Pine Bluff’s turning point

The headline on the front page of the Arkansas section of Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette cried out: “Collapsed-building cleanup in downtown PB on slow track.”

Sometimes it seems as if the news coming out of Pine Bluff is always bad news.

“Contrary to earlier reports by Pine Bluff leaders, it will be well into 2016 before Main Street reopens between Fourth and Fifth avenues downtown,” John Worthen wrote. “The street was blocked off in February after the former Band Museum building and a former VFW post collapsed. The roadway partially reopened in the spring but was closed again in July after city engineers determined that two other nearby vacant buildings were in the early stages of collapse. The buildings were vacant, and no one was injured.”

Yes, parts of downtown Pine Bluff are falling in.

Even the Pine Bluff entry for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture has been updated to note: “Pine Bluff’s decaying downtown captured the spotlight after several buildings collapsed along the Main Street corridor, starting in 2014. On Feb. 20, 2014, the former J.C. Penney building, more than a century old, partially collapsed and had to be demolished. By March 2015, four buildings (including the former home of the Band Museum at Fifth and Main) had collapsed wholly or partially, and in July 2015, the city closed off part of Main Street out of concern that the Kahn Building might also collapse. Many buildings in the downtown area stand empty and in need of repair. One of the most prominent of these derelict buildings is the Hotel Pines on Main Street, which was among the finest hotels in Arkansas when it opened in 1913.”

Then there are the crime stories.

And the stores about schools in academic distress.

And the stories about infighting on the city council.

And on and on.

There are plenty of positive things happening in Pine Bluff. You just rarely hear about them, and it’s going to take far more than a marketing campaign to change that.

The leadership of Pine Bluff has had enough.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the city’s leading citizens gathered in a Simmons First National Bank conference room and announced the launch of an effort to turn things around.

I’m proud to now work for Simmons, and I’m proud to be able to play a small role in this effort.

All Arkansans should be rooting for Pine Bluff. As I explained when I spoke at lunch Tuesday in North Little Rock to the staff of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Pine Bluff is the most important city in southeast Arkansas, the regional center of that quadrant of our state. As goes Pine Bluff, so goes southeast Arkansas.

“I was born in Pine Bluff 59 years ago at Davis Hospital, which was located on what’s now a vacant lot,” said George Makris, the Simmons chairman and CEO. “At that time, the area around the hospital was a vibrant hub of Pine Bluff. Things change. … After years of ignoring change, Pine Bluff must recognize the changes that have occurred and begin to manage them for the future of the city and its citizens.

“Simmons is the only publicly traded company with its headquarters in Pine Bluff. Simmons was founded here in 1903. We’re proud of our historical partnership with Pine Bluff. We think it has served both entities well. We’ve been lucky during the past few years to grow our company. We now have more than 2,000 associates in four states, and we expect that growth to continue. Pine Bluff will have to compete for jobs we create, not only with the cities in Arkansas where we have a presence, but with other dynamic cities like Nashville, Knoxville, Springfield, Wichita, St. Louis and Kansas City.

“We indicated a few weeks ago our willingness to establish pools of funds and programs designed to help the redevelopment of Pine Bluff and therefore its competitive position. We’re still committed to doing so and are confident others will join in that effort. However, those funds need to be targeted to enable a plan for redevelopment, not just indiscriminately disbursed throughout the city.”

George Makris is nothing if not a realist.

“We have a lot to overcome,” he said. “We have three school districts within the city of Pine Bluff. Only one has a permanent superintendent, and all three struggle financially and academically. We must address public education in Pine Bluff, including consolidation of the three Pine Bluff districts.

“Many businesses have relocated, leaving vast unoccupied areas, including much of downtown. We must redefine many areas in Pine Bluff, some of which may necessitate demolition to repurpose the area. The good news is that areas surrounding Pine Bluff have done well so the region is stable. But Pine Bluff is the center of commerce. Pine Bluff has excellent infrastructure, which we cannot take advantage of without addressing these other issues.

“Tough decisions will be required. Elected officials will need to be committed and willing to stay on course as they allocate resources. There will be pain before gain. We can do it. The question is will we do it. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m hopeful that a great plan will be developed and that we as a community will have the discipline to implement the plan.”

Consolidating school districts.

Tearing down buildings.

Makris is addressing the tough issues that have been ignored for too long.

The Go Forward Pine Bluff effort is being funded by the bank through a donation to the Simmons First Foundation.

The year 2016 will be used to come up with recommendations. The Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, led by Jim Youngquist, will assist with that process.

The recommendations hopefully will be implemented in 2017-18.

“It’s time for a comprehensive strategic plan that will guide this city into the next decade,” said Mary Pringos, the chairman of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force and a member of the Simmons First Foundation board. “For the plan to be successful, all sectors of the community must be involved in the planning process. What we don’t want is a report that will sit on a shelf and gather dust. The objective is to produce a plan that the community buys into, one that establishes clear, measurable goals and has concrete steps for achieving those goals.”

Tommy May, the Arkansas icon who long was the Simmons Bank chairman and now heads the Simmons First Foundation, said the planning group will measure its success in four ways.

“The first will be our ability to recruit a fully inclusive planning team that has the capacity and the desire to spend many hours during the next 12 months making recommendations that likely will result in significant change,” he said. “Second will be our ability to embrace the successes that came from the 20/20 effort and then focus our full attention on the difficult tasks that must be done to attract and retain jobs and families in Pine Bluff. Third will be our ability to pass the torch from the planning group to the appropriate organizations that will implement the plan in 2017 and 2018. Finally will be our ability to identify resources that will fund the execution of the plan.”

In addition to Pringos and May, task force members will be Irene Holcomb, George Stepps, Byron Tate, Dr. Laurence Alexander, the Rev. Glenn Barnes, Chuck Morgan, Lou Ann Nisbett and Catherine Smart.

