Pine Bluff tax’s critics, supporters ask: Forward to where?

Crews begin site work on the Sixth Avenue and Main Street project. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)
Crews begin site work on the Sixth Avenue and Main Street project. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)


Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series.

If there is one thing most people can agree on when it comes to the failure of the Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored taxes, it is that, in the end, the way forward is unclear. For the opposition, the tax lacked details, transparency and accountability, but what comes next is uncharted. For those in support of the tax, many with first-hand knowledge of the benefits of the tax now fear the loss of those positives.

Go Forward has been funded through a five-eighths-cent sales tax, which is set to expire next year. On May 9, voters went to the polls and turned down a renewal of the tax for another seven years. The count was 1,904 for and 2,021 against. Residents also voted against a three-eighths-cent tax earmarked for public safety, 1,944 for and 1,964 against. That tax would not have expired, and it was also notable that employee groups within the police and fire departments remained silent on the tax, which was aimed at helping those departments.

So how does the failure of those taxes affect the city and the citizens of Pine Bluff?

According to Go Forward Chairman Tommy May, in a previous letter to The Pine Bluff Commercial, for the continued investments and public-private partnerships in critical areas of the city, the tax was needed. For increased funding for the first responders and investments in technology for safer neighborhoods, the tax was needed. According to Chief of Police Denise Richardson, in a past interview, in order to move the police department forward, the tax was needed. The same sentiments came from Fire Chief Shauwn Howell, who, in a previous interview, said that, to obtain a new fire training facility, the tax was needed.

And while plenty of plans for progress had been presented before, during and after Go Forward Pine Bluff"s existence, May said they all lacked a critical component -- adequate funding. The tax, then, was a way to propel the city forward in a way that the city could not do on its own, he said.

"While no plan is perfect, Go Forward has inarguably moved the needle for the first time in a long time," said May in his letter. "Working alongside Mayor Shirley Washington, dedicated city employees and the city council, Go Forward has helped clean neighborhoods, invested in the revitalization of our downtown, attracted and retained quality teachers and first responders and built long-awaited projects like the aquatics center, generator and a great community center."

From city projects to salaries, it was also discovered the tax contributed to many other needs of the city for not only improvements but for sustainability. Now that the tax has failed, what will become of these combined initiatives?

MAYOR SHIRLEY WASHINGTON

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington first took office as mayor of Pine Bluff in January of 2017. With no desire to run, Washington, a retired educator, came to city hall in 2014 to help plan the Aquatic Multi-Purpose Center, and prior to that in 2011, under the Mayor Carl Redus administration, to assist in floating a five-eighths-cent sales tax.

Fast forward to June of 2017 and Washington was celebrating the victory of the Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax initiative, one that she endorsed, with 3,831 votes for the initiative to 1,708 against. She listed details of some of the specifics of the plan that was aimed at spurring economic development, improving the community's quality of life and providing Pine Bluff with the resources needed to implement Washington's vision for a "Stronger Pine Bluff."

From educational alliances, affordable housing and increased entrepreneurship to beautification projects, incentives to first responders and making Pine Bluff a destination location, embracing the Go Forward tax was one piece of the puzzle in contributing to that vision for a strong united force to rebuild the city.

So now that the tax has failed, does the vision fail also? According to Washington, the success of the vision was partly dependent on the tax.

"In general, we were disappointed that the tax failed to pass," said Washington. "The plan is to have the projects completed before the tax expires. If we don't have them completed, the money will still be there and hopefully there is money in the budget, but some of the projects that we have on the table there won't be money for. We'll have to make adjustments to our budget."

Washington said she was unsure of where the money would come from to complete all of the projects. Initiatives currently in motion include the Sixth Avenue and Main Street Plaza, the go kart track, ALICE housing program, Green Sweep, Chic-fil-A, Marriott Courtyard Hotel, Opportunity House, Main Street Green Space Project, Southeast Middle School demolition and the old library makeover, now the Kevin Collins Center, home of a new police training facility and city council chambers.

While not all the projects are in collaboration with Go Forward, Washington said that sometimes Go Forward Pine Bluff would help the projects come to completion.

