Cultural projects for Pine Bluff compete

A graphic rendering of a proposed downtown Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District. (Special to The Commercial)

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Delta Rhythm & Bayous director Jimmy Cunningham said Go Forward Pine Bluff has never supported his cultural district downtown plan and only jumped on board after it gained community support and a unanimous vote by the City Council.

During a two-hour Facebook Live interview on "The Newsroom" with host and Pine Bluff Commercial editor Byron Tate, Cunningham shared his views about the Delta Rhythm & Bayous cultural plan and the frustrations he has had trying to bring it to fruition.

In the fall of 2022, during a City Council planning meeting, he presented to a standing-room-only crowd compelling plans that were revealed for this project by the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County National Heritage Trails Task Force.

"The cultural district will be home to a blues venue that will showcase the history of the city and help it stand out from the crowd, as well as a cinema, food trucks and other attractions that will bring in visitors," said Cunningham.

The Pine Bluff/Jefferson County National Heritage Trails Task Force, in partnership with the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance, developed the concept for the district's epicenter, which includes: the nation's only park honoring the Chitlin' Circuit (the entertainment network for black performers during the years of segregation); an outdoor memorial plaza honoring more blues greats than any other in the nation; a unique outdoor cinema park honoring regional greats in film, television, and theater; and a food truck park designed to bring the best regional cuisine to tourists with mouthwatering tastes.

"We wanted to do two or three things," said Cunningham about the first phase of the project. "We wanted to get a cultural engagement specialist that would help us do programming in these spaces. We wanted to have money to start acquiring the spaces in the four-block area and the four square areas, and then I wanted to build out one venue. That would be the blues and wellness park."

A unanimous decision was made by the Pine Bluff City Council on Monday, Nov. 7, approving $2 million in funding for the development of the Delta Rhythm & Bayou's Cultural District. Most of the land to be developed is currently either empty fields or parking lots, and much of it is already owned by the city. The $2 million was to be drawn from an existing five-eighths-cent sales tax, known as the "Go Forward Sales Tax," and the final cost of the project for the city is estimated at just over $6 million. The economic impact of the entire plan was projected at $18 million a year.

An analysis of the project by Tourism Economics estimated that the district could attract 128,000 visitors, with 88,000 of them being non-local. Many of these visitors would contribute to the local economy outside of the cultural district itself as they eat at nearby restaurants and stay in Pine Bluff hotels.

The first stage of construction was projected to be completed within the next two years.

But just as quick as the vote was approved, City Council members revised the resolution on how the $2 million would be funded, leaving it in the original Go Forward Pine Bluff line item, during the year-end budget meeting -- for this was the first time the council had taken money earmarked for Go Forward and spent it on a project of its own choosing.

"We wanted the money to come out of that because we didn't want to deal with the entanglements and the complications and some of the challenges that have beset us in engaging with Go Forward," said Cunningham. "We wanted that to be set aside, but that posed a problem. There were discussions about cash flow and other kinds of things."

Cunningham believes the real problem was that their presentation set a precedent that was seen as dangerous. "This would be the first time that any of that five-eighths-cent sales tax money would be out of reach of Go Forward," he said. "They would have nothing to do with any dollar of that money."

Some of the council, including Cunningham, expressed displeasure because the money for the project was going to stay in the Go Forward account. Cunningham said he and Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley had butted heads over the proposed project before, and when the various sides had scheduled meetings to work out their differences, "everyone showed up, everyone except Go Forward. They never showed up. They always had an aversion to this because they see it as competition."

Cunningham said that Go Forward Pine Bluff abandoned the music plaza concept found in the Re-Invent Pine Bluff Downtown Plan. According to Cunningham, the organization could not get funding for the project.

"Almost none of that plan has been implemented now," he said.

In the meantime, Cunningham said he and others were putting their Delta Rhythm and Bayous plan together, and when they were ready they went to the Planning Commission for $1 million to help fund it.

"It just so happened that Go Forward was finally catching up and putting something together because they need to have something to show," said Cunningham about the Sixth Avenue and Main Street project. "They went to the Planning Commission and said give us a million dollars."

The Planning Commission agreed to support both of the projects but left it in the hands of the City Council on how much that support would cost. Because of duplication in the projects, the council asked them to get together and work it out. Cunningham said Go Forward was a no-show.

"The time elapsed after those three meetings," said Cunningham. "Go Forward's plans went before the City Council this time to allow some money from the surplus that had been sitting for years to go to the project."

During the budget hearing in December, council members Ivan Whitfield, Steven Mays, Glen Brown Sr. and Joni Alexander spoke in favor of protecting the project's funding from Go Forward control. Whitfield even made a motion to take $1.9 million from the Urban Renewal Agency and create a separate line item in the budget for the tourism project.

Go Forward has $6 million in unspent reserves, and Whitfield said Urban Renewal could be funded out of that money.

The motion failed 4-4, with council members Bruce Lockett, Glen Brown Jr., Steven Shaner and Lloyd Holcomb Jr. voting against it, and Alexander, Mays, Whitfield and Brown Sr. voting for it.

Mayor Shirley Washington said then the commitment had been made to Cunningham and would be kept, saying that invoices from Cunningham for the project would be sent through the city's Economic and Community Development Department, which would turn the bills over to the Finance Department to be paid, thereby leaving Go Forward out of the equation.

Cunningham said to add insult to injury, when February came around and there was a proposal to fund a portion of the Marriott Hotel initiative, Urban Renewal allocated $3 million.

"I was livid but I thought this is the landscape," said Cunningham. "This is what we have to work with and so we are going to continue to look for additional dollars and do what we do. That has been a major concern."

Cunningham was told that taking $2 million out of coming money would blow the whole budget and there would be cash flow issues, especially since the $2 million would not be used immediately.

''It bothers me and nags me when people say, if you don't pass the Go Forward tax, you don't have a plan. You don't have anything else," he said. "We have worked on this plan assiduously. This plan is the other plan on the table that has revenue projections, job projections, and that should be a typical standard when you have economic development initiatives that requires infrastructure and development."

CORRECTIONS: Jimmy Cunningham is the director of Delta Rhythm & Bayous. An earlier version of this story gave him an incorrect affiliation. In addition, Cunningham stated that Go Forward Pine Bluff abandoned the music plaza concept found in the Re-Invent Pine Bluff Downtown Plan, and that $1 million was sought from the Planning Commission for the Delta Rhythm and Bayous plan. An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect concept that had been abandoned, and it also listed an incorrect commission.