Go Forward Pine Bluff revitalization projects are gearing up as a result of Pine Bluff voters’ approval of a five-eighths cent sales tax increase in June. The tax began collections on Oct. 1, and the money will become available to spend on projects on Jan. 1, 2018. The Go Forward Pine Bluff tax is expected to generate $31.5 million over its seven-year lifespan, and the Go Forward Pine Bluff staffers expect to raise an additional $19 million to $20 million from grants and gifts.

Supporters say this public-private partnership will improve Pine Bluff through quality of life, education, economic development and government infrastructure.

Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley provided an update on projects on Friday. He has already announced the board of directors, who will serve as consultants on the projects. The organization has hired former Simmons Bank employee Leigh Cockrum as an office manager and human resources manager and Mildred Franco as executive director of an innovation hub.

The Urban Renewal Agency came into existence and consists of volunteer commissioners Jimmy Dill, Travis Martin, Rita Conley, Lloyd Franklin Sr. and Kirby Mouser. They are dealing with blighted properties, obtaining properties and renovating properties, Watley said.

“We have an outstanding opportunity to use this vehicle to make a demonstrable change,” Watley said. “I applaud Mayor (Shirley) Washington for the commissioners she chose because they possess the intellectual capacity necessary to carry out the urban renewal plan.”

This agency began meeting this month and will meet on the third Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at Pine Bluff City Hall’s council chambers conference room. Go Forward Pine Bluff staffers meet with whomever requests a meeting, establishes partnerships, seeks their buy-in from “those who are not too confident in the public-private partnership,” Watley said.

“Everyone in Pine Bluff wants to see Pine Bluff be competitive around the state in terms of quality of life, education, economic development, and government infrastructure,” Watley said.

The Delta Regional Authority has awarded the City of Pine Bluff $1 million, and Watley said this is proof that the public-private partnership works.

Go Forward consists of 27 initiatives. One initiative is the candidates institute, which seeks to educate and inform citizens about public office. This coincides with making informed decisions, how to run a sound campaign, how to finance a campaign, and how to be a person of integrity.

“These are very important issues in terms of securing the future of Pine Bluff,” Watley said. “We’ve talked about internal developments and external developments. We are in the process of budgeting these tax dollars. We are working with Mayor Washington and her staff on presenting a budget that she has to approve.”

Another initiative is building a community garden at the former Davis Hospital site. This is a partnership with the University of Arkansas Agriculture Extension Office’s Pia Woods and Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington.

Another initiative is the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville community design center designing a downtown master plan. This group held listening sessions in August at the Pine Bluff Convention Center so Pine Bluff residents could provide their input. This group has returned with a staff of 15 people and walked through downtown Pine Bluff to gauge a sense of its conditions.

“We received a three-dimensional map of existing conditions in five areas of high-traffic potential,” Watley said. “We will be releasing this map to the public once the full concept is developed.”

“It has been determined that we absolutely need an extensive municipal master plan,” Watley said.

Go Forward staffers are also completing the educational alliance board. They have met with Pine Bluff Superintendent Michael Robinson, Watson Chapel Superintendent Connie Hathorn and Dollarway Superintendent Barbara Warren and one member of their district’s respective board of directors.

“This is our most important initiative,” Watley said. “We are engaging in not only revitalizing the quality of life. We must have an educated citizenship for many years to come. Many communities ignore the challenges of a public education system.”

Watley said school districts are constantly producing high school graduates who are not employable and not prepared for college. Go Forward staffers “know that by working with the school districts they will succeed as a community and serve as a model for improving public education across the United States,” he said.

Another project is to establish a Delta Celebration Series of events and festivals based on a concept of invigorating many of Pine Bluff’s long-standing traditions with new activities, superior marketing and public input.

“We are extremely excited about the participation of our board members in this process,” Watley said. “GFPB remains grateful to the business community who has helped the organization financially and we also thank Mayor Washington and the City Council for continuing to engage in progressive dialogue to move Pine Bluff forward.”