On Feb. 12, I wrote a short post on social media to note that it was on that date in 1984 that the University of Arkansas' Charles Balentine hit a baseline jumper with four seconds remaining to lead the Razorback basketball team to a 65-64 victory over the No. 1 team in the country, the University of North Carolina. The game was played at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. In a famous photo of that shot, North Carolina's No. 23--a fellow named Michael Jordan--looks on helplessly.
Within minutes, the memories of people across the state were being posted. I was among the almost 8,000 Arkansans in attendance. I was the news and sports director of Arkadelphia's radio stations and had loaded up that morning with Danny Brackett (now the principal of Springdale Har-Ber High School) to drive to Pine Bluff.
"Balentine said [North Carolina head coach Dean] Smith requested that the game not be played in either Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville or Barton Coliseum in Little Rock," Matt Jones wrote for this newspaper in 2014. "He chose the Pine Bluff Convention Center because of its size, Balentine said, presuming it was the easiest of the three arenas in the state at that time. ... Though Arkansas was unranked, the game was picked up by NBC with iconic broadcasters Dick Enberg and Al McGuire on the call."
Smith, of course, had no idea how loud several thousand Razorback fans packed into that facility could be. I was used to making the drive from Arkadelphia to Pine Bluff for major events. When I was in high school and college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, numerous concerts and sports events were held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Barton Coliseum was showing its age by then, making the relatively new facility at Pine Bluff the choice of promoters. Arkansas' basketball team played a game or two there each year during the Christmas holidays. Elvis Presley performed there in September 1976, less than a year before his death. The convention center's arena remained relevant through the 1990s when it hosted the state high school basketball championship games.
The Pine Bluff Convention Center also boasted a 14,400-square-foot banquet hall capable of seating 1,400 people for dinner and an 1,899-seat theater.
Pine Bluff did things in a big way in those days. When civic leaders decided to build a new city hall in the 1960s, they hired world-famous architect Edward Durell Stone to design the Pine Bluff Civic Center. The building was built in phases from 1963-68. Stone had been born in Fayetteville in 1902 and attended the UA from 1920-23 before moving to Boston, where his brother was an architect. He earned a scholarship to the Harvard Architectural School in 1925-26 and attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1926-27.
Stone helped design the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was the chief of planning and design for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Later well-known projects included the El Panama Hotel in Panama City, Panama; the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington; the General Motors Building in New York; the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington; the Presidential Palace in Islamabad, Pakistan; the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India; and the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rico museum won the International Design Award of Honor from the American Institute of Architects in 1967. The great Frank Lloyd Wright called the building Stone designed in India "the only embassy that does credit to the United States."
Yes, Pine Bluff thought big in the 1960s and 1970s. We tend to forget that following years of population losses, crime problems and negative news stories. The civic and convention centers are still in use but badly in need of renovations. Joseph McCorvey, the convention center director, told the Pine Bluff Commercial: "Other cities have new facilities and have put in newer amenities that people are expecting to have when they have conferences." Of the adjoining hotel, which was built in 1980 as a Wilson World, he said: "We need to get a new owner in there ... somebody who really cares about this community and will invest in the hotel."
In Wednesday's column, I wrote about people who are trying to think big again. A downtown library and aquatics center might soon be near a renovated Hotel Pines, a venue for live blues music, a brewery and restaurants.
What's known as the Downtown Pine Bluff Streetscape Project will consist of improvements to 13 blocks downtown. There will be wider sidewalks, extensive landscaping, water gardens, benches, bike racks and brick pavers at crosswalks. A modern lighting system will be added. Construction is scheduled to begin in June and end a year later. The city committed $2 million from a 2011 bond issue that was funded by a five-eighth-cent sales tax approved by voters. The Arkansas Department of Transportation and the Delta Regional Authority contributed almost $1 million each.
It's going to take a team approach. McCorvey, who recently moved to Pine Bluff from Akron, Ohio, said: "This is a we, not a me situation. It has to be a team effort where city leaders, business leaders, banking institutions and those who love Pine Bluff and want to give back to the city can come together." Pine Bluff is a city that hosted one of the most memorable moments in Arkansas sports history, hosted Elvis and hired Edward Durell Stone. It's time to think big again.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 02/24/2018
Print Headline: Pine Bluff thinks big