Patrol division’s move to old armory approved

Despite an offer from The Pines shopping mall to spend up to $100,000 to renovate a 5,800-square foot space that the Pine Bluff Police Department’s Patrol Division could occupy rent-free for three years with a five-year agreement, the sector is apparently headed from its current Commerce Street warehouse location to the former Army Reserve/National Guard armory at 1000 North Myrtle Street near Townsend Park.

The city council voted 5-2 Monday night to send the division to the former military site, which was given to the city by the Army. Mayor Debe Hollingsworth and Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks had expressed opposition to that move while favoring the offer from Andy Weiner, chief executive officer of the mall.

Supporting the relocation to the armory, which Hollingsworth said would require repairs of approximately $700,000 to house the police division, were the ordinance’s co-sponsors — Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown, Steven Mays and George Stepps and Alderwoman Thelma Walker. Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly registered nays. Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. was absent.

The vote followed Weiner’s appeal to the council during Easterly’s time to address activities of the public safety committee, which Easterly chairs.

Weiner said the presence of police at the mall could help the establishment as well as the city in regard to the public’s perception of The Pines being unsafe. Weiner said mall merchants would also appreciate the patrol division being located there, and admitted that having the police on board could lead to the mall attracting some national merchants that otherwise aren’t interested.

“We’re not asking police to patrol the mall,” he stressed, adding that simply having police vehicles and uniformed officers there would help shoppers and merchants to feel safer.

Weiner said that after the initial 36-month rent-free stay in which the city would be responsible only for an estimated $1,600 in monthly utilities, the police department would be charged rent of “less than $1,000” while continuing to be responsible for utilities.

“We want to make this so easy for the city that you can’t refuse it,”Weinersaid. “There will be no taxes or maintenance or insurance costs for the city. It’s a win-win for the mall and the city. What having the police there will be doing is selling this community to tenants.”

Weiner said the mall space could be readied for occupancy “within six weeks.” He said the improvements would be funded by “investors in the mall and this community.”

Before a roll-call vote was taken, Brumett called the patrol division “the front line of the city” and suggested the armory would best be utilized for another purpose. He pointed out that air conditioning would be provided at the mall, while a cooling service currently isn’t even in place at the armory.

“Mr. Weiner has made a real strong commitment to the city in helping us to save money and to change our image,” Brumett said.

After indications were made by some of the ordinance’s proponents that Weiner was seemingly contesting the division’s transfer to the armory, which is near the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Easterly said, “It’s not opposition. It’s a proposal by a man who’s invested a lot of money in trying to keep business here.”

Stepps argued that UAPB is “the engine that makes this city run” and deserves the city’s support. He said “business is up” across the city when classes are in session at the campus.

Stepps was critical of Hubanks and police officers who had said the mall would be their “choice” for a work location.

“Either you go to the facilities you are provided or you go home,” he said.

In an apparent verbal jab at Hollingsworth, he said, “I’m not against the mall, but (the council members) were in agreement on this until some opposition came up.”

Brown and Walker echoed Stepps, both saying that Weiner has been the mall’s chief owner for a couple of years but had never previously indicated an interest in bringing the police back to the site they were forced to vacate by his predecessor.

Mays said some sort of compromise is needed. He said a police presence is needed in the mall, and meanwhile “thieves and thugs are trying to take over.”