Parks director says Merrill Center needs improvements

The director of the Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department made a pitch for improving the Merrill Center when she was the guest speaker Tuesday at the monthly Coffee with the Chiefs program, sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration.

April Layher, who has been the parks department director since January, said the center built in 1895 by Joseph Merrill “is in need of repair.”

“The paint is peeling, the floors need repair, the kitchen has no facilities and we have problems with the roof,” she said.

Despite that, she said an engineering study determined that the building’s foundation is sound.

“We’ve got a wonderful community center serving kids that need to be served,” she said.

Layher said the Merrill Center serves an average of 50 children from the area on a daily basis, where they can get help with homework before taking part in other activities. There is also a computer lab that is monitored and is available for students to do research for homework.

“There are two guys and the smaller one is also used for a boxing club,” Layher said. “Some of our kids are also learning to box there.”

Ward 4 Alderman Steven Mays, who was attending the meeting at First United Methodist Church, said he had brought up the idea of renovating the center twice and the Pine Bluff City Council voted down his proposal.

“I plan to bring it up again,” he said. “The council has to come together and can’t have a bunch of different agendas. I know there is a need there.”

Mayor Debe Hollingworth said the city is going ahead with plans for a multipurpose center, which was one of the things voters said they wanted when they approved the “Penny for Progress” tax increase in 2011.

“The multipurpose center doesn’t take away from the need for community centers like the Merrill Center,” the mayor said. “As we move forward, we still have to have this.”

The cost to renovate the center was estimated at approximately $475,000, Hollingsworth said.

Layher also said professional baseball player Torii Hunter has indicated strong support for improving the Merrill Center.

“He went to the Merrill Center when he was growing up,” she said.

On another subject, Layher said construction is about to start on the splash park and water park for younger children that will be constructed on Pullen Street adjacent to Saracen Landing.

“Hopefully, that will be open this summer,” she said.