I’m proud of the people of Pine Bluff.
On Tuesday, they went to the polls and approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin a sales tax initiative designed to stem the loss of population in southeast Arkansas’ largest city.
Nothing is ever easy in Pine Bluff with its us vs. them, rich vs. poor, black vs. white style of politics.
Loud-mouthed demagogues have too often held sway in that city through the years. Indeed, there was organized opposition to this initiative and people (including at least one member of the Pine Bluff City Council) made outrageous claims.
This time, though, a majority of those who voted said “enough.”
Enough of the race baiting.
Enough of the scare tactics.
Enough of the politics of division.
They realized that this was the last chance to truly turn Pine Bluff around before it was in a death spiral.
During 2016, about 100 Pine Bluff residents participated in a planning process funded by the Simmons First Foundation. The effort is known as Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, members of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force unveiled a 27-point plan for revitalization covering everything from education to infrastructure.
How to fund the implementation of those recommendations?
The five-eighths of a cent sales tax approved last week is expected to produce about $4 million annually for the next seven years.
Go Forward Pine Bluff officials have said that they will raise another $20 million in private funds to give the city a pot of almost $48 million to implement the recommendations.
There were plenty of business leaders across the state who were prepared to write Pine Bluff off for good had the initiative failed.
Now, there’s hope.
But it’s going to take a lot more than $48 million to revitalize Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years. Additional private capital is needed.
A Yankee just might be what this bastion of the Old South needs.
Meet Tom Reilley.
Reilley is the entrepreneur who brought a wood pellet plant to Pine Bluff.
He lives in New Hampshire and began his career with the investment firm Bear Stearns. He was transferred to London by the company in 2002 to establish a wealth management division. Reilley left the company in 2007 to form a private equity company known as Kalan Capital.
While searching for the ideal place to locate the Highland Pellets facility, Reilley fell in love with the people of Pine Bluff.
He also came to appreciate the potential of the old building downtown that once housed the Hotel Pines.
More on that in a moment. First, a bit more about Highland Pellets.
There’s a growing demand in Europe for wood pellets, which are used as fuel for power plants. The United Kingdom and countries in the European Union are trying to phase out coal-fired plants.
In a statement last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said: “I believe that this renewable resource can help play a role in the global shift toward clean and more sustainable energy sources. … As governor of Arkansas, I aim to maintain both the vitality of Arkansas’ forests as well as the wood energy trade between Arkansas and nations within the EU.”
EU member states are assigned national renewable energy targets.
Plans for the $229 million Pine Bluff wood pellet plant were first announced in August 2014. The initial employment is 68 people, and the facility is expected to create hundreds of indirect jobs in south Arkansas as it helps revitalize the timber industry in that part of the state. The facility will use about 1.4 million tons of wood annually, most Southern yellow pine. Pellets will be transported by Union Pacific to the Port of Baton Rouge in railcars and then loaded onto ships in order to make the trip to Europe.
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission estimates the financial impact of the facility will be more than $86 million annually.
The Pine Bluff plant delivered its first pellets in April. It’s expected to be fully operational by the third quarter of this year.
According to the Highland website: “All fiber supplied to these sites will be sustainable with a significant proportion coming from residual waste wood (shavings and sawdust) from local sawmills.”
Highland Pellets is a privately held company with veterans from the wood pellet, finance and energy markets involved.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant last fall, Hutchinson said: “Highland Pellets’ leadership is passionate about this new facility and the impact it will have on Jefferson County’s economy. They are determined to have a lasting effect, not only on their employees but also also on the entire community.”
Arkansas has more than 18.8 million acres of forestland, providing plenty of raw materials for the plant. Reilley also took into consideration competitive utility rates and a good transportation infrastructure.
He didn’t count on becoming obsessed with rebuilding Pine Bluff.
Reilley was instrumental in the formation of a grassroots group known as Pine Bluff Rising that works to complement the efforts of Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, Pine Bluff Rising purchased the Hotel Pines for $1 from previous owner Elvin Moon.
At the time of the purchase, Reilley said: “Pine Bluff Rising is undertaking a thorough investigation of the structure as well as the challenges and opportunities that may exist.”
He told me in January that he didn’t know if the building could be saved but was willing to spend whatever was necessary to find out.
