This story has been updated to reflect the amount of money Go Forward Pine Bluff has given toward construction of the Pine Bluff Aquatic Center.

Officials with the Go Forward Pine Bluff 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation say they have made progress in areas such as small business education, festivals and funding an aquatic center since Pine Bluff voters approved funding the Go Forward plan with a five-eighths cent sales tax in June 2017.

The Pine Bluff Commercial spoke with Go Forward officials to get a sense of what has been accomplished since the tax passed. This article is the first of a multi-part series on Go Forward developments thus far.

The Go Forward tax began collecting revenues on Oct. 1, 2017. Through July 2018, $2.529 million in revenue has been collected, while business contributions, grants and private donations have totaled more than $900,000.

Go Forward has contributed $4 million to construction of the City of Pine Bluff aquatic center, which broke ground in May. Other big expenditures include $213,714 for the city’s downtown master plan, $195,757 for festivals and $417,970 for administration/overhead.

The Go Forward plan includes 27 recommendations aimed at improving the city’s downtown, education system, business climate, quality of life and other areas. It is a public/private partnership, combining tax money raised from residents with grants and donations from businesses and individuals. It is expected to cost $50 million over seven years, with $31 million coming from tax revenues (at an estimated $15.67 per household per month), $7 million from business donations and another $12 million from grants and donations.

Mary Pringos, vice-chairman of the Go Forward board of directors, spoke with the Commercial about what officials there see as the successes and unforeseen challenges of the non-profit’s first months in operation. Pringos spent two decades at MK Distributors, Inc., then joined the Simmons Foundation before chairing the task force that developed the Go Forward plan.

Pringos said one of the most pleasant surprises was how hard Go Forward’s three-person staff work and how well they work together. Ryan Watley, a former assistant professor of chemistry and assistant director of development of athletics at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, was named Go Forward’s chief executive officer-elect in April 2017 and currently serves as CEO.

Leigh Cockrum, its office manager and human resources advisor, also works with the newly formed urban renewal agency. Mildred Franco serves as executive director of The Generator, an innovation hub meant to spur the development of local small businesses. Franco also chairs Go Forward’s Education Alliance.

“[It’s] not just that we got people capable of doing the job and good at it, but they are undoubtedly the most dedicated, to the person, of any I know,” Pringos said. “I mean, they work long and hard all the time… we all work well together, and you just don’t expect that to the man. But they’re truly committed to what we’re doing. I don’t think we could have done a better job in the ones we selected.”

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Some of the notable signs of progress Go Forward has seen include the multipurpose/aquatic center, small business workshops by The Generator and the attendance of local festivals, Pringos said.

Construction of the aquatic center, which has long been a goal for the city, was one of the 27 recommendations in the Go Forward plan. Aided by a $4 million contribution from the Go Forward sales tax revenue, work on the aquatic center began in May and is scheduled for completion by fall 2019.

“They seem to be really moving along on that,” Pringos said. Construction of a separate multipurpose center for meetings and events was initially part of the Go Forward plan. However, a lack of funds led city officials to combine elements of the multipurpose center with the aquatic center, Pringos said.

Another aspect of the Go Forward plan that has produced noticeable results is festivals. “Forward Fest: Blues, Batter and Brew” drew more than 15,000 people to downtown Pine Bluff in early June. Hundreds of people attended the one-day Pop Up in the Bluff festival in October 2017, with a similar Pop Up event planned for September 2018. Go Forward contributed $170,000 to the Pine Bluff Convention Center for three festivals: Forward Fest, UAPB Homecoming and an upcoming basketball tournament.

Pringos explained that the thinking behind the festivals grew from discussions during planning for Go Forward surrounding quality of life in Pine Bluff. Surveys of residents found that people wanted “things to do in their leisure time and places to eat in town,” Pringos said.

“As we saw with Forward Fest, if you have it, people will come.” In addition to providing social events for the community, festivals help to establish Pine Bluff as “a point of destination,” Pringos said. Money spent by outside visitors attending events in Pine Bluff will bring in revenue that can be spent on services for residents, she said.

Pringos also said that Mildred Franco’s series of seminars for The Generator on starting and growing small businesses has drawn a greater-than-expected attendance, indicating a thirst for business know-how on behalf of residents. Franco received 468 responses to a survey she conducted seeking information about the area’s small businesses.

Franco held one workshop in July with the help of the Arkansas office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and another two in August. Twenty-one people attended the July seminar, 24 attended the first August seminar and 18 were registered for the second August seminar, Franco said.

Four more seminars are scheduled for September. They include one on September 10 at 6 p.m. at Southeast Arkansas College about capital and collateral; another on the restaurant business on September 13 at 6 p.m. at Pine Bluff First Assembly of God; a third on September 18 at 6 p.m. at the White Hall Community Center about starting a business and access to capital; and a fourth on September 24 at 6 p.m. at Southeast Arkansas College about making the case for a small business loan.

CHALLENGES

Asked to describe what unexpected challenges Go Forward has encountered in its first months of existence, Pringos mentioned the time it took to get the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency established. Pringos said she has had to learn a lot about how city government works. Any item up for consideration has to be approved through subcommittees of the Pine Bluff City Council, and then read aloud at three council meetings.

“Developing [the urban renewal agency’s] plan, the map of the area they were going to address, each step had to go through a committee first,” Pringos said. “We think it’s going to work beautifully, but it took a long time to set up.”

The agency also dealt with turnover at its executive director position. Two candidates accepted the $60,000-a-year position, then abruptly left to take other jobs. Maurice Taggart, a Pine Bluff native, was hired in early August to the position. The agency’s Board of Directors has approved a contractor’s bid to demolish five houses, according to an August 27 press release. The agency also accepted a bid to purchase a large excavator, a Peterbilt truck and a trailer for demolition purposes, as well as a budget line item for both a truck driver and a heavy equipment operator.

Go Forward’s Education Alliance, comprised of officials from local high schools and colleges, recently held a day-long workshop at Relyance Bank. Go Forward is more limited with what it can do in education than other areas, Pringos said, because it cannot spend tax money on education.

Money for education initiatives will come from business and private donations. The education alliance is currently focusing heavily on things it can do to help recruit and retain teachers, Pringos said. Franco, who is overseeing the alliance, said the Pine Bluff School District being placed in financial distress has introduced more uncertainty into planning on education matters.

Go Forward Pine Bluff revenues and expenditures from July 2017 to July 2018

Revenues:

5/8-cent Sales Tax: $2,529,997.64 Business Contributions: $841,423.79 Individuals’ Contributions: $63,094.20 Grants: $32,250.00 Interest: $2,353.56 Miscellaneous: $100.00 Gross Income: $3,469,219.19

Expenses:

Admin/Overhead: $417,970.48 Downtown Master Plan: $213,714.10 Festivals**: $195,757.73 Land Bank: $32,408.58 Candidate Development Institute: $2,072.48 Education Alliance: $2,000.00 The Generator: $800.00 Grant Writer: $100.00

Total Expenses: $865,391.04

Net: $2,603,828.15

**$170,000 to PB Convention Center for three festivals (Forward Fest, UAPB Homecoming and upcoming basketball tournament)