Hopes for downtown Pine Bluff pinned on two new projects.
After struggling for decades as the town spread south and west and retail businesses left for other shopping areas, downtown Pine Bluff is beginning to inspire renewed optimism.
Because of past failures to draw private investment into downtown, and perhaps because of the political squabbles of a racially divided city government, that optimism may be a bit guarded. Still, several things are happening to raise expectations that maybe this time the city can turn the decaying area around.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, often ignored and never fully embraced because it was viewed as a "black school," has decided to reach out to the community. One of the catalysts of the downtown revival will be the UAPB Business Support Incubator and Office Complex that will be built between Sixth and Seventh avenues on Main Street.
The nearly $3 million, two-story, 20,000-SF project is the culmination of a four-year effort by UAPB to have a place that can provide small businesses with technical assistance and expert consulting in areas such as law, marketing and accounting.
Those are the areas in which most startups fail, according to Andrew E. Honeycutt, dean of the School of Business and Management at UAPB.
"It will be more like a business support boot camp," said Honeycutt. "Studies show that if a business can survive the first three years, it will probably make it. Without an incubator, 80 percent of new businesses will fail within that time period. With an incubator, 80 percent will succeed."
Heading up the new facility will be Henry Golatt, executive director of UAPB's Economic Research and Development Center.
Both Honeycutt and Golatt acknowledge that technology is the key to the programs that will be carried on at the incubator.
Unlike many incubators that actually provide a home for a new startup, the UAPB center will provide only technical services.
"With today's technology, we've found that an incubator doesn't have to house a business anymore," Honeycutt said. "They can be anywhere they want to be.
"And we will have the technology to offer help not only to businesses in Pine Bluff, but businesses all over the Delta region and southeast Arkansas," Honeycutt said.
There are a couple of buildings at the site that must be demolished. Groundbreaking is expected in late summer with a fall 2004 completion.
Funding for the facility has come from a variety of government sources -- $1.6 million from the federal Economic Development Administration, $900,000 from the Economic Development of Arkansas Fund Commission and $200,000 from Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.
"By going downtown with the incubator project," Honeycutt said, "UAPB is hoping that the community will see it as a school for the whole community. The university is trying to be an impetus for economic development. It will be a daily reminder that good things are possible for Pine Bluff, and that's because of UAPB.
"It's been a hard fight to make it happen," he said. "It's been by sheer will that it's coming about."
The Reynolds Center
Another major economic link in the plans of revitalizing the downtown is the construction of the $6.7 million, 43,000-SF Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center at West Second Avenue and Pine Street. The project, which takes up two entire blocks, will generate a total community investment of $8.6 million.
Downtown businessmen and development officials believe the center can be a catalyst for future renewal of the area.
"It's the greatest thing to happen to downtown in the past 25 years," said Jim Dill, owner of Pine Bluff Title Co. on Main Street. "We have to get the foot traffic downtown first, then the business will follow."
The center will be home to the United Way of Southeast Arkansas and 14 other agencies. The building includes meeting rooms, work areas, reception services and incubator space for agencies needing startup help.
The building also will be available for community task forces or groups that need space for a limited time. The United Way will manage and maintain it.
Joy Blankenship, executive director of Pine Bluff Downtown Development Inc., the nonprofit enterprise established in the 1980s, has been leading efforts to attract new development since she took over the job in 1999.
While early efforts focused on much-needed improvement in the appearance of downtown -- millions have been invested in the planting of trees, new and painted facades, sidewalks and the much publicized murals -- the city has been going though a several-year examination of itself that has looked at all aspects of city life.
After a series of public meetings and private task forces, all came to the realization that the entire town could not be tackled at once, so the focus was narrowed first to the downtown. The result has been a project called Reinventing Downtown Pine Bluff. Co-chairs of the effort are Blankenship and Fred Reed of the Reed Architectural Firm.
George Wittenberg, a Little Rock architect and director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Urban Studies and Design Department, and A.W Nelson of Nelson Architectural Group have been leading the development process.
