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story.lead_photo.caption The Pine Bluff Convention Center is shown in this undated photo. ( Pine Bluff Commercial / Dale Ellis)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the convention center has been able to continue operations with minimal staff disruption, which may be partially attributable to Pine Bluff's method of funding the center and a minimal fall-off in restaurant receipts during the health crisis.

Much of the convention center's funding comes from disbursements from the Advertising and Promotion Commission, which is funded through a 3% tax on hotel receipts and a 2% tax on hot-food receipts.

In years past, the Civic Auditorium Complex, as it is officially known, has played host to many assorted events, from Elvis Presley concerts to the King Cotton Basketball Classic, and many, many other concerts, sporting events, conventions, and other types of gathering since it opened in the mid-1970s.

But, starting with the coronavirus pandemic that began shutting down huge areas of commercial and social life in the U.S. in March, the convention center has served as more of a "safe space" for smaller meetings needing space to spread out as a way of accommodating social-distancing needs.

Since March, the convention center has served as a venue for meetings of the City Council, food giveaways, census events, and other types of meetings that needed to ensure that participants can remain apart.

That has enabled Joe McCorvey, the director of the convention center, to continue as normal for most of the time the center has been shut off from its regular operations.

"What I did, while all the other convention centers furloughed their people immediately," McCorvey said.

"I held our folks on because we were applying for that [Payroll Protection Program] grant money from the state."

The center was denied the funding, which resulted in the immediate furlough of some staff members, but a grant from the Advertising and Promotion Commission in July allowed McCorvey to bring those employees back.

In exchange for the city funding the convention center's annual insurance premium, the center has agreed to host city meetings, where social-distancing, sanitation protocols and other public-health requirements can be met.

"We just kind of do what we can do," McCorvey said. "Some days we cover what we can and all of that."

Another use of the convention center may be to allow the courts a place to hold proceedings, many of which have been on hold for months during the pandemic.

Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr., who is over Division II Circuit Court and also serves at the administrative judge for the circuit, said he has been working with the convention center staff to try and get the center ready for court proceedings.

"As a matter of fact," Wyatt said, "we had jury orientation down there last Wednesday and it went real well. We've had jury trials scheduled every day as well but they've pled out."

Operations Manager Marty Huddleston said the center has been kept busy with the civic meetings and said the staff is working to ensure the safety of all who attend those events.

In the early days of the pandemic, city, county and hospital officials, maintaining a distance from one another, put together last minute details of a news conference to provide updates on the covid-19 pandemic in Jefferson County. The news conference — one of the first of a series of news conferences, meetings and other gatherings held in the Pine Bluff Convention Center banquet room — was limited to city officials and media, and it was live-streamed on the city’s Facebook page. Pictured are: Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington (from left); Jefferson Regional Medical Center CEO Brian Thompson; Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant; and Jefferson Regional Medical Center Chief Experience Officer Wendy Talbot. 
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo/Dale Ellis)
In the early days of the pandemic, city, county and hospital officials, maintaining a distance from one another, put together last minute details of a news conference to provide updates on the covid-19 pandemic in Jefferson County. The news conference — one of the first of a series of news conferences, meetings and other gatherings held in the Pine Bluff Convention Center banquet room — was limited to city officials and media, and it was live-streamed on the city’s Facebook page. Pictured are: Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington (from left); Jefferson Regional Medical Center CEO Brian Thompson; Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant; and Jefferson Regional Medical Center Chief Experience Officer Wendy Talbot. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo/Dale Ellis)
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