The Go Forward Pine Bluff organization has officially opened what organizers call its campaign office ahead of the June special election to pass a sales tax to fund local community revitalization efforts. About 15 people gathered at 204 S. Main Street shortly after noon Tuesday to hang a Go Forward Pine Bluff sign in the window and hear brief remarks from Ryan Watley, who was recently announced as the CEO-elect of Go Forward.
Watley said he began looking for a site for the organization to get its message out last Friday. The Main Street location, near the intersection of Second Avenue and about a block away from the Jefferson County Courthouse, was soon located.
Wil Jenkins, who owns several buildings downtown, said he and his wife, Jan Robinson, have been renovating the first floor of the building for roughly two months to be a salon. The space used to house the former Cumberland Medical Clinic. The salon would be open to women, children and men and offer services such as skin and nail care, massages, hot shaves and shoe-shining.
“It was funny how things worked out,” Jenkins said. “This was going to be an uptown salon … [Go Forward] asked if they could use it as their headquarters. My wife, Jan Robinson, said, ‘Sure.’”
Jenkins, who said he and his wife support Go Forward Pine Bluff, said they put down wood flooring in the salon within three days. Watley said the downtown location in the former Cumberland Clinic is “perfect for what we’re trying to do” and is “a good illustration of what restoration looks like.”
Watley works at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as an assistant professor of chemistry and assistant director of development for athletics. The 100-person Go Forward Pine Bluff task force met throughout 2016 to develop a plan to halt the city’s declining population and tax base. In January, the task force released 27 recommendations in areas such as economic development, education, government and infrastructure and quality of life.
The task force estimated it would take $50 million to implement those plans. Organizers hope to gather $32 million over seven years from a new five-eighths-cent sales tax. The tax will require a majority of Pine Bluff voters to vote in favor of the tax in June. Critics of the plan argue that Pine Bluff residents are already overtaxed, and that adding another sales tax would fall most heavily on poor residents. Several members of the City Council voted recently against holding a special election for residents to vote on the tax, and Alderman Bruce Lockett indicated he would actively campaign against the tax.
Go Forward plans to begin “campaigning very seriously” ahead of the June special election, Watley said. Those efforts will include spending more on yard signs and mailers to encourage voters to pass the tax, and marshalling volunteers to canvass neighborhoods, he said. Formerly a member of the board of directors for community group Pine Bluff Rising, Watley said he would transition off that board in order to take his new position as CEO of Go Forward. Taking his new position was not a matter of improving communication between the two groups, he said, but it does mean the two “have a stronger relationship.”
He described the difference between the two groups as Go Forward addressing large subjects generally, such as blight, economic development and education. Pine Bluff Rising is intended to energize the community and provide hope, he said, as well as attack specific problems. He gave the example of the Hotel Pines downtown, which Pine Bluff Rising hopes to either restore or demolish.