Revitalizing a Delta Town

The  Pine  Bluff  Story

By Dwain Hebda

It's 2 p.m. on a muggy Arkansas Tuesday and eerily quiet in Pine Bluff's old downtown. Most of the buildings in this neighborhood are boarded up and empty, a few remnant artifacts of retail stores, banks and who-knows-what. Here and again, a city parcel sits bleached and bare, its punch-drunk building long lost to weather and time and apathy. The district, like the early summer air, is still. 

But the quiet is deceiving, a façade of the initiative and investment that has begun to creep back into this community, the former jewel of the Delta. Pulsing behind the plywood windows and stark brick and concrete is something new, something palpable, something Pine Bluff hasn't felt in a long time—hope.

"Some people look at this and all they see is the building with the roof falling in here or one that's derelict over there," said Stuart Hee from atop The Hotel Pines, one of the largest reclamation ventures in town. "You ask me what I see? I see opportunity."

Walk around long enough and you'll discover Hee, who's part of a business partnership investing in more than one project down here, isn't alone in this vision. Here and there, bright and colorful store fronts pop against the drab urban landscape like tiger lilies in a beanfield. Each represents a new start for the district and, as all are unflinchingly convinced, the beginnings of a city-wide resurrection. 

"It's great, people are getting acclimated to downtown once again," said Wil Jenkins, a Texas transplant and co-owner of several properties in the neighborhood. "It's just going to be a beautiful thing."

Pine Bluff is a community with as fascinating a history as there is in Arkansas. An offspring of the state's first settlement, Arkansas Post, The Town of Pine Bluff, as it was officially named by the county court in 1832, was incorporated in 1839. 

Post-Reconstruction brought affluence and growth as cotton, lumber, river commerce and railroads fed the furnace of prosperity and created wealth among enterprising black and white entrepreneurs alike. At one time the state's third largest city, Pine Bluff was lauded as a cosmopolitan destination and has produced more than its share of notables in entertainment, sports, politics, law and various industries.

Like many communities of the Delta, Pine Bluff's struggles began with the decline of the railroad and cotton industries and these, along with worsening social and quality of life issues, began to cost the area in headcount. Between 1970 and 2014, Jefferson County's population shrank 15 percent, or nearly 13,000 residents, with particularly damaging declines during periods in the 1980s and the 2000s. Pine Bluff, which has lost about 6,000 residents just since the 2010 census, became synonymous with crime and decay.

"It was a double whammy that hit Pine Bluff," said State Rep. Vivian Flowers. "You had white Pine Bluffians retiring to Hot Springs, so much that they now call Hot Springs 'Little Pine Bluff.' You had other people who literally died out; their kids went to college someplace else, maybe Fayetteville, maybe out of state. You got a lot of empty air property."

"And then you had the second thing which was the influx and impact of drugs. That happened in Washington D.C., that happened in all your big cities, that happened in the Midwest, that happened in the South. Our cities and our towns took a beating and that, of course, affected public safety and the perception of all the other things you look for in a quality of place. Pine Bluff had negative impacts over all those things."

After years of failed piecemeal solutions, Pine Bluff's stakeholders launched Go Forward Pine Bluff in 2017, an ambitious initiative for comprehensive community improvement. More than 100 Pine Bluff citizens met monthly throughout 2016 to craft the plan that would address the city's most dire needs and put Pine Bluff back on the road to prosperity and growth.

The sweeping initiatives, by some estimates, could ultimately run as high as $50 million. Last June, the wider community voiced its support at the polls, approving a seven-year sales tax increase expected to raise $4 million annually to partially fund GFPB's mandate.

"Go Forward Pine Bluff’s pillars are Quality of Life, Economic Development, Government Infrastructure, and Education," said Ryan Watley, GFPB chief executive officer. "Those pillars reflect the strong bones that Pine Bluff has long depended upon to be a thriving community. GFPB continues to identify innovative strategies to challenges that not only have impacted Pine Bluff, but cities of similar size and stature."

