Go Forward Pine Bluff on Tuesday hosted the first of three listening events for residents to give input into the Go Forward plan as it evolves in the coming months and years. An identical listening event was held Wednesday night and another is scheduled from 5:30-7:30 p.m. tonight at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
The roughly 100 residents who attended were given five questions to answer regarding the plan. The questions included: What would a vibrant, livable, attractive Pine Bluff look like? What role should downtown play in revitalizing Pine Bluff? What can be done to encourage new businesses to locate in the city? What is your perception of Pine Bluff and what will change it? And how can Pine Bluff become a city where former residents and new people want to live, as well as becoming a place of destination for visitors?
One woman, who said she moved to Pine Bluff in 1999, said she felt there is less of a feeling of community in Pine Bluff now and that some people have “given up” on the city.
“But there’s a lot that we can do,” she said. “Some of my ideas are having a pedestrian-friendly downtown, more sidewalks, less vacant houses and buildings, more homeowners and business owners that live in the community, and revive Pine Bluff Mall.”
Another man, who said he grew up in Pine Bluff, moved away in 1990 and now lives in northern Arkansas, said he has been watching the news about Go Forward.
“You’ve got to be excited about where Pine Bluff’s going,” he said. “You’ve got to have a viable downtown that people want to come to. Got to have a restaurant that’s locally owned that people want to come to, and employs local people. Another thing that’s big on my list from moving so many times, is school systems. Education is key.”
The man urged the creation of pathways in local schools starting in the eighth or ninth grade for students in technical trades that may not intend on going to college. Another woman said she was a teacher and “would love to see this community very artsy.”
“We need to key in on this great talent in our community,” she said. “We need to keep our youth motivated, need to have outside cafes. Cities [should] tap into their open water [fronts]. We have a great city. We need to clean it up, but there’s so much we can do here. We need to really invest in a place where we can gather and have great entertainment.”
Rev. Jesse Turner suggested revamping the city’s codes, building more streetlights, strongly enforcing overgrown grass and decaying buildings and tearing down abandoned houses that are havens for drugs and illegal activity.
Former University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Honors College Dean Carolyn Blakely asked Steve Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas’ Community Design Center, his opinion on whether aging buildings downtown should be torn down or renovated. Go Forward has retained UACDC to develop the “Vision for Downtown Pine Bluff.”
Luoni said that question was controversial, because half of people in any room would feel one way or the other. But he suggested erring on the side of saving buildings that are salvageable because they are historic and give the area a distinct character.
“Most of what I’ve seen is not beyond repair, and most of it’s even cosmetic,” Luoni said. “You tear those things down, there’s not the craftsmanship, technology, capability to rebuild them. It really does pay to spend a little extra to revitalize those buildings if possible. Your revitalization plan is based on [preserving historic buildings]. Empty land doesn’t guarantee you new buildings. So be wise, and be prudent about demolition.”
Other suggestions from residents included a focus on bringing well-paying jobs to the city, building condos downtown and developing distinctive neighborhoods throughout the city, not just downtown.
Caleb McMahon, director of economic development for the Jefferson County Alliance, said that his interactions with businesses looking to relocate to Pine Bluff have led him to believe improving the school systems should be the top priority.
“Education is number one,” McMahon said. “Some businesses [here] have a 57 percent turnover rate [annually].”
Larry Reynolds, director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said downtown should be the focal point of the city, but it “first needs to have an identity. It lacks one right now.” Reynolds said he has visited Kansas City several times in the last decade, where he witnessed the transformation of an aging part of downtown from a blighted neighborhood to an arts district. He also suggested that future development in Pine Bluff be pedestrian-friendly, because federal grant money is increasingly tied to a city’s walkability.
Luoni said at the close of the meeting that “everything I’ve heard expresses a lot of common sense and vernacular wisdom about cities.” Most cities, including Pine Bluff, were originally built before automobiles. He said Pine Bluff needs to recall that dynamic in revitalizing itself.
Eighty percent of college graduates today move to cities, he said, and younger people today desire livability over everything, which means vibrant downtowns.
“They’re not like our generation where they find the job and move to cities,” he said. “They figure out where they want to be, then find the work. And what they want is [housing] units they don’t have to buy [such as leasing or renting]. They don’t want to cut grass, don’t want to spend time maintaining it. They want to be able to access restaurants.”
Mixed-use zoning is also important for cities, meaning schools, office, retail and housing in compact areas, he said. Beginning in the 1940s, many cities outlawed mixed-use zoning in favor of single-use zoning. Pine Bluff needs to change that zoning plan to allow mixed-use, he said.
It also needs to figure out the right proportion of public sector investment to stimulate private-sector investment, and prioritize five or so centers of strength such as Main Street, then connect them to the surrounding neighborhoods through attractive street design, he said. That will lead to growth, he said.