City OK financially, but could be better

The short of the news is that fiscally challenged Pine Bluff is “OK” financially after recently taking steps to trim expenditures because of sliding tax revenues. But the rest of the story is that city leaders participating in a Monday afternoon review of the municipal budget are convinced that Pine Bluff should and can do more to help generate new funding.

In March, city leaders cut the city’s 2013 budget by $573,600 in hopes of averting a crisis resulting from a steady decline in city and Jefferson County sales tax income over the past several years. Finance Director Steve Miller predicted a budgetary shortfall of about 4 percent, based on adding a 2.5-percent budget increase and a 1.4-percent slide in tax revenue.

“I believe we’re headed in the right direction,” senior Alderman Bill Brumett said during Monday’s meeting, held in the mayor’s conference room at the civic center.

Brumett noted that during the first six months of the year, the city has spent only 46.7 percent of its recalculated budget.

“That’s pretty good, in my opinion,” Brumett said.

After taking a look at the current economic picture, the talk turned to possibilities of improving the city’s economic future.

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth believes a key step in enabling progress is creating a post for a business development specialist. “We need a designated person to walk potential businesses through the process of locating here,” she said.

City Treasurer Greg Gustek said the city needs to be “business friendly” instead of “discouraging” potential development with a barrage of “must do” tasks.

When tourism was mentioned, Gustek — who also serves as director of the Pine Bluff Visitors and Convention Bureau — offered an interesting contrast. He noted that while the tourism industry is the city’s fifth-largest employer, Pine Bluff “is not a destination.”

“We need something to attract people to come here,” said Alderman Steven Mays, who added that the Arkansas Railroad Museum here is underappreciated.

“The rail museum is the biggest attraction here,” Gustek said. “And we’ve got an airport museum being put together (at Grider Field).”

Gustek said the aviation museum could become “even bigger” than the train facility, which has pulled in visitors from as far away as Japan and is the state’s only such operation.

Alderwoman Thelma Walker repeated an appeal to recruit Amtrak for rail service here, which could in part bolster visits to the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum, located in the old depot just a block off Main Street.

Mention was also made of better marketing the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame and Taylor Field and other baseball and softball facilities.

Alderman Glen Brown believes restaurant and store offerings need to be increased. Mays agreed, saying steps should be taken to ensure that both local and visiting shoppers feel safe here.

Hollingsworth sees possibilities with entertainment — especially at The Community Theatre, which is undergoing a massive renovation. Brumett said that although the Pine Bluff Convention Center is not a large enough venue to compete with other area arenas boasting twice its seating capacity for concerts, increased usage of the local facility is a possibility.

“We need to come up with something,” Brown said. “You can’t get anywhere without taking a risk.”