Within those four pillars are 27 initiatives to be addressed by the time the sales tax increase sunsets, among which are generating investment and fostering new businesses. It's an effort that draws from a variety of community partners. 

"The current pillars of Go Forward Pine Bluff are opportunistic to businesses looking to establish roots," Watley said. "Based on these opportunities and the ability of our Jefferson County Alliance to incentivize potential companies, Pine Bluff has an international market. In addition, Go Forward Pine Bluff is focused on inspiring innovation and entrepreneurship that lead to subsequent small businesses in the downtown footprint."

According to Lori Walker, assistant director for the City of Pine Bluff Economic and Community Development, statistical trends suggest conditions are in GFPB's favor, including a plateau in the latest decline in population since a 2005 uptick.

"As part of our economic development agenda, we have a focus around quality of place," she said. "We're looking at trying to have a variety of housing options and a variety of amenities that appeal to different market groups. All of those fit with our overarching research theory around the National Association of Homebuilders talking about the neighborhood amenities that positively affect home prices and the lack of amenities that negatively affect home prices."

At present, progress is subtle. In addition to the smattering of new stores downtown, improvements have been made around Lake Saracen including a pavilion, walking bridge and trails. New street lighting and building codes portend more attractive infill development while planned streetscape improvements will breathe new life into historic areas. In addition to the businesses downtown, a mini plaza is nearing completion next to the University of Pine Bluff Business Support Incubator, right across the street from the vacant lot where a brand-new city library is planned.

Walker, like all those working directly on community initiatives, champs at the bit to capitalize on these positives.

"The growth side is what we're always looking forward to, but the key thing about communities nowadays is, while employment is important, at the same time it's about being a community where people want to live. That is how communities win the day," she said.

"Do I get impatient with the process?" Walker breaks into a wide smile. "Yeah, absolutely."

Back downtown, Maryann Lee glances out the window of Indigo Blue, her coffee shop and bookstore. She grew up here but has spent the majority of her life in Detroit, so she knows something about community decay and revival. There's no question in her mind which end of that equation she finds herself on today.

"I see possibilities, that's what I see," she said. "Now, this place was a terrible mess; it was a lot of work and, well, I wouldn't say tears, I'd say it was a challenge. But it has its own character, its own feeling. A building will tell you what it wants to be."

"I like the downtown area. A lot of folks bypass the city, they're missing a lot. They saw rubble. I saw a bookstore and coffee shop."

"I was on the Go Forward Pine Bluff Education Pillar committee. Something that we kept saying was, guys, the other three pillars are not going to matter, if we don’t get education right in order to have a workforce that's well-prepared and to increase quality of place. I mean, we have students who are involved in violent crime and a lot of that is due to the struggles they are facing and systemic property inequities. I think education is the answer to solving those issues and we have to provide those services to meet the needs of kids and get them to the next level."
Adrian Dhanaraj
Teacher, Pine Bluff School District /
Founder, What's Next Pine Bluff

"When you get individuals invested and skin in the game, so to speak, they're much more likely to help your initiatives be executed. Our Chamber of Commerce supports a Candidate Development Institute which stresses the importance of cultivating the correct leaders in place and we have our Leadership programs that help cultivate current leaders. We also have our Junior Leadership Program, which is made up of 10th graders kind of dipping their toe in the leadership pond, so to speak. We're trying to cultivate this next generation of leaders to feel passionate about the community."
Nancy McNew
Director, Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce

"I believe in Go Forward Pine Bluff. I've seen a few programs come and go but I have not seen a program that reaches the scale that Go Forward Pine Bluff has. As with any program it has its challenges, but I feel comfortable enough with the leadership to say, 'OK, these guys will be able to meet those challenges.' At this point in Pine Bluff, what choice do we have? Either we continue to sit back and bicker amongst each other or we can figure out how to move forward. Go Forward Pine Bluff has figured out how to bring people together."
Nate Baker
Pine Bluff native