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OPINION | REX NELSON: Lessons from Pine Bluff

by Rex Nelson | February 21, 2021 at 8:44 a.m.

My list of places to visit grows longer as the pandemic drags on. I need to spend significant time in northwest Arkansas, which has become one of the most dynamic areas of the country and is set to soar even higher once the virus is gone. There are lessons there that business and civic leaders in other parts of the state need to hear.

Sometimes, though, lessons come from places that are struggling. It's the reason I've devoted columns and stories for the past week to Pine Bluff.

Yes, the public schools are still a mess. Yes, crime rates are too high. But there's a budding renaissance taking place that will receive national attention if it succeeds. That renaissance may be fragile at this point, but it's real. In a state where a majority of counties are losing population, there are plenty of lessons to learn from Pine Bluff.

The first lesson is to plan. Too many communities have no strategic plan. In Pine Bluff, hundreds of people spent 2016 holding dozens of meetings to come up with the 27-point Go Forward Pine Bluff blueprint. Because so many participated in the process, there was broad buy-in among residents.

The second lesson is to invest in yourself, then execute. In June 2017, a sales tax increase passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Proceeds from the five-eighths-cent tax produce funds needed to implement Go Forward Pine Bluff recommendations. Voters had earlier approved a 2016 property tax increase to build a 33,000-square-foot library on Main Street that's now the architectural wonder of southeast Arkansas.

In a 2011 special election, voters had approved yet another sales tax increase that resulted in a $6.5 million aquatics center near the city's civic complex. Pine Bluff voters consistently have invested in themselves, which is more than I can say for a lot of Arkansas cities.

The third lesson is to attract outside capital. Pine Bluff was fortunate that it was among four cities selected for casino expansion in a constitutional amendment approved by the state's voters in November 2018. Still, the folks in Pine Bluff had to make it happen.

They did that--quickly and smoothly--and are seeing a $300 million capital investment by the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma. Contrast that to the legal wrangling still taking place in Pope County, which has yet to start construction on its casino.

The fourth lesson is to clearly communicate what's happening. I'm biased, but I can tell you that Pine Bluff received a wonderful gift on the final day of August when it was announced that the Gannett chain had sold The Pine Bluff Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and its parent company WEHCO Newspapers Inc. of Little Rock. One of the South's most historic small newspapers lives on and chronicles for readers across the state the city's journey back to relevance.

Three days after that announcement, Dale Ellis wrote in a front-page story: "For several months, despite a raging pandemic, signs of construction activity have been going almost nonstop around Pine Bluff, and city officials are expressing optimism that economic and population declines that have plagued the city for more than two decades are seeing a reversal. Much of the work of revitalizing the city has been taking place in three areas designated as urban renewal zones."

A leader of the revitalization efforts is the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, headed by director Maurice Taggart. The agency has been removing blighted properties and buying others for renovation. The purchases include buildings at 316, 322 and 324 S. Main St. that will be sold or leased for commercial use.

Taggart finally has something to sell. About $2.8 million is being spent downtown for a program known as Streetscape that includes improved sidewalks and outdoor lighting. There's also a new outdoor plaza at 601 S. Main St.

Taggart said the re-establishment of the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency after years of dormancy "set the stage for revitalization with blight removal" and provided the city an agency that can partner with other projects such as Streetscape. Taggart took over the agency in September 2018.

Ellis wrote: "The big picture for downtown revitalization is to make the area more pedestrian-

friendly with wider sidewalks and adequate lighting, to install public common areas and aesthetically pleasing landscaping, and to renovate existing buildings and provide for construction that accommodates a variety of uses encompassing office, commercial, residential and mixed-use facilities. . . . Taggart said as public investment dollars are put into the downtown area, initial private investment dollars will follow, and those investments will begin to yield results."

Asked about the agency's renovation of buildings on Main Street, Taggart said: "It's tangible evidence to the public that we're doing what we said we were going to do. Once there are successful tenants in those buildings, others come along and follow suit. . . . Investment follows investment."

Taggart's agency is also working with private investors to bring residential development downtown. Ryan Watley, director of Go Forward Pine Bluff, said he and Taggart work closely together to reach out to investors. Watley said the Pine Bluff market continues to get "stronger through construction and renovations that are taking place."

Taggart and Watley grew up in Pine Bluff.

"The resources are there, and the right people are in the right places to push these projects forward," Taggart said. "I don't do it for the money or glory. I have to do my part because I remember what it used to be. I know we have the potential to get it done. But if we don't move now, we may not get this opportunity again."

I guess I should have listed as a fifth lesson from Pine Bluff the fact that a sense of urgency is important.

Taggart said the agency stays away from what he dubs "fly-by-night operators. We're looking for tenants with resources and a track record of achievement. One of the things we have to do when it comes to downtown is make sure the synergy is on point. . . . The housing piece is important because the intent of it is to feed the downtown market and ensure that we have foot traffic in the downtown corridor.

"I was raised in Pine Bluff. This is my home. More than anything else, I want to see Pine Bluff get back to what it was when I was growing up--the vibrant city filled with life and excitement that I remember. That's why I'm here."

The first thing Taggart looked at when he came on board was a map outlining almost 600 blighted properties throughout the city. In addition to downtown renovation, removing blight takes up much of his time.

Taggart and Watley worked late last year to facilitate the sale of a vacant Walmart building to Apex Cinema of Oklahoma. Apex operates theaters in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The company hopes to convert the 90,000-square-foot building into not only a multiscreen cinema but also a family entertainment center.

Apex owner Felix Waller delivered the type of message that Taggart, Watley and Mayor Shirley Washington want other investors to hear.

"When I began to look for opportunities and came across the opportunity in Pine Bluff, I began to build relationships," Waller said. "I had a meeting with the mayor, and that's where I met Mr. Watley and some of the city leaders. That's when my heart began to be swung by Pine Bluff. To this day, I have yet to see a community that has come together to put such a wide and strategic plan together to take back their city and make it something special like Pine Bluff has.

"I know there are a lot of things that have to happen to Pine Bluff for the community to become everything that everyone wants it to be. But I think it's well on its way. I really do believe something great is happening in Pine Bluff."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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