Go Forward Pine Bluff, the nonprofit formed to improve the southeast Arkansas city, will likely dissolve if a five-eighths-cent sales tax used to support the agency isn’t renewed, its CEO said.
“To be quite honest, without the public money, our role … will probably leave,” GFPB Inc. CEO Ryan Watley told Arkansas Business last week. “That basically means that … the city would lose pretty much a department working on its behalf full time.”
Go Forward was formed in 2017 to help the city increase its revenue, and residents passed a five-eighths-cent sales and use tax to support its efforts. The tax will end in September 2024, and earlier this year, voters rejected a measure to extend it into 2031.
But the Pine Bluff City Council is considering holding another special election in November to reconsider the tax. Council members discussed a proposal to authorize a vote last week, and the discussion will continue at its next meeting on Sept. 5.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Go Forward has faced criticism that it isn’t transparent and hasn’t accomplished much to improve the city.
Councilman Glen Brown Sr. said he doesn’t support the tax and that there shouldn’t be another vote. “The people have said no,” he said, adding that the city can survive without the tax.
Brown said he’s opposed to the tax money going to Go Forward because the City Council doesn’t have oversight of how the tax money is spent.
Watley disagreed. He said that the Public Private Review Committee of Go Forward Pine Bluff approves the projects before they are started. And the City Council’s committees review and approve the projects, so anything that Go Forward does with public dollars has to be approved by the City Council, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that economic development gets mixed with politics,” he said.
Ivan Whitfield, the president of the Pine Bluff Branch of the NAACP, also is opposed to Go Forward and extending the tax. “I believe our community will look better. I believe our community will be stronger” if Go Forward doesn’t exist, Whitfield said.
He said Go Forward has little to show for its work in the last six years. “What business is going to shut down if the tax is not renewed? None,” he said.
Whitfield said he thought the tax wasn’t extended in May because “citizens woke up and realized this is a failed private-public partnership.”
But Watley said Go Forward has developed several projects that improved the city and more are on the way. They include Go Forward’s innovation hub, the Generator, which opened in 2020 to help small businesses.
Watley also said that Go Forward has a partnership with Simmons Bank of Pine Bluff and Relyance Bank of White Hall to provide 100% or 97% financing to homeowners. He said about 35 people have become homeowners since 2022 because of the program.
Watley said projects totaling about $40 million in value are in development because of Go Forward and its partners, including an $8.5 million project at Sixth and Main streets for restaurants and retail.
In addition, a 26-unit apartment complex with retail space in downtown Pine Bluff is expected to start construction in the middle of September.
Watley said that Go Forward projected in 2017 that it would raise $19 million in grants, investments and philanthropy. By the end of 2024, it should have surpassed that amount, he said.
“So we have a lot of work that we’re engaged in, and the completion of all of those with this sales tax initiative and the private funds raised will make a difference in Pine Bluff,” Watley said. “And that is going to continue to transform our community.”