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Zombies Beware: Pine Bluff Is Rising

10 min read

Highland Pellets founder Tom Reilley’s first impression of downtown Pine Bluff three years ago was an indelible sight: a tree growing through the roof of a dilapidated grand hotel.

The tree was a pine; the building was the Hotel Pines.

“It made a big impression on me, coming into the area with fresh eyes,” Reilley said in a telephone interview last week.

In a different apocalyptic vision, economic developer Lou Ann Nisbett suggested that some buildings downtown could be scenes for “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s zombie series. She enlisted Christopher Crane, film commissioner of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, to offer up 19 structurally unsound Pine Bluff buildings as possible locations for filming thrillers. If the script called for an explosion, the filmmakers could blow up the buildings.

“Chris actually visited, took some pictures and did some inventory,” Nisbett said. “I was trying to come up with creative ways to get buildings down without heavy costs to the owners or the city.”

Such is the state of economically battered Pine Bluff, but Nisbett and Reilley are anything but despairing.

Nisbett, the president and CEO of Jefferson County’s Economic Development Alliance, and Reilley, the New Hampshire resident who decided to put a $230 million wood pellet plant in Pine Bluff, have joined a growing army on a mission of revitalization.

Reilley’s zeal goes beyond providing jobs and economic stimulus through his new plant, which will deliver wood pellets to fuel European power plants as a substitute for coal. The facility, in Jefferson Industrial Park, has one production line running and three more are under construction.

Reilley is determined to inspire people to build up residents, property values and the tax base of Pine Bluff, a manufacturing city that once had close to 60,000 residents but had dwindled to about 45,000 by 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

So he joined the board of a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit group to investigate restoring the Hotel Pines as it works to revamp downtown and all of Pine Bluff, which he sees as poised for a rebound.

The nonprofit, Pine Bluff Rising, bought the six-story, 100,000-SF hotel for one dollar on Jan. 17 and has committed $300,000 to shoring it up, drying it out and seeing if it can be saved. The seller, Elvin Moon, who worked at the storied hotel as an elevator operator as a teenager, bought the property in 2003 from another nonprofit group, Citizens to Save the Pines, which had acquired it after it was condemned by the city in 1986.

Moon was among a number of property speculators who snapped up unused Pine Bluff buildings at depressed prices starting in the recessions of the 1980s and ’90s.

“Individuals bought buildings, I guess from a speculation standpoint since they were so cheap, hoping to sell them for a profit someday,” said Caleb McMahon, economic development director for the Jefferson County Alliance and a Pine Bluff Rising board member. “But with no repairs, the buildings became decrepit and started falling. The property speculation only decreased property values downtown.”

The purchase of the Hotel Pines, opened in 1913 and designed by Arkansas State Capitol architect George R. Mann, is part of a larger revitalization plan devised by Go Forward Pine Bluff. Go Forward, a 100-volunteer group financed by one of Pine Bluff’s most successful businesses, Simmons First National Corp., and led by former CEO Tommy May and Simmons First Foundation board member Mary Pringos, has announced an ambitious plan of 27 proposals.

The plan hinges on a public vote for a five-eighths-cent city sales tax that would raise some $32 million before lapsing after seven years. About $20 million more is planned via private fundraising. If the Pine Bluff City Council gives its approval on April 3, the election will be held June 13.

Jefferson County already has a three-eighths-cent tax for economic development, money that has paid dividends in recent years with groundbreakings and expansions at the industrial park, including Highland Pellets and the recruitment of industries from South Korea, Austria and Argentina.

Carla Martin, vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a Go Forward leader, said the new tax could burden some residents, but she noted that the levy is temporary and that it is expected to have a household impact of $15 a month, or $180 a year.

“I am confident that the citizens of Pine Bluff want a better tomorrow,” she said. “I am confident that we must have some skin in the game.”

