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A request by some community leaders asking the Pine Bluff School Board to hold a public forum to discuss recent board actions and decisions should be honored.

“The purpose of the forum would be for the board and public to engage in open discussion addressing concerns we believe of interest to the general public,” the letter asking for the forum read in part.

The signatories call themselves “constituents and supporters of the Pine Bluff School District.”

The only hurdle we observed is timing. The letter, delivered Tuesday, asked for the forum to be held within 10 days because of a general sense of unease in the community about the direction of the school district. Spring break begins Monday and some individuals involved may have plans to be out of town.

By delaying the forum until the week of March 26, the board and the petitioners would be demonstrating a willingness to communicate.

One of the petitioners said she hoped the board would explain the reasoning behind the termination of Superintendent Jerry O. Payne. District patrons have a right to ask the question. Upon receiving an answer, the patrons may agree or disagree.

Failure of the board to act promptly on the request could irreparably harm the board’s relationship with district residents.

Jobs welcome

The news that an investment group has purchased the old Tyson Foods plant on West Second Avenue and expects to reopen it by late spring, creating a potential 329 new jobs within three to five years, is good news indeed for a community that has seen hundreds of jobs disappear in recent years.

Horizon Foods, which pledged to open the plant in May, will initially employ 175 people to process egg-laying hens, primarily for foreign markets. Workers will be paid an average of $10.23 per hour, plus benefits, the firm indicated.

The Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County on Tuesday morning agreed to utilize $329,000 of the proceeds from the three-eighths-cent county economic development sales tax to purchase refrigeration equipment and to sell it back to Horizon. Horizon has put up an $114,000 deposit to cover the remainder of the equipment cost.

Horizon will pay the corporation $20,000 annually for the first four years for the equipment, and will have a final balloon payment of $249,000 at the end of the fifth year. The firm will receive a $1,000 credit for each full-time employee hired, up to a maximum 329, which would cover the entire outlay from the corporation.

The investors hope the plant can help meet the demand for inexpensive protein for export.

Lining up the investors and acquiring the plant didn’t happen overnight. Lou Ann Nisbett, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, has been working on the project for several years.

We hope the project proves successful and produces the needed jobs.

Tourism up

The 2011 tourism statistics for Jefferson County indicated more than $110 million was spent by visitors in total travel expenditures for the year, a $1.5 million increase over the previous year.

The 2011 data, released by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, reflected total travel expenditures of $110.7 million; travel generated payroll of $20.9 million; travel generated jobs of 1,321; travel generated state tax of $6.15 million; travel generated local tax of $2.24 million; and total visitors of 451,038.

Greg Gustek, director of the Pine Bluff Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that in addition to the $1.5 million increase in Jefferson County travel expenditures for 2011, there was an increase of roughly $500,000 in travel generated payroll between 2010 and 2011.

That ranks tourism among the top 10 employers in the county.