by John Henry
Posted 4/10/2000 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
Will the last one to leave Pine Bluff, please turn out the lights?"
It's an old joke. The largest city in southeast Arkansas has been in decline since the 1960s. The city's population has dropped so much that officials are scared the 2000 Census may find the population below the 50,000 mark that qualifies it as a Metropolitan Statistical Area.
But don't turn out the lights yet. The old cotton and railroad town still has some life left.
"Economically, it's a vibrant community," said Derrill Pierce, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, which was formed in 1995 to unify community and economic development by merging the Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce, the Jefferson County Industrial Foundation and the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority.
No one's willing to say the boom time of the 1950s is about to return, but recent developments may make people take another look at the blue-collar town.
For instance, capital expenditures by Pine Bluff and Jefferson County industrial operations reached an all-time high last year - nearly a half billion dollars. In the process, 271 new jobs were created. Over the past 30 years, the average has been about $100 million a year.
The downtown area, long a source of embarrassment because of its dilapidated buildings interspersed with vast swaths of empty lots, is getting a boost from the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center, which will house the United Way of Jefferson County and 14 nonprofit organizations.
New and expanding retail outlets are popping up all over town, spurred by the recent opening of Interstate 530 around the southern edge of the city.
"It's definitely picking up momentum," says Neal Stephens, vice president of economic development at The Alliance.
Pierce, Stephens' boss, echoes that sentiment. "I'm more positive and upbeat than I've been in a long time."
Construction by two companies make up most of the $489 million spent by manufacturing and technology-based operations in the area.
Raytheon Demilitarization Co. led the way with $278 million in investments and 59 new jobs created. The company's construction arm, Raytheon Constructors, has 317 craft workers, 128 office personnel and 57 subs no included in the count.
Raytheon is the huge firm building the $512 million chemical weapon incinerator at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. The chemical demilitarization program is expected to run through 2007 at a cost of about $1 billion. Raytheon will employ nearly 900 workers during construction and 650 during operation of the incinerator.
Now in its second year of construction, the project is 14 percent complete. The scheduled completion date on construction is Dec. 7, 2001. After a 16-month testing period, the plant will be in operation only 40 months. Operations will be completed in 2006, prior to an international treaty mandate of April 2007. After the chemical weapons are destroyed, the incinerator will be shut down.
Through February, the project's input to the local economy through Raytheon procurements stood at $30.3 million.
The other major investment, to the tune of $140 million and 15 permanent jobs, was by SkyGen Energy. The company is hiring about 300 construction employees to build the Pine Bluff Energy Center that will provide power to International Paper Co. and to the region.
Located next to the paper mill, the state-of-the-art, 220-megawatt co-generation plant is being developed by SkyGen Energy and Coral Power Generation. Fueled by natural gas, the plant will primarily supply steam to the paper mill for use in its papermaking process. It will also produce electricity that will be available on the wholesale market.
And International Paper's Pine Bluff Mill, which produces about 25 percent of the world's demand for carton paper for packaging liquids, invested nearly $39 million last year to upgrade its equipment.
Other multimillion dollar investments came from: Gaylord Container Corp, $11 million; the National Center for Toxicological Research, $4 million and 23 jobs; Pine Bluff Arsenal, $3.5 million; TrefilARBED Arkansas Inc., $3 million and 20 jobs; Mid-America Packaging Inc., $2.5 million and 30 jobs; Century Tube Corp., $2.2 million; and Aramark Uniform Services, $2 million and 15 jobs. Combined, Central Moloney Inc. and Central Moloney Components Operations invested nearly $1.3 million while adding 42 jobs.
Manufacturing isn't the whole story though. The retail sector has been experiencing its own boom. Nearly all of the city's major shopping areas are full and some are expanding. Some of the national chains that had never opened stores in Pine Bluff before are beginning to filter in, and rumors are rife that more are on the way.
The Pines mall, one of the state's largest at 700,000 SF, is as full as its ever been, says Roy Ferrell, general manager. There are now 90 stores operating in the mall. Some of the newest stores include Gap, Gap for Kids and Old Navy, which is scheduled to open April 19.
The area around the mall seems to have picked up steam with the opening of Interstate 530 skirting the mall property. Already a haven for furniture stores and automobile dealerships, the area now boasts the state's first Staples Superstore, a 109-room Hampton Inn and a 50-room Comfort Inn that opened last month.
Plans have been submitted for a Country Inns & Suites to be built across the street from the Hampton Inn. The Cotton Belt Federal Credit Union is building a new office behind the Hampton Inn. On mall property, KFC and Wendy's restaurants have joined Red Lobster.
Mostly abandoned when the mall opened in the late 1980s, the 320,000-SF Jefferson Square on Olive Street is about 85 percent full, according to Lou Schickel, owner of Schickel Development of Little Rock. It's anchored by a 62,000-SF Budget $aver discount food store, owned by Affiliated Foods.