Pringos said that if the tax vote succeeds, all of the spending would require City Council approval and would be “pay as you go, with no bond issue.” Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, she said, has “overwhelmingly endorsed” the program and was one of its 100 volunteers.

Several attempts to reach Washington for this article were unsuccessful.

The Hotel Pines
One of Go Forward’s recommendations, along with a complete overhaul of city codes and enforcement, is to repurpose or demolish the Hotel Pines.

Opened in the golden age of passenger rail just a few blocks from Pine Bluff’s Union Station, it attracted travelers seeking the elegance of one of Arkansas’ premier hotels. When passenger rail service ended in 1968, the death knell sounded for the hotel, which closed in 1970.

The now-crumbling two-story lobby and second-floor balcony were built with a grand curved ceiling of stained glass, a treasure long feared lost. McMahon recently discovered otherwise.

“Mr. Moon told us that he still had all the stained glass; he took us to where he had it warehoused, and we have it now.”

The first step is testing the building and getting a cost assessment.

A $35 million renovation might be workable, through use of state and federal historic tax credits, bank lending and “equity contributions from various sources,” Reilley said. However, if the price tag balloons to more than $35 million, demolition is likely.

Pine Bluff Rising has engaged WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock; East Harding Construction, which is using local contractors; and interior designer Kaki Hockersmith. Hockersmith, of Little Rock, redid the White House for the Clinton administration.

Engineers are making a complete assessment expected in about 60 days. “It’s due diligence, but also an emotional issue,” Reilley said. “If it can be saved, we want to save it.”

Reilley, a Bear Stearns senior managing director in London before his own international projects gave him a glimpse of impoverished areas worldwide, has been brainstorming on the hotel’s future. Many of the ideas are nascent.

“A leading and respected Arkansas hotel operator would love to do a joint venture on Hotel Pines,” he said, adding that UAPB might be “incredibly synergistic” with the project.

UAPB Chancellor Laurence Alexander called talk of any link with the hotel premature. “But if it rises above a whisper, I’ll have some thoughts for sure.”

McMahon said restoring the hotel, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, to its former glory wouldn’t mean forgoing new uses. It was conceived as “a 110-room hotel. But we would like retail downstairs, banquet galleries and the like.”

The work includes pumping out the basement, shoring up four columns, boarding up broken windows and fixing the leaky roof. “We have to do all that just to dry it out,” Reilley said. “Soon we’ll know if the hotel can be saved or if it has to go.”

Reversing the Deterioration
Either option beats simply letting it deteriorate, officials said.

That was the case a few blocks away at 620 Main St., where the former Sahara Temple building, owned by Garland Trice, has suffered multiple collapses. In July 2014, risks of falling debris led the city to shut down Main Street between Sixth and Eighth avenues. The stretch is still closed, much to the inconvenience of neighboring businesses like Pine Bluff Title Co. and Davis Auto Parts.

“The proof is in the pudding out there,” parts store owner Bobby Davis told the Pine Bluff Commercial in January. “People can’t come in. They get to the barricade on either end, and they turn around and go somewhere else.”

A free-standing wall of the condemned building toppled that month onto the building next door, an accounting business owned by Lloyd F. Lee.

“It’s distressing,” McMahon said. “Main Street is shut off because we have bricks falling in the street. That being said, we want to save all the buildings we can.”

That’s where Pine Bluff Rising and Go Forward come in.

“When the directors and I started talking about funding Pine Bluff Rising, I said let’s contribute our capital and time in a meaningful way, and work on some of the most intractable problems in the area,” said Reilley, whose fellow nonprofit board members are William Carpenter, McMahon and UAPB professor Ryan Watley.

One problem is the image and reality of downtown.

“On this part of Main Street [near the Hotel Pines], I’d say 90 percent of the buildings are unoccupied,” McMahon said. “That’s why one major goal is to grow downtown.” Reilley and McMahon said a well-known Arkansas business may soon announce plans for a downtown destination, part of a project that is also wooing a Little Rock restaurateur. “We could have an announcement in two or three weeks,” Reilley said.

