Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth will try again to persuade the city council to approve funding for renovations at the Merrill Center.
During a press conference at the Merrill Center Monday morning, Hollingsworth described the idea as “an investment in the city and an investment in our children and I can’t think of a better way to spend money.”
She said she will introduce a resolution at the council’s next meeting, set for May 6, asking the council to approve a budget of approximately $300,000 to renovate the center, which she said was acquired by the city in 1996 and “is structurally sound.”
In March, the council rejected a resolution calling for allocating $650,000 for renovations to the Merrill Center and to Townsend Park, but Hollingsworth said “it was not clear (in that resolution) how much would be spent for the Merrill Center and for Townsend Park.
“Now we have two different numbers to take back to the council,” Hollingsworth said.
She said funding is available to renovate the Merrill Center, and that according to the proposal Pine Bluff voters approved for a five-eighths cent sales tax increase in 2011, that money “can be used for new or existing facilities and parks.”
As she has in the past, Hollingsworth said a multipurpose center “will happen. It will be built.”
However, she said the estimated cost for that center and an aquatic facility will be “$11.5 million and the city doesn’t have $11.5 million.”
Hollingsworth said that cost will require that the facility be constructed in two different phases, the multipurpose center and the aquatic facility “and it will be up to the people to decide which they want first.”
When that facility is completed, Hollingsworth said the Merrill Center would serve as a “satellite center for children in the area because we don’t want them to have to find transportation to go across town.”
She said the Merrill Center currently serves 25 to 50 boys and girls each day, and if the council approves the budget for renovations, Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Linda Watson has offered a school building to use as an alternate site while the work is going on.
“But that’s a couple of months down the road and it will probably be after the summer is over (before any work can start),” Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth said property owners in the area have talked about improving their property if the renovations take place, “and that will revitalize the neighborhood and bring stability to it.”
She also encouraged those attending the press conference to contact their aldermen and “Let them know what you want to happen.”
Alderman Glen Brown questioned Hollingsworth’s statement that the multipurpose center would be built.
Contacted Monday afternoon, Brown said “I don’t think she plans to do anything on a multipurpose center during her time as mayor. I think she’s a one-termer and a multipurpose center is not in her plans. The public is not aware of her hidden agenda.”
He also questioned the idea of spending $300,000 to renovate the Merrill Center.
“The council has already said it didn’t want to spend that much on the Merrill Center and Townsend Park when she tried to get something passed on $650,000,” Brown said. “So why bring it up again only a month or month and a half later?”
“I’m OK with $15,000 or so being spent on Merrill or another existing facility, but not more than that,” Brown said. “We have a chance for something new as opposed to throwing money at old facilities. Our kids deserve better.”
Regarding the idea of having a facility that primarily will serve 11- to 17-year-olds, Alderman George Stepps said “We need to build a multipurpose center that will accommodate all ages. Otherwise it will divide families. We need families to be located in the same place. We don’t need baby-sitting centers elsewhere from the multipurpose center.”
Brown also suggested that the proposed center have “a room for the elderly for their socialization. It also needs a computer room for kids who can’t afford computers at home.”
Stepps questioned Hollingsworth about the press conference, saying she should have discussed it with the council first.
“She needs to bring it before the council first before going to the public,” Stepps said. “She’s going at it backwards.”