Cycles of community development

As Pine Bluff continues down its path of reinvention we mindfully watch for little indicators of progress. Typical of these touchstones is the recent installation of black metal double loop bicycle racks at Barraque Plaza. While the availability of a few bike racks is hardly a signal achievement, it represents the first step toward making our community a nicer place in which to live. It also highlights the need for additional development.

In several recent reports The Commercial has detailed city plans to improve the downtown area through a new streetscape master plan. We see the bike racks as part and parcel of the same concept. Moreover, we believe the bike racks hint at a resource we should develop.

Earlier this year, Bicycling Magazine featured Little Rock as one of its more “bicycle friendly” American cities. Part of that recognition was due to the mammoth, Arkansas River Trail. The trail takes users across the entire Little Rock-North Little Rock metropolitan area, connects 38 parks, six museums and more than 5,000 acres of federal, state and local parkland. The American Automobile Association Southern Traveler magazine selected the Arkansas River Trail as the “Best Bike Trail in the South” in the July/August 2011 edition.

When the Arkansas River Trail was begun, it didn’t look like much, but now it attracts thousands of hikers, cyclists, skaters, joggers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts from all over the country. As promotional materials for the trail attest, it offers recreational opportunities for people of all ages, fitness levels, interests and health conditions.

This then begs the question: Why not us? Pine Bluff used to be a much more bicycle-friendly city. The remnants of bike lanes along Poplar and Linden Streets confirm it. Sadly, when these lanes are used now, often as not, they become illegal passing lanes.

Fortunately, we have begun our own recreational trail odyssey with the early stages of the Saracen Trail, but we need a grander vision. That trail needs to link with whatever is to become of downtown. It needs to expand into the northside area of town, beckoning use by the university community. It needs to reconnect those disused bike lanes on Poplar and Linden — making a safe pathway for the large number of Pine Bluff residence who do use bicycles for transportation.

As the people in the Little Rock metro area have discovered, this kind of development can serve as a catalyst for a lot of related economic growth. Several shops selling bicycles, running shoes and related gear have sprung up to meet the escalating demand. So too have cycling groups, running clubs and other outdoor-related organizations. A town that previously supported only one or two such shops now boasts several.

So much of this development could be circumscribed with the “Field of Dreams” metaphor: If we build it, they will come. Given that a vibrant outdoor community exists less than an hour north of us, it is reasonable to believe we could attract many of those folks — who by definition want to explore.

Furthermore, the epidemic of obesity and diseases related to sedentary lifestyles that blankets Jefferson County could be mitigated if there were convenient, inexpensive and inviting resources such as described above.

In short, we need to think beyond what we see. As Hebrews 11:1 instructs, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

We need to have faith in our own ability to become better. We need to put that faith into action.