Planning for the Pine Bluff Downtown Streetscape Project is almost complete, nearly seven years after voters approved it as part of a multi-pronged economic development sales tax.

Larry Matthews, director of the Department of Economic and Community Development, and Lori Walker, ECDD assistant director, provided updates on this project and several others at an ECD meeting held Tuesday.

Matthews said the city “met with contractors last week and we are waiting for a lighting design plan from Entergy as well as approval from the Arkansas Highway Department, which is also waiting for Entergy's plan.”

The project was included in the “Penny for Progress” tax proposal approved by Pine Bluff voters in 2011 and consists of improvements being made to 13 blocks in the downtown area. Starting at the intersection of Walnut Street and Martha Mitchell, the project will extend one block down to Barraque Street, turning back east of Main Street to State Street.

Starting from the courthouse, the project will include Main Street and Barraque Street all the way down to Eighth Avenue. The mission is to recreate a cleaner and safer downtown that encourages gathering.

Matthews said that the project is 95 percent complete as far as planning and designing.

In design plans presented at a previous meeting, all cross sections in the area will be reconstructed. This includes wider sidewalks (10-foot minimum), reducing traffic from four lanes to two, landscaping with new trees and flowerbeds, water gardens, benches, bike racks, contributory signs displaying people that have contributed to the city, and installation of brick pavers at parallel parking and crosswalks. An entirely new lighting system will be installed with underground electric, and United Water will be upgrading the water lines.

The project is slated to begin in late June or early July.

Walker informed the committee that the University Park Streetscape Project is approximately 90 percent complete with the planning stage. “We reviewed plans last week, and updates are being made to the plan as far as benches and their placements,” said Walker. The project is funded by the Highway Department and will be done in phases.

Matthews informed the committee that requests for qualifications have been submitted for an engineering firm to look at the following areas for potential updates: Plum Street, the Harding Drain Study, and the Merrill Drainage Project.

Plum Street's crossing streets (King Street, Belle Street, Vaugine Street, Locust Street, etc.) will be studied for updates on the sidewalks and curbs.

The Harding Drain Study consists of studying the deterioration of the drainage system due to it being over 60 years old.

The Merrill Drainage Project consists of studying the drainage system, which is the ditch located by the Merrill Center. The department wants to place drainage system underground, with pipes, and regain the land back for use. The project is funded by funds from the 2011 five-eighths cents sales tax.

Pine Bluff Alderman Bruce Lockett suggested that the committee try to have a master drainage study done for the entire city of Pine Bluff in an effort to improve the drainage system and minimize flooding.

Matthews told the committee that he will contact engineers to get an estimate on what the cost will be to conduct the study and report back to the committee.

In other news, Matthews said that the department has received bids for the Barraque Street Sewer Project, and they are currently reviewing them. He stated that it will cost approximately $325,000 to install a new sewer system along the Hutchinson and Barraque areas. “The residents will have a sewage system by Christmas,” Matthews said.

In other news, Matthews said there has been a $650,000 Community Development Block Grant, $244,315 HOME funds and $221,891 Homeless funds allocated to the city for 2018. The CDBG is one of the longest-running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and funds local community development activities such as affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and infrastructure development.

The HOME Investment Partnerships Program provides formula grants to States and localities that communities use — often in partnership with local nonprofit groups — to fund a wide range of activities including building, buying, and/or rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or homeownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income people. HOME is the largest federal block grant to state and local governments designed exclusively to create affordable housing for low-income households.

In other news, Matthews said that the Pine Bluff Plaza, located at 601 Main Street, is almost finished with Phase 1, consisting of paving the site's surface. The department is working on final costs with contractors for the completion of the project. The plaza is designed to be a space for residents to gather downtown to enjoy lunch or relax during nice weather.

The project is funded by an Environmental Protection Agency Grant and Community Development Block Grant and will cost around a half-million dollars to complete.

In other news, Matthews requested that the committee send a letter to Habitat for Humanity and Jefferson County Community Development Corporation requesting their presence at a future meeting to discuss what has been done with the funds they have received and what progress has been made in their organizations.

Matthews informed the committee that the Southwood Elementary School Sidewalk Project is 100 percent complete.“The contractors just installed the last caution sign on Monday,” Matthews said.

The project consists of the improvement of sidewalks on the side of 42nd and Fir, extending onto the Southwood Elementary School campus. New cellular safety lights and caution signs were also installed for crossing. The project was funded by an $80,000 grant.