OPINION | EDITORIAL: El Dorado points way forward to Pine Bluff

In the run-up to the Nov. 14 election that will decide the fate of two Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored sales taxes, we once again hear the line, well if you don't like Go Forward's plan, what's your plan? It is as if the presence of a plan that hasn't worked should be left in place because of its mere existence at that moment.

Obviously, the idea of reckoning with something that is bad and also imagining what might be are two different pursuits, but if the interest is to come out of the shadow of Go Forward and find something better, we are liking the El Dorado story.

A few weeks ago, The Commercial went to the city to our south, based to a great degree on the public pronouncements being made about the city by state Rep. Vivian Flowers. Flowers, who was against the Go Forward plan in the beginning and remains one to this day, including the public sales tax proposal, said, no, the plan in place here does not have to be devoid of transparency and accountability like the one Go Forward has wrought. It can be delightfully see-through, with everyone knowing exactly where all the money came from and where it was spent. (Ask Go Forward who pays for CEO Ryan Watley's $170,000 yearly salary and they will not tell you. But we digress.)

Our reporter brought back some interesting tidbits from El Dorado, a town of less than half the population of Pine Bluff. They have a 1-cent tax called El Dorado Works, but overall, their tax rate is less than what Pine Bluff residents pay.

That town did not have an arts district, and now it does.

Pine Bluff's downtown is still much closer to a ghost town than anything considered to be thriving. El Dorado, on the other hand, has been celebrated with a No. 1 ranking as USA Today's Best Small Town Cultural Scene in 2021.

On the afternoon our reporter was there, townspeople could be seen frequenting the many small shops and restaurants in the Union Square area, which is considered the centerpiece of the city's downtown.

After street work is paid for in El Dorado -- Go Forward would rather spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lifeless downtown buildings -- one official said they anticipated having $12 million to $14 million left over, with another $10 million to be generated by the tax. Those funds, he said, will be spent for the betterment of the city.

El Dorado has also used $3 million to create the South Arkansas Expo Center on about 25 acres of donated land to the city, and tax proceeds have also helped a sports complex just east of El Dorado.

And here's the big difference: Potential projects are presented to an El Dorado Works board that is a five-person public committee of city government and are either recommended to the full city council or rejected.

"It's very transparent because you have to go before the El Dorado Works board and present your pitch with what you're using it for," said Bill Luther, president of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce.

How refreshing that sounds. Want to put in a go-kart track? Let's hear your proposal.

That's people who answer to the public dealing with the public's money in the open. Go Forward Pine Bluff projects, on the other hand, are discussed privately among a board of directors before they are revealed publicly to a very Go Forward-friendly city council.

And then there's the El Dorado Promise. Through that program, more than 2,850 students have attended college either for free or at a very small cost -- all from a $50 million investment by Murphy Oil Corp.

To encourage parents to put their children into the El Dorado School District, the scholarship program is only available for students who graduate from the El Dorado School District and have attended school in the district since ninth grade or earlier.

As Rep. Flowers has said, Pine Bluff may not have a Murphy Oil, but the city does have some big industries and some very big players in the banking sector. Go Forward prides itself on its ability to attract private donations for its cause. What if it was removed from micromanaging tax dollars and encouraged to turn its attention to creating a scholarship fund for Pine Bluff students? That effort, combined with the school district's building campaign, could create an educational juggernaut for the area, establishing a viable path forward for the city's continued loss in population.

So there you go. A plan. Click "no" on the Go Forward taxes, and get them out of an arena where they have failed, and let's get started on something productive. We think El Dorado has shown it can be done.