Civic leaders in Pine Bluff say, if you take a closer look, you will see a city that’s ready to rise again.
“It’s just a matter of time, now, before people begin to see a lot of action,” Ryan Watley said Wednesday, Nov. 15.
Watley is the CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, the organization tasked with spearheading the city’s revitalization efforts. It is a public-private partnership that was originally devised by the leadership of the Simmons First Foundation.
Pine Bluff has steadily shed population over the last 25 years, resulting in a decline of more than 20 percent.
“We’ve kind got stuck in that, ‘hey, we got it good! We got it great!’” Watley explained. “But in that timeframe, other cities in the state were upgrading, so we have to catch back up.”
With a shrinking tax base, city services were no longer sustainable at their previous levels. Crime and blight increased, while education and quality of life worsened. City and civic leaders attempted to solve the problem, but failed to make a significant impact.
“Sometimes, they can’t get it all done by themselves,” Watley said. “And so, I think the private and the public looked at each other and said, hey, we can’t do it alone. You know, we need to come together to address these issues that we’re facing.”
Danny Games, an executive vice president of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said a common thread among thriving cities is often the frequent reinvestment in itself.
“We like to say, community development is an ongoing process, not a destination,” he said. “It’s a path, it’s a constant, ongoing process. But the good thing about it is we have a unique opportunity to jump from a decade behind, to maybe a decade in front of people, because we’re making this investment.”
Go Forward Pine Bluff was initially funded with $7 million in seed money from the Simmons First Foundation. Watley said other private entities pledged another $13 million, and voters approved a sales tax increase this summer which will collect approximately $32 million over the next seven years.
The tax increase takes effect Jan. 1, but Watley said Go Forward has already made progress. He pointed to a candidate development institute that trains elected officials; a new walking path surrounding Lake Saracen; and coordination among the three local school districts to share services and reduce costs. Its biggest projects, though, will involve cleaning up blight, both in residential neighborhoods and downtown.
“You know, you have to continue to be attractive to people for people to want to live there,” Watley said. “Make no mistake about it, it’s a competition between different cities throughout the state, that we want people to choose Pine Bluff.”
Many people do choose Pine Bluff for four years, and then depart: college students. According to a report from UNCF, UAPB contributes $100 million to the local economy. And each graduating class will earn $1.2 billion over their lifetimes. Games said convincing college students to stay is important for any city that wants to modernize and thrive.
“I think a lot of the college students who go off to school for four or five years and enjoy a university setting and experience that was unlike anything that me and my generation got to enjoy, now they graduate, and they start to contemplate where do they want to live, as much as where do they want to work,” he explained. “And those amenities that they enjoyed, and were partly spoiled by on a college campus, not the least of which is a sense of community, in a sense of atmosphere and personality of place.
“I think downtowns best mimic what a college campus has, so I think you will see millennials attracted more and more to your urban cores and your downtowns, versus your suburbs and your big boxes.”
Watley agreed that retaining graduates of University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College will be important to the growth of the local economy.
“We’re actually trying to create more pipelines,” he said, “from the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, and SEARK into our manufacturing, to our hospitals, into our banks, into our business sector.”
Go Forward will sponsor a series of festivals in 2018 as part of its effort to create new entertainment options. It also will design a public square in the heart of downtown, and Watley said someone is interested in donating $2 million for the naming rights. He also mentioned that Go Forward was awarded a $1.3 million grant to improve the cityscape downtown, which he believes will prompt more businesses to want to open there.
By creating new opportunities for families, college graduates and businesses, Go Forward hopes to restore the city’s revenue base to a level where it can sustain itself. With the impending influx of tax money and the number of projects on the horizon, Watley said he believes all the people who left Pine Bluff will want to give it a second chance.
“We want, you know, everyone around the state that is from Pine Bluff, to continue to embrace Pine Bluff as your home town, and don’t forget about Pine Bluff,” he said. “Pine Bluff has made a lot of people where they are today around the state, and we want everyone to know that we’re working hard for it to be even better than it was when we all grew up here.”