Reilley has partnered with Win Trafford, a City Council member and real estate broker, to acquire the historic Greystone residence near Jefferson Regional Medical Center with the goal of turning it into a high-end bed-and-breakfast.

“It’s a beautiful building that has fallen into disrepair,” Reilley said. “We hired Kaki Hockersmith to do all the interior design work, and it should be ready to open in six to nine months.”

Go Forward’s main priority is “increasing the tax base for the city of Pine Bluff,” Pringos told Arkansas Business. “Declines in population and businesses have left the city in a difficult position even providing basic services. We have to attack certain issues to reverse that trend.”

‘Starving at the Banquet’
Reilley hopes that Pine Bluff Rising can improve the city’s image through a social media campaign, but he says the area has the essentials to bounce back.

“The town is really starving at the banquet,” Reilley said. “I understand problems like the mechanization of the Delta and job losses associated with that, but Pine Bluff has a good two-year school in SEARK [Southeast Arkansas College], a four-year university in UAPB, a good airport, a great industrial park and an excellent river port. All it’s missing is a transactional plan.

“Mayor Washington has shown great leadership, and courageous work is being done by Tommy May and Go Forward. Community leaders like George Makris at Simmons Bank, Chancellor Alexander at UAPB and Lou Ann Nisbett, to name a few, are leading by example.” But like a team on a losing streak, Pine Bluff “needs some wins” to get people off the bench, he said.

A couple of victories are already in the books. Pine Bluff passed a property tax increase in November to finance a new $14 million library. The 35,000-SF building is expected to rise soon at Main Street and Sixth Avenue.

Funding for a $6.3 million aquatic center was also secured when Stephens Inc. accountants found a way to fully finance the project by restructuring existing city bonds. More than $4 million for the center had been raised through a sales tax levy, but the Stephens tactic overcame a $2 million shortfall. The site is 10th Avenue and Convention Center Drive, opposite the Pine Bluff Civic Center complex.

If voters approve the Go Forward levy, Pine Bluff residents will face a steep 11 percent sales tax on retail purchases other than groceries, but officials say local businesses and workers will benefit when the $52 million fund it contributes to starts flowing. Pine Bluff Rising, for example, is establishing an alliance of Jefferson County subcontractors to compete for millions of dollars in building and demolition work.

Watley is working with East Harding CEO Van Tilbury and Michael Smith, vice president of preconstruction and project management at Con-Real Construction, to urge “minority businesses and contractors who need additional skill, capital, bonding ability or general bidding skills to come together in advance of all the work that Go Forward and Pine Bluff Rising will generate,” Reilley said.

Go Forward’s blueprint calls for creating a downtown square with “city-purposed programs,” the creation of a Delta Festival, Delta sports tournaments and “one or more nice restaurants.”

Restoration efforts would focus on buildings like the Masonic Temple, the Train Depot Museum and the Saenger Theatre, where Harry Houdini and Roy Rogers performed.

Education plans from Go Forward include an Educational Alliance among the city’s three school districts to focus on joint teaching arrangements for science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, as well as an Innovation Hub in the Arts & Science Center Annex, envisioned as a partnership between SEARK and UAPB.

Go Forward’s efforts are divided into four pillars, each served by committees. They are economic development, chaired by Nick Makris; education, led by Scott Patillo; infrastructure and government, headed by Rosalind Mouser; and quality of life, chaired by Kaleybra Morehead.

“Bringing jobs, addressing blight, bringing in more things to do, all of those issues were seen in our surveys and focus groups,” Pringos said.

Martin boiled down the goals. “Clean up the city, grow the economy, create a more-skilled workforce, offer safer neighborhoods. Make this a place people want to live, work and raise a family. Ultimately we want to make Pine Bluff a city its residents are proud to call home.”

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