On the afternoon of March 11, 2020, I pulled into the parking lot of the Pine Bluff Country Club. I was scheduled to speak to the Bess Jenkins Club, a women's organization that has been an integral part of this southeast Arkansas city since the 1940s.
As I gathered my notes in the car, a radio news story caught my attention. The state's first case of covid-19 had been verified, and that case was in Pine Bluff. I went inside and discovered that the news had reached club members. I could tell during my speech that their thoughts were elsewhere. Little did I realize that my Arkansas travels were about to end for 14 months until I could get my family fully vaccinated.
Two years later, I'm back at the club. Covid-19 numbers are dropping quickly, it's a pleasant early spring day, and the ladies of the Bess Jenkins Club are in a good mood. What a difference 24 months can make. They point out the stone patio that's being constructed at the club so members can dine outside.
"We might have to meet out there the next time you come to speak on a spring day," one of them says.
Another reason for their optimism is the visible progress now occurring in the often downtrodden city they still love. It's amazing to contemplate how much has happened during the two-year pandemic. Sure, crime is still a problem, just as is the case in so many cities across the country. There continue to be crises in the public schools. Still, considering what Pine Bluff has accomplished in recent years, this has the makings of one of the best turnarounds in recent Arkansas history.
We all love a comeback story. That's why I tell folks in Pine Bluff that all Arkansans are rooting for them these days and taking note of what's going on in this city so rich in Delta history and culture. Here are a few of the developments in Pine Bluff and nearby White Hall:
• A new two-story, 30,000-square-foot CARTI Cancer Center adds critical mass to a medical community that serves the southeast quadrant of the state. The center offers medical oncology services, radiation therapy and imaging services. There's an infusion suite with 28 heated chairs and family member seating.
• On the Jefferson Regional Medical Center's Pine Bluff campus, meanwhile, the Jones-Dunklin Cancer Center opened last summer. Located in the Jefferson Professional Center across from the main hospital, the facility has hematology/oncology offices, laboratories, pharmacy services and a 23-station infusion center with amenities such as heated seats, televisions, sound domes and charging stations.
• The JRMC Regional Breast Center, also located in the Jefferson Professional Center, now has a dedicated entrance with reserved parking, express registration, private waiting areas, a coffee bar and robes for mammography patients. A second JRMC mammography center is at White Hall.
• JRMC and Kindred Rehabilitation Services have announced a joint venture to build and operate a specialty hospital with 40 inpatient rehabilitation beds and a 36-bed behavioral health unit on JRMC's White Hall campus. The facility will cover 87,000 square feet and be easily accessible from Interstate 530. It's scheduled to open in early 2024. Kindred has managed JRMC's rehabilitation unit for the past 28 years.
• Saracen Casino Resort has been a tremendous success. Arkansans are surprised when they learn that gaming totals are higher at Saracen most months than at Oaklawn in Hot Springs. Saracen employs more than 900 Arkansans, and almost 600 of them are Jefferson County residents. Several hundred more people will be employed once Saracen constructs its hotel and conference center. Those facilities will draw state and regional conventions to Pine Bluff. Saracen's capital investment will total more than $400 million.
• An innovation hub known as the Generator, which is part of the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative, continues to add programs and support entrepreneurs. The Generator provides entrepreneurs access to equipment, marketing services and business startup specialists. The Generator, which opened in 2018, is now the premier entrepreneur support organization in southeast Arkansas.
• The Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, which was revived in 2017 following voter approval of the Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax, has identified more than 600 nuisance properties in the city. It has acquired properties for redevelopment and already demolished more than 100 structures. The agency is planning additional housing and an entertainment district downtown.
• The first phase of what's known as the Streetscape Project was completed last summer. Downtown sidewalks were rebuilt. Lighting, landscaping and street furnishings were added. There are 18 new brick-paved crosswalks, and rain gardens were installed to reduce runoff. Three building facades have been restored on Main Street as efforts continue to create a stretch of restaurants and music venues that supporters call Little Beale Street.
• The $11 million Pine Bluff Aquatic Center covers 36,000 square feet, and the $10.5 million Pine Bluff Library covers 35,000 square feet. These sleek structures have given people additional reasons to come downtown. Like the new medical facilities, they're a regional draw, attracting patrons from across southeast Arkansas and helping return Pine Bluff to its former position as a regional hub.
• The Pine Bluff Convention Center plans to add a 125-room hotel with hopes that it will be part of the Hilton or Marriott brands.
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.