The redevelopment plan has identified four specific sub-areas in which to concentrate its efforts.
Envisioned for the area north of the Martha Mitchell Expressway and next to Lake Pine Bluff is "The Landings."
The public/private development would include building a boardwalk-styled "landings" area on the lake that would have an outdoorsman's paradise -- perhaps something like a Bass Pro Shop and a lakefront park, as well as pedestrian trail access to the Jefferson County Courthouse and downtown. It also would feature a fishing pier, amphitheater and tourism built around a boardwalk or water park theme. It would be near the entrance to the Pine Bluff Regional Park with its Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Delta Rivers Nature Center, Harbor Oaks Golf Course and would have access to the Slackwater Harbor and the Arkansas River.
Heading south from the lake, down to the railroad tracks that run east and west along Fourth Avenue, is what is being called the "Old Town Cotton District." In addition to the existing courthouse and the soon-to-be-completed Reynolds center, Reinventing Downtown leaders foresee a farmer's market as an integral part of the district. It already contains the Saenger and Community theaters and the Jefferson County Historical Museum in the old Union Station. The Arkansas Railroad Museum might open an annex in the area. Bars also are part of the equation.
Continuing south is the Business Center, which already is home to Simmons First National Corp., Bank of America and the future UAPB Business Support Incubator. It also includes the relatively new Economic Development Alliance building that houses the Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce, Jefferson County Industrial Foundation and the Jefferson County Port Authority.
Across from the UAPB incubator, the task force foresees the expansion of the Delta Enterprise Center. The old Hotel Pines is in the Business Center and, although not part of the plan, could play a vital role as a restored hotel, along with hoped-for loft apartments in some of the buildings.
The final area is the Civic Center district, which encompasses the Arts and Science Center of Southeast Arkansas, the Federal Building, the Pine Bluff Civic Center, the Pine Bluff Convention Center and numerous law offices, insurance agencies and professional services. The plan calls for creating a plaza in front of the Civic Center that connects to the Convention Center, developing the area behind the Civic Center into a park and making the current street into a boulevard that connects to Pine Bluff High School.
Blankenship estimates some 600 people work downtown each day. But there are only three restaurants in the blueprint area, supplemented by fast-food places farther down Main Street.
To get niche shops, antique stores and flea markets to come down, Blankenship said the city can offer incentives through tax increment financing.
The final blueprint is expected in the next two to three weeks, Reed said. Once it is presented, he and Blankenship said, the hard work begins to raise private investment funds for the core projects.
So far, much of the money has come from various government grants, and those take time. What the area needs, and what it so far has failed to attract, is private investment.
The task force at Reinventing Downtown Pine Bluff knows it will be a hard sell to get investors interested in the area. They're pinning a lot of hope in the Reynolds center and the UAPB incubator to get people interested in coming back downtown.
The long process with little visible action has caused some to wonder if it's just another doomed effort. But business owners in the area are upbeat, saying the task force has taken its time to make sure its actions will be successful. They've seen enough failures.
"City leaders, realizing that the future of the city is at stake, are working together better than they have in the past to make a better place for everyone," said Eugene Hunt, this year's president of Pine Bluff Downtown Development and a local lawyer.
Reinventing Downtown wants to tackle something doable -- and the most doable is the farmers market -- so that people can see things happening and revive an interest in downtown.
Honeycutt said one of the major differences in the development of northwest Arkansas and southeast Arkansas is that private dollars have funded the expansion in the northwest corner, while "in the southeast, we've looked to the government."
But Pine Bluff is very different from the booming population centers of northwest Arkansas, and investors have been apprehensive about a community that has seen white flight reduce its population to just over 55,000 in the latest census. Some now perceive it as a black town on the decline.
But all who have been involved in attempts to turn the town around know that private money must be forthcoming -- and that it needs to come from all sectors of the city's population.
"We must create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable in making a contribution," Hunt said. "I see it coming. I'm optimistic."