PINE BLUFF -- The cheerleaders pranced to the front of the room and began their chant: "Clap your hands. Get loud. Show you're proud. To be. From Pine Bluff."
Pine Bluff High School's cheerleaders were touching on what city leaders are hoping to inspire -- pride in Pine Bluff -- with the announcement Sept. 12 that they are reviving an event that 35 years ago put the city in the spotlight for all the right reasons.
The King Cotton Holiday Classic was a nationally acclaimed high school basketball tournament that debuted in 1983 and served as a rallying point for the Jefferson County city during the 1980s and 1990s. The tournament will return for the first time since 1999 when nine boys teams from seven states will compete Dec. 27-29 at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
"With its return, we continue the restoration of pride and quality of life in Pine Bluff," said Ryan Watley, chief executive officer for Go Forward Pine Bluff, a nonprofit that is working with the city government to improve the town and its economy.
The King Cotton is an example of the types of events Go Forward Pine Bluff is counting on to help lift the city out of its economic morass, but pulling off the resurrection of the King Cotton event won't be easy.
Everyone agrees that the city must rally around the tournament for it to be a success, but even that won't guarantee that organizers can drum up the same kind of interest that put the King Cotton Classic -- and more importantly Pine Bluff -- on the map in the 1980s.
THEN AND NOW
Organizers recall the days when the King Cotton Classic was booming as a time of prosperity for Pine Bluff.
"When King Cotton came along, the city was continuing progressing, progressing, progressing, progressing, and then we hit a stop," said Samuel Glover, the tournament's director.
Pine Bluff's slide can be traced back to when Arkansas became less reliant on agriculture, an industry the city relied on heavily, said Lawrence Davis Jr., a former chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a Go Forward Pine Bluff board member.
Businesses began pulling out of the city, and Pine Bluff began to shrink. In 1990, Pine Bluff's population was 57,140. It had fallen to an estimated 42,984 by 2017, according to U.S. Census data.
Educational issues also have taken a toll.
The state took control of the Pine Bluff School District in September because of the district's financial distress. It became the second district in Jefferson County -- joining the Dollarway district -- to be placed under the supervision of the state with no locally elected school board.
Jeremy Owoh was appointed superintendent of the Pine Bluff district and will operate under the direction of Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key.
Things worsened Thursday when the state Education Board voted unanimously to classify the 3,189-student district as Level 5 -- Intensive Support, a category indicating the highest priority of need in the state's school accountability system.
As a result of the Level 5 classification, Arkansas Department of Education staff members will audit all aspects of the district's operations to determine how the state agency can best help the district in the district's support of its schools.
Early findings show that academic achievement has declined in the district between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, hundreds of students have left the district and dozens of employees were working without contracts on file.
About 17.6 percent of the city's population had bachelor's degrees or higher in 2017, compared with the national average of about 33.4 percent who had bachelor's degrees or higher in 2016, according to U.S. Census data.
Crime has become an issue, as well. There were 23 slayings last year in Pine Bluff, making it the city with the second-highest number in the state behind only Little Rock, according to the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
As Pine Bluff began to struggle, so did the King Cotton, said Travis Creed, the tournament's founder. Creed built the event around community support, relying on businesses to pay for the participants' stays during the tournament, a big selling point among participating teams.
When businesses began pulling out of Pine Bluff, support for the tournament dwindled.
Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant said Go Forward Pine Bluff's initiatives, including the King Cotton Classic, can help spark the city's turnaround.
"When I speak of a turnaround, I can see in the future that people are wanting to come back to make Pine Bluff their home," Sergeant said. "Businesses will want to relocate here or start to open here. Once you see those things start to happen, Pine Bluff will be a thriving community again."
A big part of the initiative focuses on celebrating the good in Pine Bluff, said Bill Bridgforth, a longtime resident who supports Go Forward Pine Bluff. Bridgforth said the King Cotton event is an opportunity for the community to remind Arkansans about the positives Pine Bluff has to offer.
Mayor Shirley Washington noted during the announcement of the King Cotton's return that she's heard recurring statements about the city's problems, but she pointed to its history -- referring to the likes of Samuel Kountz, a pioneer in kidney transplants, and Jimmy McKissic, a famous pianist -- as examples of what Pine Bluff can be.
"For over two centuries, greatness -- and I tell you greatness -- has come from Pine Bluff," Washington said at the news conference.
Washington later declined an interview request from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the impact she believes the tournament will have on the city.
Larry Kirklin, owner of LKC Luxury in The Pines mall, said he is glad that the group is giving young people something to do, but he believes there is a greater need for something to attract people to the area on a daily basis to spend money.
