Sometimes it seems as if the news coming out of Pine Bluff is always bad news.

Sometimes it seems as if the news coming out of Pine Bluff is always bad news.


Yes, parts of downtown Pine Bluff are falling in.


Even the Pine Bluff entry for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture has been updated to note: "Pine Bluff’s decaying downtown captured the spotlight after several buildings collapsed along the Main Street corridor, starting in 2014. On Feb. 20, 2014, the former J.C. Penney building, more than a century old, partially collapsed and had to be demolished. By March 2015, four buildings (including the former home of the Band Museum at Fifth and Main) had collapsed wholly or partially, and in July 2015, the city closed off part of Main Street out of concern that the Kahn Building might also collapse. Many buildings in the downtown area stand empty and in need of repair. One of the most prominent of these derelict buildings is the Hotel Pines on Main Street, which was among the finest hotels in Arkansas when it opened in 1913."


Then there are the crime stories.


And the stores about schools in academic distress.


And the stories about infighting on the city council.


And on and on.


There are plenty of positive things happening in Pine Bluff. You just rarely hear about them, and it’s going to take far more than a marketing campaign to change that.


The leadership of Pine Bluff has had enough.


On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the city’s leading citizens gathered in a Simmons First National Bank conference room and announced the launch of an effort to turn things around.


I’m proud to now work for Simmons, and I’m proud to be able to play a small role in this effort.


All Arkansans should be rooting for Pine Bluff. As I explained when I spoke at lunch Tuesday in North Little Rock to the staff of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Pine Bluff is the most important city in southeast Arkansas, the regional center of that quadrant of our state. As goes Pine Bluff, so goes southeast Arkansas.


"I was born in Pine Bluff 59 years ago at Davis Hospital, which was located on what’s now a vacant lot," said George Makris, the Simmons chairman and CEO. "At that time, the area around the hospital was a vibrant hub of Pine Bluff. Things change. … After years of ignoring change, Pine Bluff must recognize the changes that have occurred and begin to manage them for the future of the city and its citizens.


"Simmons is the only publicly traded company with its headquarters in Pine Bluff. Simmons was founded here in 1903. We’re proud of our historical partnership with Pine Bluff. We think it has served both entities well. We’ve been lucky during the past few years to grow our company. We now have more than 2,000 associates in four states, and we expect that growth to continue. Pine Bluff will have to compete for jobs we create, not only with the cities in Arkansas where we have a presence, but with other dynamic cities like Nashville, Knoxville, Springfield, Wichita, St. Louis and Kansas City.


Makris is nothing if not a realist.


"We have a lot to overcome," he said. "We have three school districts within the city of Pine Bluff. Only one has a permanent superintendent, and all three struggle financially and academically. We must address public education in Pine Bluff, including consolidation of the three Pine Bluff districts.


"Many businesses have relocated, leaving vast unoccupied areas, including much of downtown. We must redefine many areas in Pine Bluff, some of which may necessitate demolition to repurpose the area. The good news is that areas surrounding Pine Bluff have done well so the region is stable. But Pine Bluff is the center of commerce. Pine Bluff has excellent infrastructure, which we cannot take advantage of without addressing these other issues.


"Tough decisions will be required. Elected officials will need to be committed and willing to stay on course as they allocate resources. There will be pain before gain. We can do it. The question is will we do it. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m hopeful that a great plan will be developed and that we as a community will have the discipline to implement the plan."


Consolidating school districts.


Tearing down buildings.


Makris is addressing the tough issues that have been ignored for too long.


The Go Forward Pine Bluff effort is being funded by the bank through a donation to the Simmons First Foundation.


The year 2016 will be used to come up with recommendations. The Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, led by Jim Youngquist, will assist with that process.


The recommendations hopefully will be implemented in 2017-18.


"It’s time for a comprehensive strategic plan that will guide this city into the next decade," said Mary Pringos, the chairman of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force and a member of the Simmons First Foundation board. "For the plan to be successful, all sectors of the community must be involved in the planning process."


Tommy May, the Arkansas icon who long was the Simmons Bank chairman and now heads the Simmons First Foundation, said the planning group will measure its success in four ways.


"The first will be our ability to recruit a fully inclusive planning team that has the capacity and the desire to spend many hours during the next 12 months making recommendations that likely will result in significant change," he said. "Second will be our ability to embrace the successes that came from the 20/20 effort and then focus our full attention on the difficult tasks that must be done to attract and retain jobs and families in Pine Bluff. Third will be our ability to pass the torch from the planning group to the appropriate organizations that will implement the plan in 2017 and 2018. Finally will be our ability to identify resources that will fund the execution of the plan."


In a story for Talk Business & Politics on the Go Forward Pine Bluff effort, Wesley Brown described Pine Bluff as "the former jewel of south Arkansas."


Now, a large number of Pine Bluff residents have stepped forward to polish that jewel.


As Makris noted, there’s infrastructure in place.


There’s Interstate 530, which recently has undergone millions of dollars of improvements between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.


There’s the Port of Pine Bluff and an adjoining industrial district.


There still are major railroad operations in the city.


There are two institutions of higher education, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College.


There’s a strong manufacturing base.


Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth has made code enforcement a priority. "Once this 400 block is cleaned up, we’re going to have a fantastic area for somebody to come in and buy and be able to start revitalizing our downtown area," she said. "But you had to get it started, and that was the toughest part."


Well, it’s now serious and organized.


An entire state will watch to see if Pine Bluff’s government, civic and business leaders can put aside personal interests and pull together to turn around an important Arkansas city.


— Rex Nelson is corporate communications director for Simmons First National Corp.