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OPINION | REX NELSON: A city goes forward

by Rex Nelson | February 20, 2021 at 8:47 a.m.

George Makris Jr. watched for years as the number of business and civic leaders who called Pine Bluff home declined.

Makris' father had started a beer distributorship in 1964 when Pine Bluff was a thriving city. The younger Makris attended the public schools in Pine Bluff, excelling in football and baseball. He began college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, which long has had a connection to notable families in Arkansas, before transferring to what's now Rhodes College at Memphis. He went on to earn an MBA at the University of Arkansas and was considering law school.

That's when his father told Makris: "You've been in school long enough."

Makris returned home and joined the family business. He married Debbie Kirkpatrick, the daughter of Quality Foods founder Don Kirkpatrick, in 1980, and the couple had three sons. Makris joined the Simmons Bank board in 1997 and left the distributorship at the urging of fellow board members in order to replace the legendary Tommy May when May retired as Simmons' chairman and CEO at the end of 2013.

In a 2013 feature story on Makris, Roby Brock wrote: "Makris acknowledges that the southeast Arkansas town has been hit hard by a decline in population and a loss of business leadership. In the past two decades, financial sector changes wiped out a swath of Pine Bluff banking executives. Some moved to central Arkansas endeavors, some passed away, others phased out as banks merged, and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s led to the exit of others."

"That's a lot of lost leadership," Makris said.

Pine Bluff has lost about 14,000 residents since the 1990 census. For years, there was gallows humor by members of the remaining business leadership in the city when they said: "What's the nicest neighborhood in Pine Bluff? Lake Hamilton."

In formerly ritzy neighborhoods near the Pine Bluff Country Club, "for sale" signs became common.

"We ought to be able to design a strategy for Jefferson County that puts us on a path to growth," Makris lamented in 2013.

In November 2015, a strategic planning initiative known as Go Forward Pine Bluff was unveiled. Dozens of meetings involving hundreds of the city's residents were held throughout 2016. In early 2017, a 27-point plan was released. In June 2017, a sales-tax increase was passed to help implement those recommendations.

During the past five years, a new generation of leaders has been working to make things happen. The progress is evident.

As I've outlined in stories and columns since Sunday, good things are taking place. One of the best things is that Pine Bluff's old-line leadership is now working well with Black leaders in what was once among the state's most segregated cities. Much of that change in attitude has to be attributed to Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington.

Washington was the second of seven children born to Willie and Blanchie Moorehead in the Jefferson County community of Gethsemane, which is on the Delta side of the county near Wabbaseka Bayou. Her parents struggled on a small cotton farm, teaching her the importance of hard work and the value of an education.

Washington spent most of her career as a teacher and public school principal before running for mayor in 2016. On Jan. 1, 2017, she became the first Black female to serve in that position. She was reelected in 2020.

I like how the mayor's official biography describes her upbringing: "The children were taught that church and school would be their passport from a life of field labor to successful futures as skilled professionals. This resounding message was not lost. Both father and mother, with third- and sixth-grade educations, respectively, were blessed to witness in their lifetime all seven of their children receive college degrees, enter respectable careers and become God-fearing, law-abiding, productive citizens.

"As she listened to all of her siblings plan lives in other states, Shirley decided to make Arkansas her home. After graduating from Wabbaseka High School in 1966, she entered Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and majored in elementary education with a minor in English. She earned a master's degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and completed additional studies at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. Shirley realized at a young age that she had a gift for teaching. Her patience and love for children made her a natural motivating force in the classroom."

Some would suggest that her 38 years of working with children -- 22 in the classroom and 16 in school administration -- was perfect training for dealing with members of her city council.

Ryan Watley, another of the state's most dynamic Black leaders, joined Go Forward Pine Bluff as CEO-elect in May 2017 and became CEO after passage of the sales-tax initiative the following month. Like Makris, Watley is a Pine Bluff native. He earned his doctorate from the University of Oklahoma, where he designed and synthesized drugs to fight cancer. His work was published in leading scientific journals.

Watley served from 2012-15 as development director for Northeast Academy in Oklahoma City, tripling the amount of money raised by that institution. He left that job to help the athletic department at Rose State College in Oklahoma with fundraising and outreach. Watley later returned home to serve as UAPB's assistant development director.

With leaders like Washington and Watley, the future of Pine Bluff seems far brighter than it did just five years ago.

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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.

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