GFPB's Forward Fest packs thousands into downtown Saturday

We want people to start looking forward to Forward Fest every year and to have it penciled into their calendars. The more that we build together the more momentum we as a community are building.   Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington  

Temperatures approaching the mid-90s Saturday afternoon did nothing to deter several thousand people from descending upon downtown Pine Bluff to enjoy the music, food and community fellowship on offer at the first annual Forward Fest sponsored by Go Forward Pine Bluff.

A large sound stage was set up directly behind the Jefferson County Courthouse at the intersection of Barraque and Main streets, with several rows of city-provided chairs already filled by festival-goers at 2 p.m.

Many more attendees sat in various styles of lawn chairs, camp chairs and the like that they brought from home, Leland Lassiter and Wilma Duncan among them.

“I love it,” Lassiter said in answer to the question of what he thought of Forward Fest. “It’s time for the people Pine Bluff to put aside the racial politics of the past and move forward together. None of us can do it alone. This event today is a symbol of what we can do together to move our city forward.”

Duncan agreed with the sentiments expressed by Lassiter.

“It really is a great event,” Duncan said.

Larry Crane, his wife Paula Crane and daughter Makeda Crane were on scene in the early afternoon to get the lay of the land before planning a return trip later in the evening.

“This is a good thing for Pine Bluff,” Larry Crane said. “I can’t say enough good things about it.”

“I think it’s a great thing for the city,” Paula Crane said.

Daughter Makeda lives in St. Louis now, but traveled home for the weekend to visit her parents.

“For me, it’s really nice to be able to return to Pine Bluff and have something fun to do right here at home, without having to drive to Little Rock,” Makeda Crane said.

Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley said that the event was first envisioned in October 2017 and put together by a steering committee made up of himself and four others.

“Forward Fest feels right for this city,” Watley said. “It is an event for the people to be proud of and that they have been looking forward to. We plan to make this an annual event.”

Watley explained that the mission of Go Forward Pine Bluff is to increase the tax base in the city.

“If we have several events like this every year for people to come to Pine Bluff to enjoy, they will help to accomplish that mission,” Watley said.

When asked how he thought the event was going as of 4 p.m. Saturday, Watley had this to say.

“This thing is so good that I haven’t heard a curse word all day,” Watley said.

Watley wanted to emphasize that Forward Fest would not have come off if not for the hard work of his steering committee colleagues Harold Terry, Tavante Calhoun, Gene White and Joseph McCorvey.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said that Forward Fest is one part of the overall vision for the revitalization of the city.

“Forward Fest is one of the best things we can have for the city,” Washington said. “Moving forward, we are going to be aggressive in our pursuit of a better city and Forward Fest is just the beginning of what is to come.”

Washington was happy to see the wide range of ages in attendance.

“I love seeing all of the families that have come down to enjoy this community event,” Washington said. “I’ve seen moms, dads, kids and grandkids.”

Washington said that in preparation for next year’s Forward Fest, she is asking the vendors who have come this year to spread the word to other vendors that they know in order to make the event bigger and better.

“We want people to start looking forward to Forward Fest every year and to have it penciled into their calendars,” Washington said. “The more that we build together the more momentum we as a community are building.”

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander liked what he saw as he stood on Main Street between Second and Third avenues looking towards the music stage and the courthouse.

“I think this is a great event for Pine Bluff and for this community,” Alexander said. “It signifies that we’re going forward as a community. What I have seen here today is the start of something big for Pine Bluff.”

Alexander credited the organizers at Go Forward Pine Bluff and the city government with pulling off a special gathering.

Local architect and blues musician Dave Sadler was the first of the day’s numerous musical acts and played several sets of his spirited, heartfelt, original compositions that had the early crowd energized.

“The main thing that Forward Fest signifies to me is community pride,” Sadler said in a conversation after his performance was completed. “It’s a great opportunity for everyone to enjoy some free entertainment. The people of Pine Bluff are always looking for something to do and music is the universal language.”

On a personal note, Sadler said that it is always special to be able to play his music in front of a hometown audience.

“It’s an honor to be called upon and to get to play on Main Street,” Sadler said. “I have been involved in downtown concert events for a while now, and it is nice to see these events really coming into their own now.”

Sadler said that those interested in more opportunities for free live music in Pine Bluff can check out the Open Blues Jam at 8 p.m. every Wednesday at Hot Rods at Second and Main. In addition, the Friday Night Blues Jam is held on the first Friday of every month in the Pines Mall food court adjacent to the old Garfield’s restaurant.