Pine Bluff Business, Civic Leaders Begin Long Road To Recovery

The Jefferson County Courthouse, as seen from the abandoned Pines Hotel in the city's downtown area.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

It’s no secret that Pine Bluff has seen better days. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population dropped 7.6%, from 49,080 to 45,332, from 2010 to 2014. That’s down from 57,389 in 1970. The median household income of $30,515 is more than $10,000 less than the Arkansas median of $40,768.

Jefferson County’s unemployment rate of 7.8% is 2.4 points higher than Arkansas’ 5.4 percent. Many Arkansas downtowns are rundown, but parts of Pine Bluff’s Main Street have fallen down.

But there are bright spots, and a reason to look ahead.

Bryan Barnhouse, director of economic development for the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, said the county has much to offer employers, including the Port of Pine Bluff, the associated Harbor Industrial District, a Union Pacific rail yard and the fact that most industrial sites are located within five to 10 minutes of Interstate 530. Pine Bluff has two higher education institutions, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College, with which employers can partner. Barnhouse said the county has seen an increase in interest from site selection consultants and is advancing farther in the process than it has in the past.

The county has almost 30 manufacturers, including Evergreen Packaging and Tyson Foods. 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.

“We concentrate on manufacturing locally because it’s what we’re good at,” he said. “It’s what we do. It’s part of our identity, and we can do it better here than most other places because of our physical in-place assets of infrastructure like the river, the railroad and the highway, but also the workforce. They’re used to manufacturing. It’s what they know.”

DOWNTOWN A PRIORITY
Perhaps nothing better illustrates Pine Bluff’s current situation than its downtown area, where five structures in the 400 block of Main Street are being demolished because of a lack of upkeep. Several buildings have collapsed, including the Band Museum, whose roof caved in earlier this year. According to Barnhouse, the problem is more than just an eyesore.

“We’ve lost prospects because of downtown, and we’ve been told that,” he said. “We’ve conveyed that to the mayor, and she’s made it a priority to get downtown fixed up.”

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said the city has not had any code enforcement in recent years, so after her election in 2013 the city has gotten tougher about assessing buildings and levying fines. Repairing the area has gone slower than she hoped because the city had to wait for a temporary electricity pole. Now, progress is being made. She said property owners, eager to avoid bad publicity, are cooperating in the process.

“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,” she said.

Another downtown issue is the old Plaza Hotel, which is paired with the Pine Bluff Convention Center and which owner Bruce Rahmani closed July 28. He’s offered to sell it for $3 million; the city has offered to buy it for $500,000. So for now, it sits.

Pine Bluff native George Makris, 59, CEO of Pine Bluff-based Simmons Bank, said the city must focus its efforts where it can accomplish the most good, and that may not be downtown. Two railroad tracks run through the middle of the downtown area. Meetings come to a halt when a noisy train passes through, but that doesn’t last long. Perhaps a bigger problem is the damage that is done. Makris said his family’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship warehouse had to be repaired every five years because of the damage to the mortar caused by the rumbling trains. The downtown area is composed mostly of large, multi-story buildings that would be expensive to repurpose.

“Everyone likes historic preservation,” he said. “I would suggest that maybe some of those buildings could be considered historic, and maybe some of them could just be considered old.”

REDUCED CRIME

Hollingsworth said the city does not have a long-term master plan. Instead, it’s working on a three- to five-year plan with measurable goals and visible results. University Drive leading to UAPB has been paved, with utilities laid. Now zoning laws must be updated. The city has hired a marketing person to improve its brand. Parks need to be revitalized, which means the focus may shift to larger ones while some of the smaller ones are returned to neighborhoods.

The city had 18 murders in 2012 and was being called one of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Hollingsworth said crime has been reduced through predictive policing where the force analyzes data every 12 hours to find hot spots and respond accordingly. Meanwhile, the city is removing blight by demolishing 600 houses using an $830,000 state grant. Crime stats will be kept to determine the effect of the program before and after the houses were demolished.

The work is being done using prison inmates in the last year of their sentences as part of a pilot program with the Department of Correction. They’ll be screened, provided housing and monitored at all times while being taught skills that could help them find a job later. If it works in Pine Bluff, it could be tried elsewhere.

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.

“Simmons is prepared to invest in the community behind a plan that is practical and doable,” he said. “Now whether that’s something that we sort of drive ourselves or whether we think we could do that with a wholesale community effort – I think it would be better with a wholesale community effort – but you know, we’ll just see how that goes.”

State Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said the community must work together and form partnerships across different institutions. It’s not so much that the city is divided as it is compartmentalized and siloed, with the institutions not making enough of an effort to reach out to each other, she said. However, she sees hope.

“I think we’re beginning to recognize common issues,” she said, later adding, “Looking back at pictures, photos from Pine Bluff’s past, this used to be a vibrant city, and I believe it can be again.”