Pine Bluff Alderman Glen Brown said Monday that the Merrill Center youth facility at 1000 South Ash Street is a “swamp” and shouldn’t receive any money for improvements.
The city council’s public works committee voted last week to recommend to the full council a $450,000 budget on proposed renovations to the center, formerly the Seabrook YMCA.
“I love the kids here and want them to have the best, and that’s why I think it would be better to concentrate on a multipurpose center instead of pouring money into our run-down facilities,”Brown said. “It’s just a swamp over there and I don’t believe in putting anything in there. What’s the point in constantly restoring so many old facilities every four or five years? It makes no sense to me.”
The funding for the Merrill enhancements would come from revenue collected from a five-eighths cent sales tax approved by voters in 2011 and earmarked for capital improvements.
Brown said the city needs to make full use of Greenville Elementary School, which the Pine Bluff School District has made available to the city’s parks and recreation department while the Merrill Center is closed for repairs. The school will house only preschool students beginning in the fall, and much of the facility will not be used.
The district has stated that the city can employ the building and grounds free during the school year, but must pay $6,000 a month when classes are not in session.
Brown still maintains that all energy and money should be directed to the multipurpose center, to which “proper security” could be added “to better serve our kids.”
Alderman George Stepps. a public works committee member who missed the recent meeting with fellow panelists aldermen Bill Brumett and Steven Mays, said he agrees with Brown that money could be handled “more wisely.”
Stepps said he’s especially opposed to the Merrill Center spending “when you consider we’re talking about nearly half a million dollars without air conditioning being put in there.”
Stepps said the city could save the proposed $450,000 appropriation and “have a $7 million multipurpose facility instead of a $5.5 million one.”
Stepps also believes the multipurpose center would have more impact if it was located within Townsend Park, which has also been targeted for some updates. The tentatively planned location for the center is adjacent to the civic center.
“I suggest we incorporate the projects and have a better multipurpose facility at Townsend Park, which couldn’t do anything but enhance the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff,” said Stepps. “I’m not against the Merrill Center, but I think we should be smart in how we spend our money. A lot of people at Townsend Park are still wanting a swimming pool there. Why can’t we build a multipurpose center and aquatic center there? It’s a great location and would do a lot to empower our economic engine.”
Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. said he supports modernizing the Merrill Center.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Holcomb. “Our kids need a proper place with proper facilities and equipment to be productive.”
Holcomb said his personal aim with his fellow council members is to “make sure we do what we said we would do. We’ve discussed this before.”
Alderman Wayne Easterly said he wants to “study” the situation before formulating and stating his voting intentions.
“I haven’t seen any figures on the proposed repairs yet,” he said. “I need to look at some figures.”
Alderwoman Thelma Walker observed the committee meeting, speaking up for the cause of updating and installing new equipment in the Merrill Center kitchen.