A 30,000-SF department store, Weiner's, also has opened at the square. the Houston-based Weiner's chain is just entering the Arkansas market and has opened three stores in the Little Rock area.
Regency Square, a 100,000-SF shopping center off West 28th Avenue, is 90 percent full, according to Harvey Sizemore, owner of Sizemore Properties. Other shops along 28th Avenue, one of the major retail strips, also are full.
Sizemore Properties is adding to its Chapel Village development in the Watson Chapel area on Highway 79-South. The company recently invested $320,000 in renovating the old Chapel Village shop walk and is now building a $750,000, 15,000-SF Chapel Village II shopping area across the highway. Already half leased, the shopping center is looking toward a June 1 completion date.
A three-story, 70-room, $1.25 million Holiday Inn Express should be completed by this fall at the intersection of Highway 79 and I-530.
Cycle and Marine Center is building a new $660,000 complex to replace the facility on East Harding Avenue that was damaged by fire. Fuller Funeral Co. plans a new funeral home on Camden Road.
In south Pine Bluff, Hazel Ridge Center, anchored by a 34,000-SF Harvest Foods supermarket, is planned for the corner of Hazel Street and Ridgway Road.
The area has already seen a spurt of growth with the opening of Interstate 530. An upscale 96-unit apartment complex recently opened, and Jefferson Regional Medical Center just completed work on a 19,000-SF cancer treatment facility called Arkansas Cancer Institute. St. Joseph Catholic Church is planning a senior high school for the area that is now full of nursing homes and churches. Ralph Robinson & Sons Funeral Directors has also bought land in the area.
Already under development is Ridgway Professional Park, about half way between Olive Street and Hazel on Ridgway.
Craig Milbourn, owner of CRM Properties Inc. is investing $1.9 million in the office complex. There will be four buildings - three of them 6,600-SF each and a larger 10,500-SF building. A pediatric dentist and a computer consulting firm have already signed leases for one of the smaller buildings, Milbourn said.
He's looking to fill the complex with medical or related-type businesses.
At the Highway 15-Olive Street exit off Interstate 530, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reportedly has an option on land on which it is planning a Supercenter store.
Downtown Pine Bluff is getting an economic shot in the arm with the construction of the $6.7 million, 43,000-SF Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center downtown at West Second Avenue and Pine Street. That entire project will generate a total community investment of $8.6 million.
"Community economists tell us that an investment of this type turns over seven times locally," said Pierce. "Given that, we're looking at a potential $60 million impact in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County."
More than that, downtown businessmen and development officials believe the center can be a catalyst for future renewal of the area.
As part of the deal to put the center downtown, Pine Bluff Downtown Development - in partnership with Jefferson County, the City of Pine Bluff and The Alliance - agreed to create a master urban growth and development plan for all of downtown Pine Bluff. the plan also ties in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, according to Joy Blankenship, Downtown Development director.
The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation is providing $6.7 million. The grant calls for a locally funded endowment and a campaign is under way to raise $1.3 million, which will be used maintain the building and its furnishings and equipment. The local endowment will also qualify the Pine Bluff Community Foundation for a $600,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation Inc., which would serve as an unrestricted endowment to support qualifying projects in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County for years to come.
All of the property for the center was donated or acquired by Pine Bluff Downtown Development. Much of it was property on which the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1995.
Another bright spot already taking place downtown is Inspirations on Main, a new restaurant at 700 Main Street. Letrece Harris and her husband, Jackie B. Harris, expect to open the restaurant the first week of June. Jackie Harris is a Pine Bluff native who plays tight end for the Tennessee Titans.
The nearly 8,000-SF restaurant will feature a 130-seat dining room and a banquet facility that can accommodate groups up to 200. The Harrises are investing about $1 million in the project.
Letrece Harris said the restaurant has been part of her vision for four years. Featuring American, Cajun and home-style fare, the restaurant will employ 40-45 persons. There will be live music every night.
One new office building is under construction downtown. The 3,000-SF office will give A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc.'s five professionals and three support staffers room to expand.
Also downtown, at Pine Bluff Regional Park, state and local officials broke ground recently for the state's first Game and Fish Commission Nature Center.
Designed to help Arkansans learn about nature and conservation practices, the $4.5 million, 13,000-SF Delta Rivers Nature Center will open in the spring of 2001. It will feature a 7,000-gallon aquarium and a 3,500-gallon aquarium, an exhibit hall, a fish laboratory, a gift shop, a multipurpose classroom and offices.
City officials are convinced the nature center will increase the number of visitors to the area.
Still in the planning stages is a proposal submitted by a group that wants to save the old Hotel Pines by putting in a digital gallery and cyber cafe on the ground floor with web-based businesses on the mezzanine level.