“The Hotel Pines was conceived and built to attract more business to the section of Main Street that lies to the south of the city’s railroad tracks,” states the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “As such, it provides a glimpse at one effort to alter a city’s main business and shopping area in the early 20th century. This classically designed hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 10, 1979.
“Since the area north of the tracks was a thriving commercial district, the city’s Main Street property owners believed that the presence of a modern hotel would lure business south of the tracks. Many of Jefferson County’s leading citizens became stockholders in the new enterprise. Architect George Mann, who designed the state Capitol and the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, was selected to plan the new facility. Paul Heerwagen of Fayetteville was hired to decorate the interior. Heerwagen’s experience included work on hotels such as the Piedmont in Atlanta. Gov. George Washington Hays delivered the principal address at the Nov. 6, 1913, opening.
“When it opened, the Hotel Pines was regarded as one of the finest hotels in Arkansas. Located near Union Station, the hotel offered porter service to carry baggage to and from the station. It also was the location of society balls and dances, banquets and business and civic meetings. … Hotel Pines operated continuously for 57 years. When passenger rail service to Pine Bluff ended in 1968, the hotel lost its primary clientele, closing in the spring of 1970.”
What once had been a symbol of Pine Bluff prosperity came to symbolize Pine Bluff’s decline.
Reilley knows that symbolism is important. He understands that a revived Hotel Pines will send a message statewide that Pine Bluff has reclaimed its status as the regional capital for the southeast quadrant of Arkansas.
Reilley thinks it will take at least $35 million to renovate the building. He plans to utilize a combination of state and federal historic renovation tax credits, New Market tax credits, charitable contributions and private capital to get the job done. He brought in WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock, East Harding Construction of Little Rock and interior designer Kaki Hockersmith to come up with a plan to show potential investors.
Writing in The Pine Bluff Commercial, Knowles Adkisson related what has gone on with the building the past few decades: “The property has changed hands many times over the years, usually with promises from the buyer to restore the hotel to its former glory. None have yet comes to pass, and it has presented a conundrum: Too expensive to rebuild yet too expensive to tear down. The city first inspected the hotel during the 1970s with plans to renovate it, according to Luther Drye, a former building inspector for the city. However, the city was never able to come up with the funds, he said. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair.”
Drye told the newspaper: “It was substandard. The city has codes covering existing buildings. It was dilapidated, windows falling out, hitting the sidewalk below, stuff like that. There was a bad roof in the northwest corner. … The basement stayed full of water. That didn’t help.”
A nonprofit organization called Citizens United to Save the Pines purchased the property but couldn’t come up with the funds to restore it. Moon, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in Pine Bluff, bought the hotel in 2008 but also failed to find funds for renovations.
Pine Bluff Rising announced in early June that it will move forward with renovation efforts. The group released a statement that said: “Some have asked why we are doing this. The answer to us is clear: We wish to help rebuild the economic, social and cultural heart of downtown Pine Bluff through an asset the community can … point to with pride.”
I sometimes compare Pine Bluff to an old boxer who has been knocked down many times but is trying to make a comeback. I find that people across the state are now rooting for Pine Bluff rather than making jokes about Crime Bluff.
Reilley wants a building that will have people coming and going at all hours since it will include doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, floral shops, beauty shops and the like in addition to hotel rooms. He dreams of restaurants, craft breweries and live music venues up and down the street. He wants to see the day when people from places like Dumas, McGehee and Warren will no longer need to drive all the way to Little Rock for a night out.
Reilley has been especially impressed by the city’s new mayor, Shirley Washington, a former educator.
“Think of her as a no-nonsense principal,” he says. “That’s exactly what Pine Bluff needs.”
He’s an optimist in a town where it had become hard to be optimistic.
Reilley, who bought a home in Pine Bluff, explains his efforts this way: “I’ve never been to a place with such a deep sense of community. People who could have left Pine Bluff long ago refused to do so because they love the place so much. And I fell in love with those people. Last year, even though I was extremely busy lining up financing and hiring a Highland management team, I started asking questions that people had a hard time answering. I wanted to know how a place with such a storied history — a place filled with people who love it — could have gotten into the shape Pine Bluff is in now.”