A New Hope
Pine Bluff Shifts Revitalization Into High Gear
By DWAIN HEBDA
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington pulls no punches when the topic of discussion is revitalizing her once-thriving Delta city.
“Progress,” she said flatly, “cannot come soon enough.”
Decades of population loss, failing to adapt to changing economic tides and epidemic drug issues made Pine Bluff synonymous with crime and decay. The city’s Main Street became so decrepit, certain portions were blockaded as some buildings literally fell down where they stood.
Today, buildings are still coming down but as part of a targeted effort of progress and rebirth, said Ryan Watley, executive director of Go Forward Pine Bluff.
“We went through 2017 until about July of ‘18 establishing the Urban Renewal Agency, finding an executive director, having public meetings and so forth,” he said.
“Our first role of the Urban Renewal Agency was to remediate blight. It was far less expensive to purchase equipment with an everyday demo crew and go about this business, so we have successfully purchased new equipment and have an amazing staff to effectively remediate blight. That’s been taking place since about February.”
Watley said the process of eliminating depressed properties not only cleared the way for new development possibilities, it also showed delinquent property owners the city meant business. As such, the structures coming down have had a welcomed effect on the management of the buildings that remained.
“What is new about this moment in Pine Bluff is that we see more parts of our community working together in the spirit of unity and togetherness that has eluded us throughout our history.”
—Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington
“People can see the remediation of what’s been plaguing our community. The irresponsible property owners are being held accountable,” Watley said. “We’ve experienced more people taking responsibility for their property. Taking action has caused that, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Mayor Washington echoed the sentiment, saying the efforts have ignited a new sense of civic pride and community partnerships throughout the beleagured city, efforts that are already paying off.
“The citizens of Pine Bluff have always been a visionary and industrious people. I have approached my time as mayor with the mantra, ‘One Pine Bluff, Stronger Together,’” she said. “What is new about this moment in Pine Bluff is that we see more parts of our community working together in the spirit of unity and togetherness that has eluded us throughout our history.
“We see it in the public-private partnership between our city and Go Forward Pine Bluff to improve the quality of life for citizens in our community. We see it in small businesses that have partnered with our summer youth employment program to give young people an opportunity to be connected to the workforce and learn real-world skills.”
“We also see it in the young people at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff who are the first in their family to earn a college diploma and who are choosing to stay in Pine Bluff to contribute to our community, as well as the young people who moved away and now are coming back home to start a business.”
Watley said outside investment is a key next step for revitalization efforts and recruitment of these of dollars is progressing at full speed. A downtown master plan, released late last year, and a forthcoming comprehensive city plan, now in its opening stages, provide strategic vision for these potential investors.
“We’ve had many conversations about what we can do to make [Pine Bluff] even more interesting to people,” he said. “We’re in a unique situation through the opportunity zone and new market tax credit and historical tax credit. All those are applicable, so understanding that process and being able to communicate that to investors has become very important.”
The city received a momentum boost when Arkansas voters approved legalized gambling, a measure specifically earmarking Pine Bluff for a new casino and hotel complex. City officials are hungry to capitalize on the residual development from that project as well as what comes of their own economic development efforts.
Should these efforts yield the intended result, steps have been taken to help ensure local trade companies have the opportunity to benefit via the Construction and Trade Alliance.
Van Tilbury, president and CEO of East Harding Construction in Little Rock, founded the alliance in 2017 to help resident subcontractors position themselves favorably to land contracts, thereby growing their operations and keeping development money within the local economy.
“East Harding has worked consistently in Pine Bluff since 2002 and we have literally had a project in construction in Pine Bluff since that time, back when it was a very underserved market,” Tilbury said. “We built a lot of relationships with local subcontractors who are very competent. We also identified some subcontractors who I would call lower capacity and wanted to grow. Our goal has been to involve them on our projects with the key phrase of building capacity.
“We started having quarterly meetings with established subcontractors in the construction trades in Pine Bluff and asked them to help identify up-and-coming companies, younger companies that wanted to learn how to compete for commercial construction projects.”
Building a network of 60 member companies, the alliance helped bring these firms along on projects. Results have retained substantial development dollars within the local economy; Tilbury cited one project for the Dollarway School District where 85 percent of bids were awarded to local firms.
“Another key is, we know the capacity of the local market, so we write our bid packages that target that capacity,” Tilbury said. “A local contractor may not be able to do a big HVAC project, but they may be able to do pipe insulation on those HVAC pipes. If it’s a million-dollar HVAC job, they can’t bid it, but if it’s a $50,000 insulation package, they can bid that. Then they’re on a larger scale project and learning.
“That builds capacity so when the next project comes in, they’re better equipped to compete and hopefully their contract values can grow and they one day become a mentor to younger up-and-coming companies.”
For all the innovative thinking and administrative boxes that have been checked in this effort, Watley knows that the true octane for Pine Bluff’s engine will be projects visibly coming out of the ground.
“So far, it’s mainly been collaborative effort, and because of the collaboration, people believe in [the plan],” he said. “Time-wise, Pine Bluff is very anxious for certain things. We struggle every day to meet the timeline with what Pine Bluffians want,because they want it now. Even last year with all the processes we established, you still couldn’t see anything.
“We’re starting to have those conversations now to bring new people to our doorstep. We have some prospects and it’s going to be so critical to turn those prospects into realization.”