forty-seven percent of the kids in Pine Bluff live below the poverty line. And you can’t blame the parents. Many are working two or three jobs and they don’t have any time to spend with their children.”

Alexander said she would like to see kids be more involved in local politics, urging them to register to vote as soon as they turn 18.

“Communities with low voter turnout are not as successful,” she said, adding that most of the people who complain the loudest aren’t voters.

As far as crime, Alexander said many youths in Pine Bluff take to the streets and are taken by the streets or wind up in jail.

“We need to step in and prevent these kids from winding up on the streets,” she said. “We need to use all our resources and partner with school districts to create programs for kids.”

On economic development, Alexander said that small businesses are the backbone of any city. She said that during her time in Richmond, Virginia, she noticed that the downtown area was made up almost exclusively of locally-owned shops and restaurants.

“They provide most of our jobs,” she said.

Alexander also said that many people have a misconception about the intention of Go Forward Pine Bluff, which is a five-eighths-cent economic development tax passed in 2017 designed to help spark the city’s economy through projects such as blight removal.

“It’s not designed to make neighborhoods look better, that’s something that people will have to do on their own,” Alexander said. “Go Forward is (primarily) about revitalizing downtown to make it more conducive to new businesses.”

Alexander also touched on the Plaza Hotel, which is connected to the Pine Bluff Convention Center and has been described by many as rundown. The hotel is also blamed by some for declining bookings at the convention center.

“The hotel on the outside basically looks like it did years ago,” Alexander said, inferring that, from the outside at least, the property doesn’t appear to be rundown. “The city should have done something about this hotel a long time ago. But you can’t bully him (the owner) to change the inside.”

When asked to list the top three issues she wants to tackle in Ward 1, Alexander said that education was number one, creating a strategic plan was two and collaboration was three.

Alexander said she wants to see a greater partnership between UAPB and the city, citing that “1,200 students live on campus, and if you ask, most of them only know how to get to Walmart or on our main thoroughfares. But they are hungry to learn more; they just don’t know how to get involved. We need to extend an olive branch to these students.”

In closing, Alexander said that she feels like it’s “time to pass the baton. Look back over the past 12 years in Ward 1, has anything changed? It’s time to stop complaining and take action. It’s nothing personal against my opponent. But it’s time to run this city like a business, or we will not be moving in the right direction.”