We had a chance to visit the Merrill Center recently, and we have to be honest — it made us want to be a kid again. Seeing all those bright young faces scurrying around and enjoying life made us long for the care-free days of childhood.


But as an adult observer, we couldn’t help but notice that the Merrill Center is in dire need of renovations. It’s run down to the point of being an embarrassment to our community.


Instead of renovating it, though, why not build a new one? While we are at it, let’s build community/youth centers in all four wards of Pine Bluff. What better way for the city to show its residents that they matter? Each center should have a place for youth to play, a police substation, meeting rooms, and perhaps a small market where fresh food is available or where locals could peddle crafts or other wares.


Former Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth pushed for a renovation of the Merrill Center, which serves as many as 300 kids a day during summer months, in her first months in office. After local architect Fred Reed conducted a scope of work, the council’s Public Works Committee recommended that the City Council allocate $450,000 from the 2011 five-eighths cent reserve fund to renovate the facility. The reserve fund is comprised of tax revenue collected before bonds were issued to pay for various infrastructure projects and which is not bound to a specific project.


But the aldermen axed the notion. And here we sit, years later, with a still-run-down Merrill Center. From what we have been told, that money is still available for use. And it’s desperately needed. It could help fund construction of a new Merrill Center. And there’s also the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax money, which will be available in early 2018.


Additionally, the city is trying to raise funds to build a multi-purpose center that’s supposed to be located somewhere near City Hall. We feel that’s a mistake. Multi-purpose centers (youth centers, community centers, whatever name you want to give them) belong in neighborhoods. Our city must show residents that it wants to invest in them and their future.


We already have a large multi-purpose center in the Pine Bluff Convention Center. And while it could use a freshening up, we don’t need another one. According to youth.gov, a government-sponsored website offering information on issues affecting youth, effective after school programs and youth/community centers bring a wide range of benefits to youth, families and communities. After school programs can boost academic performance, reduce risky behaviors, promote physical health, and provide a safe, structured environment for the children of working parents.


The website says that:Attending after school programs can improve students’ academic performance.Effective after school programs can improve classroom behavior, school attendance, academic aspirations, and can reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out.Participation in after school programs has been associated with reduced drug use and criminal behavior.After school programs can play an important role in encouraging physical activity and good dietary habits.Working families and businesses also derive benefits from after school programs that ensure that youth have a safe place to go while parents are at work. Parents concerned about their children’s after school care miss an average of eight days of work per year, and this decreased worker productivity costs businesses up to $300 billion annually.


Come on, Pine Bluff. Let’s build these community centers.