Council approves funds for Townsend Park renovations, Merrill Center study

Funding to initiate a renovation project in Townsend Park and a study for proposed improvements to the Merrill Community Center was approved in a Pine Bluff City Council votes Monday night, with Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s decisive nod settling each issue.

After Alderman Charles Boyd left the session early to attend to personal business, the council favored each of the measures by 4-3 votes. Senior Alderman Bill Brumett advised Hollingsworth that five votes were needed for the ordinances’ endorsements. On both occasions, she quickly authorized herself to spend the $456,000 in combined appropriations — $450,000 on preliminary planning work for the renovation of baseball fields and related facilities at Townsend Park and $6,000 in compensation to Reed Architectural Firm of Pine Bluff for a scope of needed work at the Merrill Center.

It wasn’t as simple at it might seem, however.

Aldermen Glen Brown and George Stepps and and Alderwoman Thelma Walker — who cast the three nays on each of the measures — were not brief in stating their opposition.

On the Merrill Center, Walker expressed a belief that she and retired senior Alderwoman Irene Holcomb could save the city the $6,000 cost of the Reed study. She said she and Holcomb could easily inspect the facility and “identify what’s needed.”

But city Public Works Coordinator Larry Matthews explained that for any project estimated at $100,000 or more, a licensed architect must be contracted. The preliminary figure on the Merrill project is over $392,000.

Stepps said a tour of Townsend Park with the mayor and other council members Friday morning was shortened by rain but lasted long enough for him to develop a new notion — building a proposed multipurpose center in the park. Stepps said since Hollingsworth was eyeing the spending of nearly $768,000 on park enhancements, he thought it would make “better sense” to “just put the multipurpose center there.”

A multipurpose center was mandated when voters adopted a five-eighths-cent Penny for Progress capital improvements sales tax in 2011.

Matthews noted that a city-owned East 10th Avenue site adjacent to the civic center had already been “designated” for the facility. Stepps countered that no money had been spent on the multipurpose center yet, so there shouldn’t be a barrier in placing the facility elsewhere.

Stepps supported his contention by pointing out that Townsend Park is near University Park and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which is undergoing extensive development.

When Brown and Walker began offering alternatives, Stepps intervened and told them that his idea would give the center “more bang for your buck” and “help jump-start your city.”

Walker then protested a drawing of proposed baseball fields within Townsend Park, saying that if the sketch wasn’t representative of a firm plan, money had been needlessly spent. She called the rendering a “deception.”

City Project Engineer Mizan Rahman disagreed. Matthews said regardless of opinions, the city “still has to get architectural services on board.”

After Brumett successfully pushed for a vote on the matter, Stepps criticized him “for having things lined up” and added that the decision process was an “injustice to this city.”