Pine Bluff’s elected leadership must do a better job of reducing crime and changing the perception of the city as crime-ridden, Simmons First National Corp. CEO-elect George Makris Jr. said to nearly 600 businesspeople assembled for the Business Expo Breakfast on Thursday morning.
Makris was the featured speaker at the kickoff to the 26th Annual Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce Business Expo, which ran from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. He touched on the rcent controversy over residency requirements for city department heads, including the police chief.
“When it comes to public safety the city needs the most qualified professionals to implement a crime reduction plan,” Makris said. “In order to do that Pine Bluff must be able to select from the best available candidates. That cannot be done if artificial barriers to employment are put up. If Jefferson Regional Medical Center required people to live in the Pine Bluff city limits this city would not have the quality health care that we do have.”
Makris said the implementation of an effective public safety plan should be the top priority of local elected officials.
“There is also a perception of Pine Bluff as a bad place to live,” Makris said. “We all live here and know that it’s not true but others don’t know that. For them, perception is reality and that negative perception must be fought.”
Makris next took aim at the Pine Bluff School District.
“In my opinion we will never meet our potential until we have higher expectations of our public schools,” Makris said. “Students must graduate from Pine Bluff High School workforce-ready. The role of the Pine Bluff schools must change to create workforce-ready students.”
Makris said students should be prepared for their most likely career path while in high school.
“The socio-economic status of students should be strongly considered when shaping the role of schools,” Makris said. “Pine Bluff High School graduates must have a defined set of skills. When an employer hires one of these students these sorts of skills are expected.”
Makris laid out a list of attributes he said are important for a young person to have when entering the workplace.
“Character development is as important if not more important than academic excellence,” Makris said. “A student’s attendance record is a good indicator of how committed they are to their education. Deportment is important as well. It is important to find out what group activities including choir, athletics and debate a student is involved in because it is a good peer review of a student’s ability to work as part of a team.”
Makris also included service as a peer tutor, maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, knowing how to budget, registering to vote, skill with computers and knowing how to speak in front of an audience and having actual experience doing so as important traits for a high school graduate to possess.
“I want the school to produce a resume for each student,” Makris said. “The Pine Bluff School District has a real opportunity to change. I am very proud of this community for hiring a new school board but the way we do things needs to continue to change.”
Makris called upon his background with M. K. Distributors to outline a marketing strategy for Pine Bluff.
“We need to look at brand development and marketing with Pine Bluff as the brand,” Makris said. “We need to develop the brand of Pine Bluff to the point where people are willing to put up with some inconvenience for the brand, which is known as premium preference. This includes such things as being willing to pay more for a home that you want to in order to be in a certain neighborhood or having to reserve your tee time at Harbor Oaks two weeks in advance to ensure your spot.”
Makris outlined the strengths of the area including high-quality health care, strong economic infrastructure, recreational opportunities and spiritual access.
“We must address the issues of public safety and the Pine Bluff schools in order to achieve the growth in this community that we want,” Makris said.”I think Pine Bluff has a great future.”
Stephen Lasseigne, Expo chairman and vice president and advertising manager with Simmons First National Corp., was pleased with the end result of his team’s hard work.
“Being that this is the 26th year of the Business Expo, I have been fortunate that it pretty much runs itself,” Lasseigne said of the planning stage of the event. “We are also fortunate that Kali Walker was able to shadow Michelle Rocha at last year’s Expo to learn what is involved in putting one of these together. Everything has turned out well.”
Lasseigne said the breakfast was attended by 575 people including 50 Business Relations Customer Service Stars who were honored for their commitment to serving the needs of their patrons.
“We are also really excited about our 15 new exhibitors,” Lasseigne said. “Altogether we have close to 100 exhibitors this year.”
Lasseigne said the chamber was happy to accommodate exhibitor requests to have a time slot designated specifically for those operating the exhibit booths and their customers and invited guests.
“Having the VIP Premiere from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. creates opportunities for business to business networking,” Lasseigne said.
Chamber Chair Vickey Davis shared Lasseigne’s upbeat assessment of the Expo.
“I think everything has gone exceptionally well,” Davis said. “We are building new relationships with officials in city government and working together with businesses.”
Cindy Dunn, marketing director with Fairfield Federal Credit Union, said planning for her company’s Judge’s Award-winning booth began last October.
“Since we’ve had a booth out here everybody looks forward to what we will have each year,” Dunn said. “It’s fun. I start the planning process in October. It’s just fun to be out in the community like this.”
Janet Hartz, vice president of Scott Systems in Pine Bluff, presided over a whimsical booth that won the award for most creative, composed of Popeye the Sailor, his wife, Olive Oyl, and daughter Swee’ Pea on the deck of their boat complete with a crow’s nest and a smokestack fabricated by Scott employees. Several wooden containers were placed around the booth, filled to the top with spinach leaves.
“We looked at the theme of this year’s Expo which is Hidden Treasures, and then thought about the fact that Scott Systems wants to be the good guys, which brought us to sailors and then to Popeye,” Hartz said.
Scott employees passed out packages of spinach seeds with the company logo imprinted on top.
“We were selected as the people’s choice for the past three years and we are handing out these seeds to say thanks for ‘picking’ us,” Hartz said.
Southeast Arkansas College won the Most Informative Booth award by integrating the school’s Diamond in the Rough theme with the Expo theme of Hidden Treasures. Small treasure chests filled with brochures about the college were scattered throughout the booth.
Angela Parker, director of the City of Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department, said this was the fifth year of the department’s participation in the Expo.
“We are able to promote events and other things going on in our parks by being here,” Parker said. “We are planning to have a new fishing pier on Lake Saracen by November of this year and a splash park adjacent to Saracen Landing open by next Memorial Day. We have information on both of those projects available here.”
New exhibitor La Quinta Inn was providing free waffles prepared by Huddle House regional manager Jason Beard.
“We prepare the breakfasts for the La Quinta Inn here in Pine Bluff,” Beard said.
“Our boss thought that it would be a good idea for exposure,” said La Quinta front desk employee Ren Thornton. “We decided to do a breakfast because we had heard that another hotel brought one of their beds in before and we wanted to one-up them on that.”