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Pine Bluff: no. 333 - with a bullet.

With 2,000 New Manufacturing Jobs, Organized Leadership Steers City Toward Better Days Economically

Jim Berry reaches toward a shelf in his office at the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce and pulls out the book that made the city infamous.

The 1981 edition of the "Places Rated Almanac," published by Prentice Hall of New York, ranked 333 metropolitan areas in the United States.

Pine Bluff was 333rd.

Dead last.

The updated version came out in 1989.

Pine Bluff?

No. 333.

It's the stuff of which David Letterman jokes are made.

Radio disc jockeys nationwide feasted on such easy prey.

"I had radio stations as far away as Montreal calling us about it," says Berry, who has led the chamber the past five years. "We were the butt of a lot of jokes."

But the joke is not on Pine Bluff anymore.

Last week, a group called Partners For A Better Pine Bluff unveiled a strategic planning program designed to forever wipe clean a tarnished reputation.

The city already has some things going for it.

* A downtown redevelopment team is spearheading the rebirth of Main Street.

* Pine Bluff has been a state leader at attracting industry and creating manufacturing jobs.

* A national consulting firm tabs Pine Bluff as "a leading-edge center of manufacturing and a symbol of the viability of manufacturing in the American economy."

* Football teams at Pine Bluff High School and Dollarway High School are defending state champions, bringing pride to the city. The King Cotton Classic is one of the nation's top high school basketball tournaments. And a promising 2-year-old colt bears the city's name.

An Incentive

"Maybe |the ranking~ spurred us on to bigger and better things," says Montine McNulty, executive director of Pine Bluff Downtown Development Inc. and co-chairman of Partners For A Better Pine Bluff. "I do know this. People like living in Pine Bluff."

"That |ranking~ was sort of a game one plays with statistics," says Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor at the Pine Bluff Commercial. "For instance, they say we do not have a regional airport. But I can be at Little Rock's airport in 45 minutes to an hour.

"We just fell into a statistical anomaly."

Greenberg, who originally is from Shreveport, La., has called Pine Bluff home for 28 of the past 29 years. He has no plans to leave, although he would be welcomed by scores of larger newspapers across the country.

"It's a small town of small towns," Greenberg says in explaining his decision to stay in Pine Bluff. "Part is habit, respect and loyalty, the same as with a marriage.

"It's a remarkable, Faulknerian community. And the longer you are here, the more it interests and surprises you."

Economically, Pine Bluff is more than holding its own.

In recent years, Tyson Foods Inc. and TrefilARBED Arkansas Inc. (a division of a Luxembourg company that makes steel cord for tires) have built plants in the city.

A coalition led by the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce and the Jefferson County Industrial Foundation has raised $1.5 million for community improvements.

"People are realizing this is a good place to live," Berry says. "We're finally seeing some positive feedback. You know, if people tell you you're ugly and unsuccessful long enough, you tend to believe it."

There are, of course, still parts of Pine Bluff that could be described as ugly.

There are, of course, still unsuccessful enterprises.

There is, for instance, the financial crisis and associated scandals at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

But the economic news out of Pine Bluff these days generally is positive.

Shortly after Berry came to the chamber, he persuaded about 20 business leaders, officials of the Donrey Media Group (which owns the Commercial) and a representative of Arkansas Power & Light Co. to hop aboard three airplanes and fly to Macon, Ga.

What was in Macon?

A prototype.

A prototype of what Pine Bluff could become with vision, cooperation and, of course, money.

Coming Out Of A Rut

Berry selected Macon because of demographic similarities to Pine Bluff.

Both have a large black population.

Both have a military presence.

Both have universities.

The similarities ended there.

At the time, Macon was flourishing. Pine Bluff was in a rut.

"In the fall of 1986, Pine Bluff was in the doldrums," Berry says. "We had been named the worst community in the country. We had attracted no new industry in a number of years. Downtown was depressing.

"The chamber had no home. It was down to a staff of three. And we had significant financial problems."

Macon had undergone a renaissance following a fund drive that raised more than $1 million for civic improvements.

When the planes returned to Arkansas, those who had made the trip to Macon were convinced a similar plan could work in Pine Bluff.

That's when the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce and the Jefferson County Industrial Foundation formed their coalition and set a goal of raising $1 million.

"We called on 200 to 300 business leaders and raised $1.5 million," Berry says. "Half went to the foundation and half went to the chamber."

The chamber's funds were used to spawn Pine Bluff Downtown Development.

Meanwhile, the Jefferson County Industrial Foundation solicited industrial prospects and chose the national economic development consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick to conduct a study.

What Peat Marwick discovered would surprise those whose opinion of Pine Bluff was shaped by the "Places Rated Almanac."

Peat Marwick found Pine Bluff to be "very competitive" in the 12 factors it considers significant in luring industrial prospects.

That was hardly news to Wallace Gieringer, president of the Jefferson County Industrial Foundation.

"The reinvestments by existing industries speak volumes," Gieringer says. "For six years in a row, there has been in excess of $100 million in investments by new and expanding industries."

The lobby outside Gieringer's office looks like a Hall of Industry exhibit at the Arkansas State Fair.

Sample products from area industries such as Stant Inc., Florida Drum Delta Co., Tyson and International Paper cover the floor.