Under the task force will be four steering committees.

Nick Makris will lead the economic development steering committee.

Scott Pittillo will lead the education steering committee.

Rosalind Mouser will lead the infrastructure and government steering committee.

Dr. Kaleybra Morehead will lead the quality of life steering committee.

“By growing the tax base, we will ensure that we can better fund city services and put an end to population loss,” Pringos said. “We’re at a turning point in this city, and development of the plan will get us moving in the right direction. We hope to be able to point to visible results. The bottom line is that the city must decide where it wants to go and then start down that path. The plan will be our road map for the future. Our ultimate goal is to make Pine Bluff a city that people want to call home.”

It once was a natural spot for a town to thrive, this place called Pine Bluff. The Arkansas River provided a transportation route connecting the interior of Arkansas to the Mississippi River and thus to cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis.

On one side of the city were vast Southern pine forests that could fuel a lucrative timber industry.

On the other side of the city were lowlands filled with bottomland hardwoods. Those hardwoods were harvested, the land was drained and the rich soil proved ideal for growing cotton.

“In the autumn of 1819, Joseph Bonne, making his way upstream from Arkansas Post, built a crude cabin for his Quapaw wife and family on a high bluff covered with pine trees on the river’s south bank,” Russell Bearden wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few years later, James Scull, also from Arkansas Post, arrived and set up an encampment on the north bank across from the future site of Pine Bluff. The encampment soon became a tavern and small inn. On March 3, 1819, President James Monroe named Robert Crittenden territorial secretary. Crittenden quickly set about exploiting the remaining Quapaw in southeast Arkansas to relinquish their last tracks of land.”

With the Quapaw gone and steamboats beginning to ply the Arkansas, the area started attracting settlers such as French-born Antoine Barraque, for whom a Pine Bluff street is named. Jefferson County was established in 1829, and Pine Bluff became the county seat in 1832.

The railroad arrived in the 1880s, connecting Pine Bluff to Little Rock. The town grew from 460 residents in 1850 to 9,952 residents in 1890, making it the third-largest city in the state. The Cotton Belt located its main engine maintenance shops in Pine Bluff in 1894. The railroad was the largest industrial employer in the county until the Pine Bluff Arsenal was built during World War II.

Between the railroad operations, the cotton industry, the timber industry and the arsenal (the arsenal alone employed almost 10,000 people during World War II), Pine Bluff boomed. The population almost tripled from 21,290 in 1940 to 57,389 in 1970. International Paper Co. decided to locate a large paper mail at Pine Bluff in 1957. By 1962, the mill employed 1,400 people.

Of the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Bearden wrote: “Construction costs were estimated at about $60 million. At the height of the war, the plant expanded from making magnesium and thermite incendiary munitions to a chemical warfare manufacturing facility as well, producing lethal gases and chemical compounds installed in artillery shells and specifically designed bombs. Fifteen civilian workers died in work-related accidents. The facility grew with its expanded mission. More than 900 buildings and production facilities would consume 3.3 million square feet of space, 43 miles of roads and 14 miles of track for diesel-electric locomotives pulling boxcars and flat cars of munitions. In February 1942, the arsenal also became one of the nation’s storage depots for its expanding chemical stockpile munitions. These binary projectiles (lethal agents mixed after discharge of the projectile) were isolated in igloos near the northwest section of the facility.”

President Nixon banned the production and use of biological weapons in 1969. Part of the complex was renamed the National Center for Toxicological Research and is now a branch of the federal Food & Drug Administration. On-site incineration of toxic nerve agents began in 2005 and was completed in 2010. The arsenal’s mission changed to making smoke, incendiary and pyrotechnic devices.

In a story for Talk Business & Politics on the Go Forward Pine Bluff effort, Wesley Brown described Pine Bluff as “the former jewel of south Arkansas.”

Now, a large number of Pine Bluff residents have stepped forward to polish that jewel.

As George Makris noted, there’s infrastructure in place.

There’s Interstate 530, which recently has undergone millions of dollars of improvements between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

There’s the Port of Pine Bluff and an adjoining industrial district.

There still are major railroad operations in the city.

There are two institutions of higher education, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College.

There’s a strong manufacturing base.

“The county has almost 30 manufacturers, including Evergreen Packaging and Tyson Foods,” Steve Brawner wrote for Talk Business & Politics. “Evergreen’s Pine Bluff and East Coast locations produce paper products, including most of the old-fashioned gable-top milk cartons used by consumers today. Tyson’s third-largest complex is in the area. Another company, Kiswire, makes steel tire cord. It recently was acquired by a South Korean company and is expanding with state and local incentives. Southwind Milling recently built a $35 million rice mill operation in the Harbor Industrial District next to the Arkansas River. Highland Pellets has acquired more than 150 acres to make wood pellets that it will export to the United Kingdom.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth has made code enforcement a priority. Asked by Brawner about the situation downtown, she said: “Once this 400 block is cleaned up, we’re going to have a fantastic area for somebody to come in and buy and be able to start revitalizing our downtown area. But you had to get it started, and that was the toughest part.”

Prior to the Go Forward Pine Bluff announcement, Brawner wrote: “Makris has seen the city grow, reach its height and then shrink. He said Simmons would like to expand locally. He agrees with Hollingsworth’s concept of starting small. Long-term the community must decide what it wants to become and where it wants to go. Simmons Bank officials have started a philosophical discussion with city and community leaders about Pine Bluff’s direction. At some point, that discussion will need to be more serious and organized.”

Well, it’s now serious and organized.

An entire state will watch to see if Pine Bluff’s government, civic and business leaders can put aside personal interests and pull together to turn around an important Arkansas city.

 

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