• The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is getting its share of development pie. The new $10.3 million, 12,500-seat football stadium is scheduled to open Oct. 21. Eventually, a $4.5 million field house will be built at the complex, adding another 1,000 seats to the stadium in the process.
• Southeast Arkansas College has more than tripled in enrollment in the past decade and nearly 1,800 students now are studying at the technical college. The school has added to its property, built new buildings and expects to invest $7 million in improvements within the next year.
More in the Works
Pierce is predicting great things ahead for the Pine Bluff area because of all the efforts put into what is called the Bioplex. Right now it is 1,500 acres of woodlands next to the National Center for Toxicological Research at the Jefferson community north of Pine Bluff.
He envisions numerous high-tech research facilities bringing plenty of high-paying jobs to the area, and part of his vision is already coming to fruition.
The Food and Drug Administration recently completed its new $43 million Arkansas Regional Laboratory next to NCTR. Some 170 research scientists will be transferred to the facility during the next few years as smaller federal labs are closed around the country. They'll join a work force of more than 500, including 100 Ph.D-level scientists at NCTR. Combined, the facilities will be called Jefferson Laboratories of the FDA.
Another possible tenant of the Bioplex is a $300 million vaccine production facility, Pierce says.
The Department of Defense formed a task force after Desert Storm in 1994 to study how best to protect American troops from the threat of chemical and biological attacks. The task force said six vaccines were needed.
An Army Corps of Engineers survey said the logical place for putting a facility to test and make the vaccines would be the Pine Bluff Arsenal, across from NCTR, which already has a large animal testing program in place.
Because of budget constraints and tightened military spending, "it just did not happen," Pierce said. Only an anthrax vaccine was developed under private contract.
Pierce and other have been working to get the Health and Human Services Department to join in with the Defense Department in placing a vaccine facility at the Bioplex that would bring in another 100-200 high-tech jobs. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., is prepared to open hearings in the Senate on the facility, Pierce said.
Jefferson Industrial Park recently added 80 acres to its 825 acres and another spec building is being readied. Planners are looking at the expansion of the Harbor Industrial District near the Port of Pine Bluff, one of the active ports on the Arkansas River.
J.C. Jeffries, a Pine Bluff alderman and a counselor at UAPB's School of Business, says the city is "at a point ready to come together and do something."
He says the School of Business is working with The Alliance and the city on a brochure that will help potential entrepreneurs learn of the availability of venture capital funds and other services for start-up businesses.
Still Some Problems
Despite all the construction, Pine Bluff still has the largest unemployment rate of any of the state's MSAs, consistently hovering around the 7-8 percent mark. And more than 40 percent of the labor force never graduated from high school.
"There are hundreds of unfilled jobs," Pierce says. "Motivating people is the biggest challenge."
The city still is not without some of the racial division that has marked its past. African-Americans make up close to 60 percent of the population now. The city council and the school board are equally mixed between blacks and whites. City leaders, black and white, have been to seminars and workshops to learn how to work with each other.
Economics has driven the racial division, Pierce said, and improving economic conditions will help cure it. As more blacks have received adequate training, they are now finding $35,000-$40,000-a-year jobs.
The core of the problem in the city is there are not enough people in the labor force. Many have simply dropped out and never work. Because of that, Pine Bluff's per capita income is low, Pierce says. However, he said, the "average annual earnings for those working in Pine Bluff are second only to the Little Rock metro area."
To combat the proliferation of small shopping areas that has contributed to the deterioration of the downtown area, Pierce and Blankenship said The Alliance and Downtown Development are proposing that the Pine Bluff City Council restrict spot zoning in the city. The proposal would restrict most new offices to the downtown area. Not only does the spot zoning add to the urban sprawl, Pierce says, but it forces the city to extend its services to new areas.
Jeffries isn't sure the council will go along with the measure. He thinks it's more likely the council will look at additonal incentives to bring businesses back downtown.
Jeffries said the city should be hiring an urban planner in the next couple of weeks.
It's hard to say whether the recent economic spurt is the result of anything the city has done. Harvey Sizemore says city officials have gone overboard to help promote business expansion.
Then again, the simple answer might just be that the economic boom that the entire country has been experiencing the past few years has finally spilled over to Pine Bluff.
Some of Pine Bluff's population loss has been White Hall's gain. The bedroom community on the edge of Pine Bluff has seen expansions in its downtown retail area, new apartment complexes, new subdivisions in town and north on Highways 104 and 365, and a new Woodlands shopping area along Highway 270 near the Interstate 530 intersection. Home Depot is rumored to be looking at a I-530-Highway 270 intersection site.
Mayor Jitters Morgan thinks the town could reach more than 6,000 in the census count.