Pine Bluff's Economy Expects Boost From Bypass

by Arkansas Business staff  on Monday, Jul. 18, 1994 12:00 am  

Idea Conceived More Than 35 Years Ago Finally Sees Light at End of Tunnel

State and federal funding of the U.S. Highway 65 bypass in Pine Bluff will exceed well over $75 million by the time it is completed in 1998 or '99.

Like most highway projects, this bypass carries a heavy financial weight. However, a transportation official believes taxpayers will reap returns several times over in a wealth of economic development that should start popping up along the 11-mile stretch even before its completion date arrives.

"Anytime you have highway improvements it's going to spark economic development," says Randy Ort, assistant public affairs officer for the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department. "I expect a tremendous amount of economic activity will follow the Pine Bluff bypass by the time it's complete."

Ernie Westfall, district engineer for the highway department's district office in Pine Bluff, says he already has heard mention of several in-state and national business outlets showing interest in moving to Pine Bluff because of the new bypass. He declined to mention names because none have committed, but he says a commitment is probably "not too far off."

"Eventually we'll see a lot more business activity along sections of the bypass," Westfall says. "I've heard rumors of different businesses coming, mostly speculation, though I am told that restaurants and retail stores have shown serious interest."

If history repeats itself, Pine Bluff could feel a major boost to its economic base because of the highway improvement. The most recent example would be the development around the present U.S. 65-79 intersection in a western pocket of the city. In 10 years, five fast-food restaurants, a gas station and two large hotels settled in corners of the intersection.

Pine Bluff's economy already has reaped returns as a result of the U.S. 65 bypass. Research shows that since 1989, when the project's first phase began, 50 jobs have been created for every $1 million the state has spent on the bypass. Ort says this is the average economic investment for most highway construction projects in Arkansas.

Image Booster

The bypass loops around west and south Pine Bluff, through residential areas and on around to The Pines mall. Jim Berry says this is a main reason the Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce fought so hard to get the project under way.

Berry, the chamber president, says the bypass not only has the potential to tremendously boost Pine Bluff's economy, it also could give the city a long overdue image boost.

"This bypass is important because some of the main arteries that pass through Pine Bluff go through some of our city's most unsightly areas, which in the past has not given a very good impression of our city," Berry says. "When people start passing through on the bypass, hopefully it will provide a better view of our city, improving the image that transients have of Pine Bluff."

Berry says he expects development to occur around the bypass because the chamber has received more than a dozen calls from potential investors. Often, however, the chamber does not know a new business is entering the city until a formal announcement is actually made, he says.

"We supply them with all of the information that they ask for," Berry says. "But as far as any actually coming here, right now they are still keeping that pretty quiet."

Phases of Progress

The highway department plans to open the new bypass in three sections. The first will be west of Pine Bluff from U.S. 65 to U.S. 79. It should be accessible before the fall of next year.

Next to open will be the portion of the bypass connecting U.S. 79 and state Highway 15, followed by the section from Highway 15 to U.S. 65 southeast of town. Several miles of those sections run alongside or cross Bayou Bartholomew.

The project has required the moving millions of cubic yards of dirt and the building of more than 25 bridges. It is being built to interstate standards with interchange ramps at major crossroads such as state Highway 104, U.S. 79, Old Warren Road, Hazel Street and Highway 15.

So far, five contractors and subcontractors have been used for the bypass construction. Four are in-state companies, but the contractor responsible for most of the construction is Potashnick Construction Inc. of Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Working with a 90-man crew, almost all hired locally, Potashnick is constructing 8.5 miles of the 11-mile bypass. The company has had projects worldwide as well as work in Arkansas for more than 30 years.

The idea of a U.S. 65 bypass was first conceive more than 35 years ago. The consulting firm Wilbur Smith and Associates proposed in 1958 a relocation of U.S. 65 to an expressway through south central Pine Bluff. For various reasons, including the massive relocation of residents required, this proposal was never implemented.

As a result of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, the state highway department in 1966 hired Harland Bartholomew & Associates to produce a comprehensive transportation plan for the Pine Bluff area. In 1969 a formal plan was adopted, laying the groundwork for a downtown U.S. 65 expressway (completed in the mid-1970s and named the Martha Mitchell Expressway) and a bypass loop around the city called the Bartholomew Freeway. But it wasn't until 1989 that the bypass project finally got started.

Westfall says there hasn't been any organized opposition since a group of residents banded for a hearing in 1985 to voice objection to the bypass. Some were worried about the noise factor or an increased chance of Bayou Bartholomew flooding. Others just thought it was a waste of taxpayers' money.

Nonetheless, Westfall contends that since the project began, there has been very little opposition of any kind. Some setbacks like a shortage of skilled and unskilled laborers and bad weather have slowed progress, but the project should still make its 1998-99 finish date.

He says once the bypass is operable it will allow for easier access through the city that until now wasn't attainable. The Martha Mitchell Expressway has about eight stoplights, and when going through other parts of the city "there's more than that," Westfall says.

"There really is no easy way to get through Pine Bluff," he says. "This new bypass is really going to open up the city and make it easier to get through."



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