Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series.
To go forward or not to go forward? That is the question that many are contemplating when it comes to the renewal of the 2017 sales tax in addition to a new public safety tax that will be in the hands of Pine Bluff voters on May 9.
To give voters a better understanding of how the tax would be used, Go Forward Pine Bluff representatives and Pine Bluff elected officials gathered Tuesday morning in front of the Joe T. Thomas Public Safety Complex to provide clarification and to correct misconceptions about the tax.
As those in support of the tax joined Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, including council members Steven Shaner, Lannette Frazier, Latisha Brunson and Glen Brown Jr., one couldn’t help but notice the “Stop GFPB” signage displayed by someone in opposition to the taxes. Also showing his opposition by wearing a “No GFPB” button was former Pine Bluff council member and NAACP president Ivan Whitfield.
“One of the reasons we’re here is to make sure all of our general public understands where we are and where we are going,” said Washington, who added that nearly eight years ago there was no forward progress or no positive movement in the city of Pine Bluff. “There was the initiative GoForward that was on the table. One hundred people joined that initiative to develop a plan to move our city forward.” Washington explained that when the process began, downtown Pine Bluff was at a loss with MainStreet closed and bricks in the street.
“We all know there was no activity as far as positive things and building in the city and so much has happened since we started this Go Forward process,” said Washington. “It’s important that we keep it moving. We don’t want anything that we started to stop.” Attendees at the press conference were given an impressive list of accomplishments the public/private partnership between Go Forward Pine Bluff and the city of Pine Bluff have achieved so far.
GFPB CEO Ryan Watley said the special five-eighths-cent tax produced approximately $5 million dollars annually on top of the organization raising $13.7 million in private grants, contributions and investments.
“That number continues to grow because we work and do our best to leverage,” said Watley.
The accomplishments of GFPB included the following: Urban Renewal Agency’s 175 demolished properties; In the process of constructing a $3.5 million go kart track; Education initiatives allowing 38 teachers to become certified while five received their master’s degrees; Affordable housing through the ALICE program with 28 new homeowners since February 2022; In the process of constructing new single- and multifamily housing; Contributed $1 million to renovate the Pine Bluff Community Center; Hosted over 20festivals and events; Created first responder retention incentives that are currently being utilized by 20-plusfirst responders; Invested $1 million to improve Regional Park and the Pine Bluff Convention Center; Purchased entrance signs welcoming visitors to Pine Bluff totaling more than $136,000; Fulfilling initiatives of the Downtown Master Plan with construction projects in the process including a $24 million Marriott Hotel and a $7.5 million retail and restaurant plaza at Sixth Avenue and Main Street; Providing more than$220,000 in assistance to small business owners through the resources provided at the Generator; Completing the Aquatic Center with $4 million of tax money.
“We know that there is much that we started that is not finished so it’s important that we move this tax forward with reinstating the tax so we can complete these initiatives,” said Washington, who added that the pandemic stopped some of the projects and slowed down the progress of others. From interested restaurants, retail stores and a movie theater investor, Washington said those plans were put on hold by the interested parties and now before moving forward investors are waiting to see if the tax will pass.
“Now that covid has ceased things have come back to a level of normalcy,” said Washington. “We know that it is important that we continue to push and to push hard to make sure that we complete those goals that we had on the table. We are doing this early so we can keep our plans going and look at the money that we have for projects that we are working on and continue to move forward with the projects that are coming.” Watley said all projects that the agency has started will be completed with this cycle of funding including the go-karttrack, the Marriott Hotel, the Sixth Avenue and Main Plaza, blight removal and multifamily housing.
“We have to urge people that the time is now,” said Watley. “We have to keep the momentum going. We’ve done a lot but a lot is still needed.”
In part two, those for and against the tax speak out.