PINE BLUFF, ARKANSAS 101

Pine Bluff 101
“When the center of your city is a failure, then the perception is your whole town is a failure.” No, that’s not my original thought. It came from one of the community leaders in San Antonio, Texas in the mid-1960s as they started an effort to renovate and restore their downtown. I lived in Corpus Christi and visited San Antonio numerous times during the start of that effort, and open carry would have been an excellent idea if you visited downtown San Antonio after dark. Downtown was a rundown, drug-infested, boarded up place that desperately needed help. The help came after the community leaders banded together and in 1968 put on Hemisfair, a World’s Fair type exhibition confined to the Western Hemisphere. Hemisphere kicked off the restoration-renovation process where public and private money and a lot of hard working individuals banded together to produce a new-old downtown that is currently a showpiece for how to bring a city center back to life, and in doing so revive an entire city.
Pine Bluff is a 1960s San Antonio, and from all the press I read, it seems the city is getting ready to tackle the revitalization of the town. However, I don’t believe the focus of the initial work is directed at the root of the problem. I guess, paraphrasing a well-known politician, “It’s the Downtown stupid!”
Yes, I believe Pine Bluff is considered a failure because the downtown is not just a failure, it is an embarrassment to the entire state. I know that’s a little strong, but downtown streets closed for months because buildings are collapsing in the street? How do you get worse than that? You don’t!
I can remember growing up in the 50s and 60s considering Pine Bluff being Arkansas’s second city, but now? Well, it can be again, but until their downtown is once again the center of the town, and it is restored and vital, it won’t happen. You can increase traffics to downtown, but until you give someone a reason to go there, it’s no different than increasing the traffic to a cemetery.
The effort to restore Pine Bluff back to being the preeminent City in southeast Arkansas to be successful, must be focused in removing the negative image the downtown—bricks-in-the-street—has given it. Now, let’s look at the root problem confronting the town. Loss of population signals the skilled professionals who are critical to a town’s growth are not coming, they are leaving. Unless you can reverse that trend, the city won’t be revived. Skilled professional people are the one who create jobs and this high technological workforce is centered in mega cities, but many of them are looking to relocate because of congestion, pollution, and a raft of other big city problems. Attracting these skilled professional is the key to any medium or small town survival, and to attract them, you must give them what they want, and they don’t want jobs. They have jobs. They are job creators.
A town must have several key items all built around an attractive city center if that town is to grow. But first, before we get to exactly what these skilled professional people want, how do you get a vital, attractive center of the city? This first point is an absolute must: Your center city buildings, which are potential retail, restaurant, and entertainment venues, must be better or equal to any comparable real estate in the city. This is step one, and if you don’t complete step one forget steps one, two, three, etc. that is because step one is critical to the remaining steps. Of course, that means you must restore the Pines Hotel and the Sanger Theater along with most of the core downtown buildings. To attract the skilled professionals you must give them the items that want and that list of wants depends on quality real estate. These folks demand good restaurants, entertainment, and retail located in an attractive setting. Now let me suggest how city government and other community leaders can make step one happen. Either re-zone the center of the city to require properties to be upgraded, or give financial incentives to developers who will restore these buildings to meet today’s standards. Of course, the renovation of Pine Bluff’s center city will be a decades jobs, and it won’t be cheap. The 5/8s of a cent tax is just a drop in the bucket. If the city council is serious about seeing the city return to his preeminent position in the state, then they will have to raise at least five times that amount of money, and make step one, the downtown restoration, a must before launching into outlying projects. The worst thing the city can do is scatter shoot their funding, and wake up with their money gone and very little to show for it.
After step one is complete, the remaining work is primarily to present an attractive surroundings for these buildings, and of course that is adding almost everything you can imagine to the downtown. Brick sidewalks dozens of flower planters, information kiosks, and focus on everything starting or happening downtown. Of course, every holiday should feature something downtown, 5k races and pep rallies should be downtown, and the goal should be to etch in everyone’s brain that downtown is the center of the city, and when Pine Bluff’s downtown becomes the pride of the town, the community will have taken a giant step toward reviving.

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