He doesn't believe Go Forward Pine Bluff's events have done that.
"I'm concerned about the city," Kirklin said.
Jan Robinson and her husband, Wil Jenkins, own Uptown Salon and Spa in Pine Bluff. With its new paint and intricately decorated windows, Uptown Salon and Spa is a bright spot in a downtown where many buildings have boarded-up windows and appear run-down.
Robinson sees Go Forward Pine Bluff as a catalyst for the city, but she fears that the group is trying to revive the King Cotton Classic too soon. She would rather see more downtown improvements first.
"We just need to see something tangible," Jenkins said.
The idea to revive the tournament came out of a Go Forward Pine Bluff planning session. The group also came up with ideas for festivals, concerts and park renovations to try to make the city a travel destination.
Residents passed a sales tax that is projected to generate almost $32 million in seven years, Watley said. Go Forward Pine Bluff is using the tax money and additional money from grants to push its initiatives, which in addition to the King Cotton Classic include Pop Up in the Bluff and the Mistletoe Magic, Believe in Magic Holiday Celebration.
"You have to bring something to bring people back and spend money," said Davis, UAPB's former chancellor. "When the people come, what do they do? They spend their money."
RETURN OF THE KING
Officials anticipate the King Cotton Classic adding about $255,000 to the city's economy over its three-day run, Glover said.
Tickets go on sale Thursday, and corporate sponsors will pick up the tab for participating teams' accommodations.
Simmons Bank has donated $20,000. MK Distributors Inc., Jefferson Regional Medical Center, Go Forward Pine Bluff and the city have donated $10,000 each. Others, such as Hampton Inn & Suites and radio station KABZ, 103.7-FM, The Buzz, are donating services.
The convention center is undergoing $540,000 in renovations to accommodate the tournament, with the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency paying for the renovations, Glover said.
"The King Cotton Holiday Classic is the best example I know of for what can happen in a community when everybody gets on the same page, when all the leaders in all of the community get together and say we're going to make this work," Creed said.
Early in its run, the King Cotton event was among the nation's most prestigious high school basketball tournaments. ESPN broadcast the tournament in 1987, making it the first nationally televised high school basketball event. The tournament also drew top-notch teams with top-notch talent, featuring eventual NBA players such as Corliss Williamson, Jason Kidd and Bobby Hurley, among others.
The basketball landscape has changed significantly since those days. Similar tournaments are held all across the country now, and social media allows interested fans to keep up with top prospects on a daily basis no matter where they are playing.
Creed understands that the King Cotton Classic faces more challenges today than it did during its heyday. He and Glover have worked to meld the event's tradition with innovations that they hope will make it relevant again, but even Creed will admit that the tournament doesn't carry the same weight it once did.
"If they're not 50 years old, they don't know much about King Cotton," he said.
Bill Ingram is the director and founder of Real Deal in the Rock, one of the nation's premier summer basketball tournaments. Real Deal draws teams from across the country to compete in age categories at gymnasiums across Pulaski County, adding more than $3 million annually to the local economy, according to Ingram.
The thing that made the King Cotton Classic unique for much of the 1980s was that it was among the first of its kind, Ingram said. Now there are numerous tournament options for top teams and top players, and many are held in larger cities that lure bigger sponsors.
Columbus High School of Columbus, Mo., ranked No. 35 in the nation by MaxPreps.com, has the highest national ranking among the teams in this year's King Cotton Classic. Most of the rest of the teams are ranked among the top 10 in their respective states.
To be successful again, Ingram said, King Cotton officials will have to market successfully on social media and pull in the types of players that crowds want to watch. Long-term success hinges on putting people in the seats.
"The worst thing is to have a 6,000- or 7,000-seat arena and have 1,000 people in there," Ingram said.
Glover said he believes social media will help build support as the King Cotton works to rebuild its brand. He said success won't be measured on the number of people who attend or the amount of money the tournament pulls in, as much as it will on how the tournament improves the city's reputation.
Creed said he believes in Watley and Glover, but ultimately the success of the King Cotton and Go Forward Pine Bluff's other initiatives will come down to the people of Pine Bluff.
"If the people come and support it, and if we can find some of that magic that we had back then, it can happen again," Creed said.
Samuel Glover, director of the King Cotton Classic, says that in the tournament’s heyday, Pine Bluff was “progressing, progressing, progressing, progressing, and then we hit a stop.” City officials are hoping the revived classic will add $255,000 to the economy over its three-day run.
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Print Headline: Pine Bluff hopes return of King Cotton tournament will inspire pride, unite community