Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington earned a master’s degree from the University Of Arkansas at Fayetteville. After 38 years of service as a teacher and working in administration in the public schools of Jefferson County, she retired and became heavily involved in her community, serving as president of the Pine Bluff Education Association, a member of the Southeast Arkansas Arts and Science Center Board of Directors, the Pine Bluff Beautification Facilities Board, the Jefferson County Board of Governors, and a life member of the NAACP where she serves on the Education Committee of the Pine Bluff Branch. In October 2015, Washington entered the political arena, launching an effective campaign for Mayor of Pine Bluff. On Jan. 1, 2017, she became the first African American woman to hold the highest office in the city of Pine Bluff.
1. What makes a community most attractive to investment and what role should the City play in attracting that investment?
Investors are attracted to areas in which their investment dollars will go far and their businesses will be supported by the local economy. In order for this to happen, keeping and attracting people are the most important strategies in our economic landscape. We must recognize that in the past a vital local economy was based on attracting large companies by offering inexpensive locations and cheap labor force. The qualities of a particular place mattered little, and people migrated to where the jobs were. That’s all changed, and now communities are lively destinations that are easily reached. Quality of life is the key economic driver.
Pride in the city is part of quality of life. When people feel good about their city, they feel good about themselves. They are likely to recommend the city to others, and others will sense the enthusiasm and want to be a part of the city. This applies to business investors and citizens as well.
2. How can a mayor ensure community voices are heard in the planning process?
A mayor must put forth every effort to stay present and accessible to their constituents in order to ensure that their voices are heard. We must also continue to promote transparency with our citizens by having information sessions and through the use of social media, including the city’s website. Regular Town Hall meetings where citizens have the opportunity to ask questions, make suggestions, and share their ideas and experiences are also valuable in the planning process. Mayors must avoid the temptation of top-down management. It is important to implement programs and activities in ways that engage community members directly in the work of social, cultural, and economic change. Mayors must put forth an all-out attempt to stay connected to the community.
3. What impact will initiatives like Go Forward Pine Bluff and the current downtown master planning effort being conducted by the University of Arkansas’ Community Design Center have on the future of Pine Bluff?
Go Forward Pine Bluff and the downtown master planning effort have placed an intensive planning focus on our city. The Go Forward Initiative brought forth more than 100 individuals from all walks of life to collaborate on a vision for the future of Pine Bluff. Through positive and creative community brainstorming, and professional consultation and design activity, I think many goals will be accomplished to move our city toward a bright future.
4.The City has just released the RFQ for a comprehensive city plan. Why is developing big picture plans like this important?
A municipality, such as ours, cannot know where it is going and what it is developing into unless it has a clear vision. Therefore, it is very important for us to have professional, experienced guidance as we develop a policy document that considers land use, community character, economic development, infill and redevelopment, transportation, recreation and open space and sustainability over the next twenty years.
This master plan will provide a unified vision forward for the city which residents and the city can utilize as they move forward in the redevelopment of Pine Bluff. If we are going to make our city better, it will start with the development of this strategic plan. Once the plan is developed, it must be implemented, and not left to gather dust on a shelf in the city clerk’s office.
5. What has been some of the most challenging elements of being a mayor? How have you addressed some of those challenges?
Time has been a significant challenge during my term as mayor. The needs and demands of the city are great and require a great deal of time to assess, plan and execute viable solutions. Our current condition is the result of a slow decline. We are working fervently to halt the decline so that we may begin reinforcing and ultimately improving its status.
I have found that a city is a complex organism with interdependent parts. Each part requires a unique focus, but the multiple efforts must be viewed as a collective enterprise. Shortly after taking office in 2017, I realized that I had to set priorities, so I adopted five areas of concentration: Improving public safety, promoting economic development, supporting public schools, building strong neighborhoods and improving government operations.
These five goals are interconnected and must fit together like puzzle pieces if the city is to reach its potential.
Being mayor is complicated, and often headache-inducing, but it is also incredibly rewarding. While perusing an agenda, there are daily tasks to be accomplished and unforeseen challenges that spring up. I see the mayor’s job as having three distinct parts: (1) running the business of the city; (2) dealing with the crises that present themselves; and (3) advancing a vision for the future of the city.