Presentation set on project to tap into city's vibrant history, culture

State Street is one of the focuses of the development of the art, culture and history of Pine Bluff that organizers would like to see turned into a tourist attraction. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

The cultural district of Pine Bluff is set to leverage the culture, arts and creativity of the area to capitalize on a facet of the tourism industry that focuses on such offerings.

The particulars of phase one and two of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District will be revealed as part of a special presentation that will feature Bobby Rush's "America the Beautiful" music video premiere, which will take place on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.

The video will feature historical and cultural sites in Pine Bluff that many organizations envision becoming tourist attractions in the near future.

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Jimmy Cunningham, executive director of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance, and Sheri Storie, director of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, spoke passionately about the different developmental elements that will be revealed Thursday in an artist's rendition during the special presentation.

"The city designated the cultural district about three or four years ago to Delta Rhythm and Bayou District," said Cunningham, as he stood on the corner of State Street and Third Avenue, which was recently renamed Bobby Rush Way. "We took a look at it through the historical lens and we found that there were a bunch of national trails that intersected in this area straight down State Street that included music, civil rights and civil war."

By developing the different elements of its historic, artistic and cultural past, the city would be able to attach itself to state, regional and national "trails" that highlight those same elements for a broader tourism audience. Those linked collectives include the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, the Americana Music Triangle, the Trail of Tears, the Cotton Kingdom Trail, the Southern Literary Trail, the Equal Justice Institute's Community Remembrance Program, the Arkansas Civil War Trail, the Underground Railroad, the Arkansas Delta Music Trail, and the Arkansas Quilt Trail.

"This area was clustered with black businesses. It was kind of like a Beale Street back in the day," said Cunningham. "It had everything from juke joints, restaurants, hotels and we want to bring some of that energy back to life."

The Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission, Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance and the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County National Heritage Trails Task Force intend to transform Bobby Rush Way and Fourth Avenue all the way down to Regional Park into a historical narrative.

"It's been a long time coming," said Storie, who said she was excited about all the new development downtown. "The beauty of this plan is it continues to promote all of our current assets that we already have."

Cunningham agreed and said the vision is to package everything in one location where people can spend their leisure time walking and exploring.

"Right now, while we have a cleaned-up downtown and while we have buildings that have improved conditions, we need something to draw people here," he said. "Our calculus is this plan will make people come to that. This will make investors say I can get a dollar off of this place because this place has been built out."

The plan has four phases, with the first expected to be completed in three years.

A Delta Rhythm and Fitness Park will sit in the green space across the street from the Jefferson County District Court Building. The health park will have a music theme with a memorial to some of the greatest blues and soul artist.

"We have a bunch of well-known stars that will be represented in that like Bobby Rush, Tyrone Davis and Little Milton," said Cunningham. "This park would have the largest number of blues and soul representation in the country."

Green space directly in front of the court building will have panels telling the stories of the many businesses that used to exist along Third Avenue

Along the sidewalks on Third Avenue will be a walk-of-fame called The Delta Music Walk. It will honor musical legends from all genres.

"We will create signage on both sides," said Cunningham. "Our heritage here goes beyond blues and soul. We got people in gospel, country, and rock 'n' roll who will be honored as well in the Delta Music Walk."

Many of the dilapidated buildings in the area have a history, and Cunningham hopes to preserve the buildings and make them functional. The building next to Pop's Barbershop on the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue will transform into the Delta Public Market.

Similar to the farmer's market in Little Rock's Downtown, this would be a space where people can buy and sell produce. Staging will go up in that area for performances.

"We're looking first because that is an expensive venture. It takes a whole lot of planning and lots of logistics," said Cunningham. "In our first phase, we're going to do a study to determine how feasible a public market in this area would be."

Also in the plan is a Delta Civil Rights Museum.

Phase one will place civil-rights historical markers all through downtown,

Phase two will complement phase one with plans to have a Civil Rights Garden with a water feature and an amphitheater.

"Pine Bluff and Jefferson County have incredible civil-rights credentials, but we're not on the civil-rights trail and we want to bring people to this area to experience civil rights," said Cunningham. "The idea is to bring them to a place like this to let them see some of what is going on, then be able to immerse them first in a smaller museum experience, then again in a larger museum experience."

Shotgun Row is another unique feature that will include a row of music and cultural-themed shotgun houses.

"There is one shotgun home that sits off of 26th Street. It is the former home of an old blues legend named CeDell Davis," said Cunningham, who added that Port City Blues Society wants to purchase the home. "Everybody in blues came to visit CeDell at this shotgun house. We want to place it there with three other shotgun homes connected to music, television and film."

Across the train tracks, the building across from the Masonic Temple is a shell that Cunningham has been working with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Art Department chairman to develop as an art space.

"It used to be a hardware store so it has these areas where windows were that are boarded up right now. We want to use that as the Delta Mural Gallery," said Cunningham. "We want to bring in muralists from around the country and have UAPB adopt that area so inside they are creating on a regular basis art that speaks to the traditions of great artists from UAPB."

Cunningham said the murals would be displayed on steel beams. On the inside, events could be hosted.

Cunningham said he wants to install these experiences for people connecting music, civil rights and health to build out tourists who will visit Pine Bluff for culture and walk across the street for entertainment.

"It's almost like a gift to us because if you go straight down we're talking about National Underground Railroad, Trail of Tears, Civil War and civil rights," said Cunningham as he pointed down State Street. "This is all going down one street straight down into Regional Park into Saracen Landing."

Storie added that, with the development currently happening downtown, the plan is to pull everything together and to see the entire four-phase project completed in 12 years.

"It's amazing that it hasn't been done before, but timing is everything," said Storie. "We want to make Pine Bluff a vibrant city. We don't want to be anyone else but Pine Bluff and we have enough of a story to share our story with everybody else."

Jimmy Cunningham, executive director of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance, and Sheri Storie, director of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, talk about the different elements of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District of Pine Bluff. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)
Jimmy Cunningham, executive director of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance, and Sheri Storie, director of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, talk about the different elements of the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Cultural District of Pine Bluff. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)