Little more than a week after the unveiling of the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative, one of the first elements of the plan appears to be taking shape.
The historic Hotel Pines in downtown Pine Bluff was sold Tuesday, former owner Elvin Moon said.
Moon said he sold the property for $1 to Pine Bluff Rising, a newly-formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The board of directors for Pine Bluff Rising is comprised of Dr. Ryan Watley, William Carpenter, Caleb McMahon and Tom Reilley.
Pine Bluff Rising confirmed the transaction Thursday in an emailed statement to the Commercial from Reilley.
“Pine Bluff Rising is undertaking a thorough investigation of the structure, challenges and opportunities that may exist with The Pines Hotel property. As more material information comes to light we will communicate with the public.”
McMahon is the director for economic development for Jefferson County, and Reilley is a businessman and the chairman of Highland Pellets. According to the statement, Carpenter is a “Little Rock based entrepreneur and management consultant,” while Watley is the assistant director of development for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Unveiled on Jan. 12 after more than a year of study and input from 100 community members, the more than $50 million Go Forward Pine Bluff Plan contains 27 recommendations for reshaping the city. The recommendations included acquiring the Hotel Pines property, then “demolish and/or repurpose” the hotel as part of a broader effort to revitalize downtown.
Other recommendations regarding the hotel include: save the “iconic hotel pillars and stained glass”; complete “environmental, structural and other applicable studies”; and engage the Center for Community Design at the University of Arkansas’ College of Architecture.
Moon said he will return to Pine Bluff on Feb. 2 to transfer the stained glass to the new owners, also for a fee of just $1. He said the glass has been stored in Pine Bluff since 2008.
Distinguished history, long decline
The six-story, U-shaped hotel opened in 1913 at the northwest corner of Main Street and West Fifth Avenue. It was intended as a destination for train passengers disembarking from nearby Union Station. Designed by architect George R. Mann, who drew the plans for the Arkansas State Capitol and the Hotel Marion in Little Rock, the Pines was considered one of the premier hotels in the state.
It closed in 1970, two years after passenger rail service to the area ended. It was added to the Register of Historic Places on August 10, 1979, due to its classical design, reminiscent of Greek and Roman architecture.
The property has changed hands many times over the years, usually with promises from the buyer to restore the former hotel to its former glory. None have yet come to pass, and it has presented a conundrum: too expensive to rebuild, yet too expensive to tear down.
The city first inspected the hotel during the 1970s with plans to renovate it, according to Luther Drye, a former building inspector for the city. However, the city was never able to come up with the funds, he said.
By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair, Drye said in a recent telephone interview.
“It was substandard,” he recalled. “The city has codes covering existing buildings. It was dilapidated, windows falling out, hitting the sidewalk below, stuff like that.
“There was a bad roof like in the northwest corner that [had] deteriorated the northwest corner of the building. The basement stayed full of water, that didn’t help… . The top two floors on the northwest corner were in pretty bad shape. Vandals had damaged a lot of the marble on the mezzanine and the first floor lobby.”
The property at that time was the subject of “a very intense dialogue between the city and people who wanted to restore the Hotel Pines,” former Pine Bluff Mayor Carolyn Robinson said recently in a telephone interview.
“The only obstacle we had was there was nobody who was interested in funding the renovation,” she said, adding that it came up at several city council meetings. “Even though we would have all wanted to, there was nobody who wanted to do that.”
Drye, now a mechanical inspector for the Arkansas Department of Health, said he condemned the hotel in November 1986.
The hotel’s property record card, filed in the Jefferson County Assessor’s Office, indicates appraisals conducted on the property in 1985, 1991 and 1994. Two comments on the card describe the building as condemned, although it is not apparent when the comments were written.
When asked why he condemned the hotel, Drye said, “the mayor told me to.”
Robinson, who served as mayor of Pine Bluff from 1985 to 1992, said that was not the case.
“The mayor didn’t tell him to,” Robinson said. “I’ve never issued an order to demolish it. I can’t do that by myself anyway. That had to be sent to the council and the planning commission.”
Drye said that a city inspector used to be able to condemn a building without approval from the City Council. The city was later sued because of it, he said, which led to a revision in the condemnation process. Inspectors can now declare a building unsafe, but the planning commission and city council must vote to condemn it.
Drye said that 90 days after he condemned the property, the city took bids to have it demolished either by wrecking ball or implosion.
“The low bid was $210,000,” he recalled. “That was probably in ’87 that we got the bids for that. But when we went to council, it looked like the city would end up with the property anyway, so it wasn’t worth it.”
A non-profit group called Citizens United to Save the Pines later bought the property with the intent to restore it, but sold it again in 2003, according to property records.
Bob Abbott, a local businessman and former member of Citizens to Save the Pines, said he recruited Moon to purchase the property after hearing about projects he had worked on in Memphis.
Moon, a businessman in Los Angeles who also owns other properties downtown, grew up in Pine Bluff. The building had a sentimental attachment to him. He worked there as a teenager, when the hotel was segregated under Jim Crow laws. Moon, who is black, said he worked as an elevator operator while his late brother was a bellman. He said they were prohibited from going to work through the primary entrance on Main Street.
“I worked in that hotel when blacks didn’t even go in the front door,” he said.
After buying the hotel in 2008, Moon said he planned to convert it into mixed use between residential and commercial space. But after the 2008 financial crisis hit later that year, he said, it became difficult to find financing.
Debate over condition
Moon had recently tussled with City of Pine Bluff officials who were urging him to either renovate the property or tear it down.
Pine Bluff Fire Marshal Lt. Randy Compton sent notices of property violation dated July 18 and Aug. 31 to Moon and his wife stating that the hotel is “Not Repairable.” The notices informed the Moons that a resolution declaring the structure a nuisance and ordering its abatement, or removal, would be presented to the Pine Bluff City Council for its approval. Should the council determine that the hotel is a nuisance and condemn it, the property owners would have a total of 30 days to remove it. If they did not, the city would do so and bill the Moons for the expense, or place a lien on the property.
Moon dismissed the finding, saying that Compton and another city inspector, Carla Covey, did not have the engineering background to make that determination.
A structural investigation report conducted in 2014 by the Little Rock architecture firm Cromwell Associates found that “the overall structure was found to be in fair condition with the exception of two building columns.”
Flooding in the basement had caused the deterioration of the two columns, according to the report. The architects estimated that each of the two failed columns was supporting a load of 375,000 pounds, but in their current condition the allowable capacity is about 240,000 pounds.
The report recommended reinforcing the columns immediately.
Sutliff Construction of White Hall sent a quote to Moon in July 2015 estimating a cost of $69,987 to repair the columns.
Compton said in a recent interview that if Moon had not complied, he hoped to avoid having to submit the property for condemnation before the planning commission and City Council by relying instead on the city’s prior condemnation declaration. However, he said he was not sure if that would hold up in court.
Moon said he had “mixed emotions” about selling the property, but ultimately he “let it go.”
“Just think about it,” he said. “I owned it for a while. As an African-American, owning one of the tallest buildings in downtown Pine Bluff, think about that. But Pine Bluff needs to move forward now. And Pine Bluff Rising has the resources to do it.”