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PINE BLUFF -- The city cleared another hurdle in its quest to purchase and renovate the Plaza Hotel with the acceptance Wednesday of a resolution of support by the city's Advertising and Promotion Commission.

The commission voted 5-1 in favor of the resolution following about 45 minutes of vigorous debate as commissioners wrangled over just what obligation the commission would have by agreeing to the terms of the resolution.

By accepting the resolution, the Advertising and Promotion Commission agreed to four primary conditions: that it support the establishment of a convention center and hotel complex; that it support the design and cost estimate phase of the hotel; that, contingent upon renovation cost, it consider allocating a portion of tax dollars it takes in to satisfy the debt service; and that it would be relieved of any financial responsibility associated with the hotel if the hotel were to generate net income above that required to service the debt.

At issue was the lack of a price tag for the renovation of the five-floor, 200-room hotel, which is attached to the city's convention center but closed off due to the dilapidated condition of the hotel, and the concern that the commission would obligate itself to an unknown financial commitment.

Commissioner Bill Moss objected to the lack of a feasibility study with the resolution, and he disagreed with commission chair Rosie Pettigrew's characterization of the resolution as non-binding.

"This resolution, the chair may say it's non-binding," Moss said, "but it in effect puts out the intent to obligate, financially, this commission to amounts unknown."

Moss noted that the resolution gave no estimates for renovation costs.

"It's just blue sky, blank check," he said.

Moss also argued that using public funds to renovate the hotel would put the city in competition with private hotel owners in the area, giving the city an unfair competitive advantage over those hotel owners, whose taxes would go to renovate the very hotel they would be competing against. And he noted that the commission, as a public entity, would not be liable for income taxes, giving it an immediate financial advantage.

Maurice Taggart, director of the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, which has agreed to purchase the hotel for $1.2 million and turn it over to the convention center for renovation, said one of the central tenets of the urban renewal plan is to revitalize the designated urban renewal area, which encompasses the hotel and convention center.

Taggart said one of the main impediments to attracting significant conference and convention business to the city is the lack of suitable hotel space immediately adjacent to the convention center.

Go Forward Pine Bluff Director Ryan Watley said the intent of the resolution is to explore how the city can make a hotel/convention center complex viable once again.

"We're not asking for any money," he said. "What we're asking is that you guys walk down this alley with us and determine the cost."

Watley said the crucial point of the issue is to acquire the hotel so that the city can exert control over the property and prevent a continuing situation like the one that currently exists, with the hotel in disrepair and in the hands of someone who lacks the resources or the desire to put it into suitable condition to be paired with the convention center.

He said significant funds have been expended on improvements to the convention center and construction of the aquatic center, and securing the hotel is the next logical step.

"You've built around the hotel, but you've got the hotel that puts you at risk of your investment," Whatley said. "If you have someone who comes in and wants to rent hotel rooms at $40 a night, then where are you? You have not protected your investment."

He said the logical step would be to purchase the hotel and then find a private investor to help with the renovation and operation.

Joseph McCorvey , director of the Pine Bluff Convention Center, said that without the attached hotel, he struggles to draw business to the convention center.

"That is a problem and if we let the years pass by, we can't be competitive, and meanwhile other cities around the state like El Dorado and even Conway, they're getting tournaments in there," McCorvey said. "We've got to do something and it's better to get hold of that building as a first step."

Mayor Shirley Washington said that now that the resolution has been accepted by the Advertising and Promotion Commission, the next step is to acquire the hotel.

"We haven't bought the hotel, so the next step will be to move forward and acquire the hotel at the best price," she said. "For us to do that, there has to be an appraisal. I'm working with Maurice and Ryan on those next steps, but I know that's one of them."

Washington said that if the resolution had not passed, the city would have continued looking for support for the endeavor.

"We might have looked for some other options, and we still might, this isn't the end of the road. This is not saying that this is the way we will move with this," she added. "But it was one of the options. We wanted to see if they would work with us but we may not even use it. Everything is at an exploratory stage at this point."

State Desk on 10/24/2019

Print Headline: Pine Bluff gets closer to hotel buy


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