Consultants for Go Forward Pine Bluff say three community listening sessions held last week offered valuable insight as they prepare a master plan for the development of downtown Pine Bluff.

About 200 citizens attended the sessions at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, where they gave answers to questions such as, “What would a vibrant, livable Pine Bluff look like?” and “What role should downtown play in revitalizing Pine Bluff?”

The second question was key, because the revitalization of downtown is a primary focus of the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan. Architectural consultants with the University of Arkansas’ Community Design Center spent several days walking the city, speaking with citizens and city officials to begin the process of preparing a master plan to revitalize the area.

Stephen Luoni, director of the CDC, called the listening sessions “heartening.”

“What it shows me is that people really understand their city and the dynamics that have shaped the city to this point,” Luoni said. “What it was, what it is, and where it could go… I think we’re on the same page. What we have to figure out now as a project team is what are the strategic interventions that could spark a revitalization. What will catalyze reinvestment, where should those investments go in what is a pretty large land area?”

Luoni and his team plan to produce the master plan in 10 to 12 months. Over the next few weeks, he said they would be figuring out the status of downtown properties to find out which ones have been condemned or abandoned, and which ones hold potential for redevelopment. That process will help them identify several properties to serve as “social attractors,” or points of interest, to develop the area around. Examples of social attractors could be historically significant buildings on Main Street, the new aquatic center or the new library, neither of which are yet under construction.

Once the properties are identified, the consultants plan to design connections between them, such as bike trails or attractive street improvements called “streetscapes,” to form a cohesive district that would attract private investment.

The Arkansas Economic Development Institute at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will be providing logistical assistance to Luoni and the CDC as they develop the bones of the downtown master plan, said AEDI Executive Director Jim Youngquist.

The AEDI, which changed its name from the Institute for Economic Advancement on July 1, will map each parcel in downtown for the CDC using its geographic information system (GIS) laboratory, Youngquist said. Information provided will include the owner of every parcel and its status, whether vacant, occupied or condemned, as well as its zoning, such as residential, commercial or industrial.

“Outside the immediate downtown district, there will be other areas identified as the planning process moves on that they’ll need that information,” Youngquist said. “We’ll be providing [the CDC] parcel and infrastructure information for them as they do their [downtown master] plan.”

Youngquist said he expected the CDC to come back to Pine Bluff later this fall with initial concepts to discuss with the community. That process would likely include at least one town hall event held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, where the community would be invited to react to the initial plan.

When the Commercial pointed out in an interview that few people currently live in downtown, Luoni agreed, saying “I think they’ll need to come.”

“It’s really about making downtown a living option, which the area doesn’t have [currently],” he said. “As the [southeast Arkansas] region’s largest downtown, certainly one would think it could become an option for people looking for that sort of lifestyle. It’s not going to pull people away who want to live in a rural or suburban context. It’s going to pull people looking for an urban lifestyle, which is not available in Pine Bluff.”

Youngquist acknowledged criticisms from some community members that the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan focuses too much on revitalizing downtown at the expense of other neighborhoods in the city. He responded that the downtown focus was only one part of the plan, which he said includes recommendations for the rest of the city as well.

“Yes, people have said, ‘Well, you’re worrying too much about downtown and you need to be working on all parts of town,’” he said. “The recommendations in the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan are focused on all parts of town. This particular part of implementation that we’re at right now is the downtown master plan.”

He also defended the focus on downtown as necessary for the health of the city overall.

“I think if you have a background in urban design and urban and regional planning, and you study cities and regions and how they operate, the data, the numbers, the visuals, people want to be in places that revolve around having a vibrant downtown,” he said. “If you think of a city as a body, the downtown’s its heart. I can’t think of a city in this country where everything but downtown is just booming and great.”

Luoni compared what he saw in downtown Pine Bluff to areas of Detroit, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio. People abandoned historic areas of those Midwestern manufacturing cities with “beautiful building stock and nice streets” in the wake of job losses. However, he said there are investments happening in those cities, each of which possesses “great bones, infrastructure and building stock.”

Luoni suggested downtown Pine Bluff could see a similar pattern, saying he was heartened to hear at the first listening session from property owners with plans to invest in downtown.

“These are your 10-percenters who want to be the first-stage investors,” he said. “They get out in front when market analysts say it’s risky. That’s the nature of first-stage investors. They do it in spite of skeptics. They take a gamble. That’s what this plan needs to cater to, that kind of investment class.”