Officials tour Merrill Center, disagree on renovations


A Friday tour of the Merrill Community Center and a preliminary estimate of $392,116 for the facility’s proposed renovation produced assorted opinions among five Pine Bluff City Council members and other participating officials.

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said Monday that she intends to seek a council appropriation of about $300,000 for the center’s overhaul, presenting the request in the form of a resolution she hopes to put before the panel at its next regular meeting, scheduled for Monday, May 6. She said funding for the work is available from collections of a five-eighths cent sales tax enacted by voters in 2011. Among the tax revenue’s earmarks is payment on bond issues enabling construction of a proposed multipurpose center that would include an aquatic center.

Hollingsworth, who did not participate in Friday’s tour, said the wording of the sales tax’s ballot act stipulates that a portion of collections shall be directed at upkeep and/or improvements to existing facilities and parks.

At Friday’s gathering, city project engineer Mizan Rahman said the mission estimate he and local architect Fred Reed formulated could be adjusted by the council. Some tinkering may occur Monday when the panel’s public works committee will discuss the matter in a 2 p.m. meeting in the mayor’s conference room at the civic center.

The project isn’t at a point where an architect is to be contracted, but Reed said he would handle the duties for 8 percent of the budgeted project total. It’s not uncommon for architects to charge 10 percent for their services.

Rahman said the first step in finalizing the project would be establishment of a needs list.

The preliminary cost estimate’s biggest expenses include $112,545 for new roofing, $68,625 for new flooring, $34,828 for electrical upgrades, $32,376 in architect/engineer fees, and $26,541 for new ceilings with insulation. Other work items include demolition, asbestos abatement, wall replacement, a store-front entry, interior doors and windows. mill work, interior painting and refinishing, exterior painting, toilet partitions, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, exterior siding, curb stops, and clean-up and dumpsters.

Alderman George Stepps blamed the center’s various physical woes — including holes in walls, rotting wood, leaky roofs, and faulty restroom facilities — on poor upkeep.

“All of this is a lack of maintenance,” he said. “You could drop $100,000 on this facility and have to be back here next year if you don’t have proper maintenance.”

Parks and Recreation Department Director Angela Parker said the agency’s annual budget appropriations have steadily lessened although the number of city parks and facilities has risen. Parker said her department counts just eight laborers who do nothing but mow grass.

“We do not have skilled labor,” she said. “We don’t have the monies for that.”

“A lack of attention has caused this,” countered Stepps. “I don’t raise hell just to raise hell — somebody has got to be responsible for this.”

Alderwoman Thelma Walker said that some of the roof leaks are the product of “a rotted-out gutter.” She added that she had visited the center — which is about 60 years old and originally served as the Seabrook Young Men’s Christian Association — on Thursday, and workers were “putting up light bulbs a hundred miles an hour.”

“It was so dark in here it was depressing,” Walker said.

Some of Thursday’s activity might have been connected to corrections being made after a fire department inspection of the center by Fire Marshal Capt. Fred Tisdale. The inspection uncovered violations involving exits, obstructions, fire extinguishers, door markings, electrical outlets, ceiling tiles and storage in mechanical rooms.

Walker wasn’t pleased with the project estimate.

“We need to cut costs here like we would on our business or home,” she said, adding that if painting is needed the city should contract with the Arkansas Department of Correction for inmate labor to complete that task.

“The city would save money and the DOC would love to get the work,” she said.

“We need more staff for upkeep and maintenance,” Parker said. “We don’t have enough money to maintain what we’ve got.”

Parks and Recreation Maintenance Director Kevin Smith voiced support for Parker.

“It’s easier to maintain than it is to restore,” Smith said. “It’s all about money.”

Alderman Charles Boyd said the center had been “neglected” and expressed his frustration in seeing several flaws that he said were to have been corrected with council appropriations made within the past couple of years. He and Stepps said several of the problems they encountered could have been easily remedied. They referenced some bleacher seats that were in disrepair and said “a bolt here and a bolt there” could have already had that “fixed.”

Alderman Steven Mays, who chairs the public works committee, stressed that the renovation effort isn’t aimed at “trying to make the building brand new.” He said the facility’s walls and floors are “in good shape,” which provides “a good start” for enhancements.

Alderman Lloyd A. Holcomb Jr. was also present. Leading the tour was Evelyn Horton, the mayor’s chief aide.

Merrill Center Director Laura Hildreth said the facility is utilized by up to 40 children Monday through Friday during school terms, when an after-school meal and snacks are provided. During the summer, when free breakfasts and lunches are served, up to 200 children visit the facility each day.

Hildreth said she believes the center is worthy of renovation.

“Our budget has been very low for the last five years,” she said. “I’m glad that someone is taking a long, hard look at this facility. Our children deserve a good place to come to.”

Pine Bluff Crime Advisory Committee member and Jefferson County Landlord Association leader Jean Painton termed the possibility of the center’s remodeling “exciting” and thinks it could boost the entire neighborhood.

“I believe it would kick-start this area for several blocks around,” said Painton, who resides nearby. “A renovated center would help in giving kids a place to go and get them out of playing in the streets. And it would also add beautification to the neighborhood and encourage other residents to improve their properties. It would be good for everyone.”