"They are not chipping in on any of that right now but when Chic-fil-A came, we helped and Community Development helped with the dirt work," said Washington, who said hopefully Chic-fil-A will break ground in June. "We had Wastewater come in and some money was needed along the way. We went to Go Forward and asked for help and they said yes. That partnership flows in and out of various projects."

Washington said from day one, Go Forward has had a commitment to improving the community by working together, and she respects their partnership to move Pine Bluff forward and to build the community.

"We're going to continue. We have to keep everything moving," said Washington, who said projects were delayed and scaled back when the cost of construction rose during covid. "We were below ground zero when we started with this work. There is a lot of work to do, but projects are beginning to bloom."

DR. RYAN WATLEY

"If there was any celebration in this renewal being defeated, they must realize that they have set the city back three to four years," said the disappointed CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, Ryan Watley. "As it stands now because there's no assurance if we are moving forward in this city, people are deciding whether they are going to stay or leave again when we truly believed we had put that to a halt. There should be no celebration in this."

Watley is a native of Pine Bluff, a graduate of Pine Bluff High School and past assistant director of development at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Watley holds a doctoral degree in organic chemistry from the University of Oklahoma where he successfully designed and synthesized novel drugs for cancer, according to his resume, which also states that he has been published in journals and was awarded a United States patent for his drug development methodology.

During his doctoral studies, Watley became passionate about creating resources for Northeast Academy located in Oklahoma City and was tabbed director of development by the school board. During his three-year tenure from 2012 to 2015, Watley tripled the fundraising dollars of the academy. He left in place a fundraising model in order to sustain success. In January of 2015, Watley joined the athletics staff at Rose State Community College as a community outreach and fundraising assistant to the athletics department. There he was directly responsible for creating, increasing, and expanding the value of the department, which led to the best two financial quarters in Rose State Athletics' two-year renaissance, according to his resume.

Since returning to Pine Bluff in August 2015, Watley joined, and in some capacity, led citywide efforts to promote UAPB, Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.

Watley joined Go Forward Pine Bluff as CEO-elect in May of 2017 and became CEO after the successful passage of the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax initiative. Watley said to date the tax produces approximately $5 million annually on top of the organization raising $13.7 million to date in private grants, contributions and investments –investments he feels will disappear.

"Millions of dollars from the private sector will go away that has helped improve this city," he said. " Our mission is to increase the revenue of the city and we need the private and public dollars working together to do that. We're not out here raising $50 to $100 million a year, but we are raising seven figures to be able to invest in the community."

Watley said the city will not have the money to correct issues in an aggressive manner.

"They can fix things daily but to bring transformative, if someone is investing in something and the conditions around it aren't keeping up with the investment, it's like throwing money down the drain," said Watley, who said they were trying to erect projects simultaneously. "It's not cash flowing. The money is not an efficient investment. Each entity needs to pull its own weight and together it will benefit the city."

Since the failure of the taxes, according to Watley, outside investors are calling concerned and wondering if should they still invest. He even shared his concerns with the developers who recently announced they would be building multifamily apartments on Convention Center Drive, telling them Go Forward and Urban Renewal would still be moving forward on their end with the project, but the outlook for future developments was unknown.

"People are saying they are going to be on pause and have lost confidence," said Wately, who said many investors' decisions to come to Pine Bluff were based on the tax passing. "The tax is needed because the market is not very strong. The city of Pine Bluff lost."

Other losses, according to Watley, will be the continued millions collected from the tax, the partnerships and resources to fund blight removal efforts. The resources to operate The Generator may be depleted, festivals will cease and downtown revitalization will cease as well.

Watley said they will continue to invest in education as long as public funds can be raised, but he said without the public funds to complement the overall development of the city, those funds will be difficult to raise.

"It's important to understand the sales tax money helps advance the city while the general operating budget helps maintain and operate the city," he said. "You basically lose your advancement arm and with the challenges that we have it is difficult to maintain and operate the city primarily because citizens must invest in what they own in the city. They must take pride in their properties, must take pride in their neighborhood, and must be given the opportunity if they want to be able to start entrepreneurship efforts. All of those initiatives Go Forward Pine Bluff offered lessened the burden on the municipality to improve Pine Bluff."

In part two of the three-part series, we look into the public safety tax.


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