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Go Forward Pine Bluff Moves Toward Tax Votes

4 min read

A plan to make major improvements to the downtown Pine Bluff area and enhance education is looking toward a sales tax to help fund its numerous recommendations.

Go Forward Pine Bluff is an ambitious, $50 million-plus community revitalization plan with targets ranging from infrastructure improvements to education.

The plan, rolled out in January with input from 100 citizens, aims to address long-standing needs in Pine Bluff, including removing downtown blight, building affordable housing and luring businesses to the area. But it faces the challenge of finding funding through tax revenues in an age in which new taxes are not always popular.

Go Forward Pine Bluff contained 27 separate recommendations when it was unveiled before an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas on Jan. 12. There have been further discussions, tweaks and changes since — proponents have since dropped a recommendation to reintroduce the Civil Service Commission — and the next step is a city council vote on a seven-year, five-eighths cent sales tax measure at the council’s next meeting March 20.

If the council approves the measure it would go before the voters June 13, said Go Forward Pine Bluff Chair Mary Pringos and Simmons First Foundation Chair Tommy May on Thursday. The Simmons First Foundation conducted a year-long study that led to the creation and recommendation of the Go Forward plan.

“Our efforts … are devoted to getting the tax passed and our meetings are with different groups to ask questions and answer questions,” Pringos said.

Some of those questions were heard at Tuesday’s city council meeting in which the tax proposal was read. Pringos and May acknowledged that there are tax opponents and tax supporters, both were heard from Tuesday, and said opinions vary depending on with whom one speaks.

But Pringos and May said they were buoyed by the level of interest seen in the turnout for the initial rollout and follow up meeting and expressed confidence that the city council, and then the citizens, would approve the tax measure.

To help ensure a yes vote, Pringos and May said the Go Forward leadership has assured the public that accountability will be built into the plan, “so they can see how they are spending the money.” 

Additionally, a resolution was adopted in Tuesday’s meeting ensuring the mayor’s office and other department heads would be able to conduct a detailed evaluation of current projects to ensure there are no conflicts or overlap.

If the sales tax were approved and the Go Forward plan proceeds, Pringos said, it would necessitate forming a 501 (c) (3) organization, as the funding plan includes public and private money. Go Forward is projected to raise $32 million with another $20 million coming from private donations.

“One of our focus areas was education, so anything going on in that area will have to come from grants we will be able to acquire or donations from our citizens and businesses,” Pringos said.Private money could also be used as incentives for businesses to relocate to downtown to help with the revitalization.

The Go Forward Pine Bluff task force is also supporting renewal of a three-eighths cent, county-wide sales tax enacted in 2011 for economic development that is set to expire in 2018. 

Education proposals under the Go Forward plan include an Educational Alliance among the city’s three school districts to focus on improving educational performance through proven initiatives that include joint teaching arrangements with teachers from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs.

Among its other recommendations, Go Forward Pine Bluff includes a redo of city codes and enforcement under a municipal master plan; downtown beautification; creation of a Delta Festival with Delta basketball and baseball tournaments; food trucks; restaurants; a historic district with renovation of certain buildings like the Sanger Theater and Masonic Temple; elimination of residential blight and the creation of living and office space with incentives to draw businesses.

A proposed Innovation Hub would be located in the Arts and Science Center annex in a partnership with the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College.

A related development is the January sale of the historic Hotel Pines, opened in 1913, to the nonprofit group Pine Bluff Rising. Buying, demolishing or repurposing the hotel was one of the Go Forward Pine Bluff recommendations and, though the groups are separate, Pringos said she hoped they could work together and enhance each other.

At the time of purchase, The Pine Bluff Commercial reported that Pine Bluff Rising leaders were investigating the “challenges and opportunities” that may exist within the deteriorating property.

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