The 105-year-old Hotel Pines in downtown Pine Bluff is being prepared for a new role in the city’s history, but it will be a while before obvious signs of change are visible.
At a meeting of the Active and Retired Federal Employees Association Monday, Caleb McMahon and Stuart Hee, two of the three directors of Pine Bluff Rising, discussed the hotel, which the group purchased from the previous owner for $1.
McMahon, who is also the director of economic development for the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, said he was approached about the project by Tom Reilley, who established Highland Pellets and is the third director of Pine Bluff Rising. Reilley was looking for ways to improve economic development and focus on some of the problems downtown, and the group settled on the hotel as their first venture.
Pine Bluff Rising is a non-profit organization designed to “realize a better future for the City of Pine Bluff,” according to the group.
McMahon said when the hotel was purchased, it was really a liability with water in the basement, which had weakened the integrity of some of the support beams. The water was pumped out and shoring poles and wooden structures were put in place to support the weight of the building.
When the hotel was opened, it had 110 rooms, but McMahon and Hee said that the current plan call for 84 rooms. The goal is to “put it (the hotel) back the way it was” in the main spaces, such as the lobby, the coffee shop and restaurant, in order to qualify for historic tax credits.
The building has now been leased to Catalytic PB, of which Hee is a director and works with East Harding Construction Co. East Harding has done the work on the inside of the building to shore it up, as well as with engineers, architects and others.
Hee said his connection with Reilley goes back about 20 years and said he became involved after Reilley talked with him about the challenges Pine Bluff is facing in an effort to improve the economy of the city.
“I was curious and when I heard (Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington’s) platform ‘One Pine Bluff Stronger Together,’ I felt compelled to come down and help,” Hee said.
Hee went on to say that in order to restore the 84 rooms of the hotel to their original state, although with modern conveniences like air conditioning, it will require input from the community. The group is seeking stories, photos and the like from people who were there, or who knew people who worked or frequented the hotel.
“We’re working with the Jefferson County Historical Society and working with the (Pine Bluff/Jefferson County) library looking for stories about Pine Bluff,” Hee said. “One of Pine Bluff’s greatest assets is its rich history and as we go forward, we want to infuse that. Eighty-four rooms gives us 84 opportunities to tell stories about Pine Bluff.”
“It’s going to be part hotel, part museum and part community center,” Hee said. “We want you to have your meetings there.”
Asked about the issue of parking when the hotel is opened, Hee said they have strategies in their minds, but if parking becomes an issue for downtown Pine Bluff, “that would be a wonderful problem.”
In addition to the Hotel Pines, Pine Bluff Rising also owns property on West Barraque Street that is currently being developed, and Hee said that it’s important to be supportive of all the owners of stores in the downtown area, singling out Ms. Margaret’s Cupcakes, the Indigo Blue Coffeehouse and Wil Jenkins, who owns several properties.
“Those are the pioneers,” Hee said. “They risked almost everything to be there.”
Going further, Hee said that to be successful, an area needs three things: something to do, something to eat and someplace to stay. He said the downtown area could offer all of those opportunities.
“We hear people say there are not a lot of things here but there are not a lot of things here yet,” Hee said. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of steps to get those things here.”
Hee said that it will be two years before construction is complete, and developers are currently in the design stage of the project. For example, they are working out how to incorporate the commercial spaces, offices, restaurants and the like into the first two floors of the building.
Explaining the fences around the property, Hee said that was done to protect the sidewalks, which are hollow and cover part of the basement of the hotel. In its early days, that hollow sidewalk permitted drive-thru banking as a booth would rise from the basement each weekday with a bank employee inside and accept deposits, and cash checks during business hours.
When the bank closed, the booth would be lowered back into the basement, and Hee said that booth is still in existence. A metal plate on the Fifth Avenue side covers the space now.
Finally, Hee had words for others who own property in the area, saying that most of the remaining buildings were “built really well. They were built to last 100 years and they did but the buildings that were lost were mainly due to water getting in.”