Committee recommends council approval of Merrill Center, Townsend Park funding


The Pine Bluff City Council’s Public Works Committee on Monday recommended the full council’s approval of several proposed appropriations, including funding for renovations of the Merrill Center and Townsend Park.

Gathering just three days after a Merrill Center tour, the committee members — Aldermen Bill Brumett, Steven Mays and George Stepps — split in their voting on proposed resolutions sponsored by Mayor Debe Hollingsworth. The measures outline respective “estimated, nonbinding” budgets of $392,116 and $450,000 “necessary as a reference point for architectural planning.”

Brumett and Mays supported both resolutions.

Stepps opposed the Merrill Center measure based on the monetary amount, but said he favors some improvements to existing parks and recreation facilities with reserve monies accumulated from collections of the 2011 voter-approved five-eighths cents sale tax. He’s adamant that no appropriations from the levy should delay or restrict a future bond issue-financed multipurpose center.

“The multipurpose center will be built,” ensured Hollingsworth.

Brumett echoed the mayor, but said the multipurpose facility may be “seven to 1o years out. The kids need something now.”

Stepps repeated opinions stated during the Merrill Center tour.

“I can see where some renovations are needed, but I also see where maintenance is needed,” he said. “You have to take care of things if they’re going to last.”

Hollingsworth had earlier failed to gain council approval on a $650,000 appropriation for the two projects, and in an April 22 news conference said she would be seeking a roughly $300,000 nod on the Merrill Center project alone. Stepps said he feels “uneasy” that the latest, revised estimates on the projects total more than $842,000. With grant monies, the proposed Townsend Park appropriation swells to $767,601.

“It started out at $650,000 and now we’re up to well over a million dollars,” Steppssaid.

As he reviewed a detailed preliminary estimate on suggested Townsend Park improvements, he said, “I appreciate the work you all have done on this, but I won’t be for spending $450,000.” He indicated he might be comfortable with a final figure of $350,000.

Alderman Lloyd Holcomb, observing the meeting, reflected on playing baseball in Townsend Park as a youth and said the facility is in desperate need of updates. Pausing, he told Stepps that the park couldn’t be restored to its past level of statewide recognition as a quality baseball site if city leaders look at its potential restoration with a “flea-market mentality.”

Stepps agreed, but said a lot had changed since Holcomb was a child.

“Pine Bluff used to be a baseball city,”Stepps said. “We’re not so much anymore.”

The Townsend Park proposal calls for a complete renovation of its three fields and preparations for a fourth. The biggest ticket items in its preliminary estimate are $220,000 for concession stands, $176,000 for lighting, $75,000 for earthwork, and $70,708.57 for backstops and fencing. Other project items include sprigging and sprinkler irrigation systems, hydro-seeding, a concrete plaza and sidewalks, dugouts, a large shelter/shade area, and Americans With Disabilities Act compliance.

Mizan Rahman, the city’s project engineer, said he thought Pine Bluff might regain its baseball reputation by looking at upgrading Townsend Park so that it might again attract baseball and softball tournaments.

“There is a consequence to not spending this money,” he said, noting that several other cities have “spent a lot” on baseball facilities because “they bring in money.” Rahman said tournaments can help fill local motels and restaurants and also generate additional commerce.

Stepps said he’s troubled by the possibility of allocating such hefty funding on parks and recreation offerings so soon after Hollingsworth and the council discussed possible employee layoffs and/or furloughs in light of probable budget shortfalls. But Hollingsworth and Brumett pointed out that monies from the five-eighths cent sales tax can’t be spent on salaries, only on capital improvements.

Mays, the committee’s chairman, noted the challenges attached to overseeing an annual budget in which employee salaries now constitute nearly 70 percent

“We need to be good stewards of the public’s money,” he said.

Retired senior Alderwoman Irene Holcomb addressed meeting participants as a representative of Arkansas Community Organizations. A long-time champion of park improvements as a council member, Holcomb said the organization wants overall parks betterment, a “repaired” and maintained Merrill Center and the new multipurpose facility. She said the group is “in no way” attempting to dictate to the council how to “conduct its business,” but “will help in any way possible.”

She added that if the parks and recreation department needs more employees to provide upkeep, it’s hoped that they’ll somehow be acquired. Meanwhile, if volunteers are needed, ACO will provide assistance.

The committee unanimously recommended a proposed budget of $1,378,200 for remodeling of and an addition to the city’s animal shelter. Construction is estimated at $1.25 million. Architect and engineer fees are figured at $100,000. Fred Reed of Pine Bluff will serve as architect, and was recommended to provide preliminary architectural services on the Merrill Center at a fee of $6,000.

Also given a do-pass vote was an appropriation not to exceed $71,700 for engineering services as provided by McClelland Consulting Engineers Inc. of Little Rock on the Dew Drop drain rehabilitation project.

The amount on the animal shelter was established under former mayor Carl Redus Jr. and among the promised items included in the Penny for Progress tax referendum. The drainage project was also a pledged improvement.