On the wall is a poster-sized enlargement of the quote from Don Moyer of Peat Marwick: "Pine Bluff is a leading-edge center of manufacturing and a symbol of the viability of manufacturing in the American economy."

Industry Friendly

There are about 6,800 production workers at more than 70 manufacturing plants in the Pine Bluff area.

But the city's leaders are not satisfied, thus the Peat Marwick study.

"We felt a need to analyze and find the industries we could most effectively attract to the community," says Derrill Pierce, the foundation's director of development.

"Since I arrived in Pine Bluff, I had been hearing, 'We can't do it because ...'" Berry says. "But we have enough assets to market the community as is."

Adequate transportation, an adequate water source and a trainable work force are among the reasons Pine Bluff is attractive to industry.

"There are several factors," says Ray Riggs, project manager for economic development at AP&L. "They have community leadership that is extremely well-organized. They have made major financial commitments to marketing Pine Bluff. They have an active industrial development program. The industrial park properties are already developed."

Jefferson Industrial Park on the northwest side of the city and the Harbor Industrial District at the Port of Pine Bluff on the Arkansas River are attractive to industrial clients, Riggs says.

On Sept. 17, the results of the strategic planning effort were announced by Partners For A Better Pine Bluff, a civic organization of more than 300 residents.

The group's general goals are economic prosperity, education, racial harmony, a family atmosphere and a more attractive city.

McNulty, who is co-chairman along with the Rev. Robert Handley of Mount Harmony Baptist Church, is focusing her attention on the fifth goal as executive director of Pine Bluff Downtown Development.

Banners promoting "The Main Effort" reinvestment program can be found along Main Street, where they contrast with aging buildings.

In Pine Bluff, the Old South is indeed the old South.

"Downtown is like the living room of a house," McNulty says. "It's the place visitors look to see the vitality of a city. Our downtown does not reflect the vitality of our city."

A New Downtown?

The target area for downtown redevelopment is from the Jefferson County Courthouse at the end of Main Street to Eighth Avenue.

At Eighth and Main, a new home for the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas will be built.

An office building across the street is to be expanded and refurbished.

"I'm looking at a story on the front page announcing that $1.5 million has been raised to match a charitable trust grant for a new arts and sciences center," Greenberg says. "It's nice to see."

"Our downtown effort differs from others," McNulty says. "We have no power, no big money. Our success depends on motivating property owners and other people to turn around the downtown area.

"It's not something that will happen overnight."

McNulty's group, along with Simmons First National Bank and Worthen National Bank of Pine Bluff, developed the Downtown Reinvestment Loan Program. Simmons and Worthen created a $500,000 investment pool. Loans of up to $50,000 per building at an interest rate of 6 percent and a term of not more than 10 years are available to approved property owners and tenants.

Pine Bluff Downtown Development will provide up to 10 hours of free professional design assistance by local architects.

Four businesses already have taken advantage of the loan program.

"We aren't trying to make downtown Pine Bluff the retail center of the city again," McNulty says. "Downtown will be oriented toward being the government and financial district."

The downtown agenda includes:

* Completion of a park at Third and Main streets.

* Renovation of the vacant Hotel Pines.

* Further development of a farmers' market.

* Promotion of the financial incentives and the benefits of locating businesses downtown.

"We didn't expect to turn downtown around in four years," Berry says. "But we've made progress."

Shedding Its Reputation

Berry, a native of Warren, did his first chamber work at Paragould in 1972.

He moved on to Russellville and spent five years at the chamber there before leaving the state. He also has worked at chambers of commerce in Roswell, N.M.; Abilene, Texas; and Ruston, La.

Five years ago, Berry accepted an offer to take over the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce, which occupies a small building near downtown. When friends heard Berry was moving to Pine Bluff, some gave him their condolences.

"People offered their sympathy," he says. "Now, things are going on in Pine Bluff. Economic development is hotter here than anywhere."

But can Pine Bluff shed its reputation?

"People are taking notice of our progress," McNulty says.

As recently as two years ago, Pine Bluff was looked upon with pity.

Back to the "Places Rated Almanac."

Authors Richard Boyer and David Savageau attempted to rank the 333 defined metropolitan areas where 75 percent of the nation's population lives.

Factors considered included cost of living, the quality of jobs, crime, health care, the environment, transportation, education, the arts, recreation and climate.

Pine Bluff ranked in the bottom third in crime, education, the arts and jobs.

Boyer and Savageau predicted a .42 percent decrease in the number of jobs during the next several years. Berry points out that new and expanded industries have created about 2,000 new jobs since then.

Gieringer and Pierce say they have not noticed adverse effects from the subjective ranking.

"That's OK," Pierce says with a laugh. "We've ranked them as the worst publisher in America."

"The reputation is changing," Gieringer says.

Certainly, Pine Bluff is not without its jewels, the eloquent Greenberg among them.

He has heard all the jokes, snubs and put-downs.

And he has stayed.

Of those who once told jokes, Greenberg says, "They're surprised we're doing so well."

In his office, Berry points again toward the almanac.


He shrugs.

"That report may have kicked Pine Bluff into gear," he says. "It made the environment right to do something bold."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Leadership; economic development in Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 23, 1991
Previous Article:Whatta place at the heart of the Arkansas River Valley, Russellville is thriving.
Next Article:Rebsamen is no. 1.

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