Little Beale Street. That's the name used by Jamie McAfee, the well-known chef at Pine Bluff Country Club and one of the dreamers behind the idea of turning downtown Pine Bluff into a dining and entertainment destination.
Most know the story of Beale in Memphis, the once-vibrant downtown street that fell on hard times in the 1960s as businesses closed or moved east. As was the case in many cities, urban renewal was a disaster in Memphis as blocks of homes and businesses were removed.
In 1973, Beale Street Development Corp. was formed in an effort to redevelop the neighborhood. In December 1977, an act of Congress declared Beale Street as Home of the Blues.
The corporation secured $5.2 million in grants to redevelop Beale Street between Second and Fourth streets. That redevelopment zone has grown through the years. These days, Beale ranks behind only Graceland as the place tourists want to go when they're in Memphis. Last year, the Beale Street Historic District was added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Pine Bluff, of course, is far smaller than Memphis and its entertainment district, if it's created, will be much smaller. But there are reasons to be hopeful.
For starters, what's known as the Main Street Streetscape Project is nearing completion. Almost $2.3 million was spent on Main Street from the Jefferson County Courthouse to Fourth Avenue. The second phase covers Fourth to Eighth avenues. Wider sidewalks, trees and other landscaping, better lighting and improved infrastructure are in place. Benches and trash receptacles were installed. Work also has taken place along Barraque Street.
The Pine Bluff Commercial noted in a Dec. 31 editorial: "Main Street, which just a few short years ago was blocked off because buildings had fallen and their bricks had scattered across the lanes, has now taken on a positively inviting look with the new streetscape, sidewalks and lights."
Another positive development has been the early success of Saracen Casino Resort. When Saracen adds its hotel and conference center, you can bet that statewide associations will put Pine Bluff on the list for annual conventions. Association executives love to move meetings across the state, but it has been years since southeast Arkansas has been on the list of possibilities due to a lack of quality hotel rooms.
Those attending conventions at Saracen will be looking for something else to do while in Pine Bluff, and Little Beale Street could provide that option.
Southeast Arkansas has been losing population for decades. Yet the region has managed to hold on to a handful of what I call destination restaurants--places to which people will drive more than 30 minutes for a meal out.
In Lake Village, the legendary Cow Pen restaurant changed ownership in 2019 and was rebranded as Table 82 at the Cow Pen. The food has never been better at the foot of the Greenville Bridge. Table 82 specializes in steaks and seafood.
In McGehee, where McAfee was raised, David and Susie Powell transformed a cattle sale barn on U.S. 65 into Hoot's. The name is a nod to the McGehee High School Owls. David Powell died at age 66 in 2015, but Susie kept the restaurant going strong. The parking lot always appears to be full.
Just outside Dumas, meanwhile, you can enjoy what some foodies consider to be the best steak in Arkansas. Taylor's, in a former grocery store that first opened in 1954, reopened in 1983 to sell groceries and sporting goods. Soon, owner Chuck Taylor was also selling hamburgers and fried fish for lunch. As his dining business increased, Taylor began taking out grocery shelves and adding tables.
In October 2012, Taylor and his wife Pam closed an adjoining liquor store, connected the two buildings and started serving dinner. Chuck cooked for area duck clubs and had begun aging beef when working for a club known as Yellow Dog. He has perfected the aging process through the years.
Having seen how far people will drive to eat at places such as Taylor's, Hoots and the Cow Pen, McAfee knows culinary tourism is real. He views a block based on dining and entertainment as something that not only will draw people from across south Arkansas but also have folks in the Little Rock area making the drive south for a change of pace. Plans to renovate the historic Hotel Pines at the corner of Main Street and Fifth Avenue (on hold for now but not abandoned) would be icing on the cake.
During a public meeting at the Arts & Science Center of Southeast Arkansas earlier this month, Jimmy Cunningham, executive director of the Delta Rhythm & Blues Alliance, presented plans for a cultural district downtown. Little Beale Street would fit perfectly into those plans.
"Studies have shown that there are three key elements of heritage travel," Cunningham said. "They spend more, stay longer and travel more frequently."
Cunningham said the area once was "clustered with Black businesses. It was kind of like a Beale Street back in the day. It had everything from juke joints and restaurants to hotels. We want to bring some of that energy back."
Cunningham's plan has four phases. He hopes to complete the first phase during the next three years.
"Our heritage here goes beyond blues and soul," Cunningham said. "We have people in gospel, country and rock 'n' roll who will be honored in the Delta Music Walk."
In phase one, markers will be placed downtown to tell the story of the civil rights era. The second phase will add what's known as the Civil Rights Garden with a water feature and amphitheater.
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.