Motoring to a better downtown

Most Pine Bluff residents would like to see our crumbling downtown made whole and useful. Instead of empty buildings and distant memories, we’d like to watch people traversing between coffee shops and art galleries. We’d like for parking downtown to become a problem — and not in the recent courthouse/election way. As is we have a lot of rubble and dust.

It needn’t be that way. Even Detroit, the poster child for urban decay and political corruption, is now enjoying a bit of a renaissance. In fact, some of what has been happening in the bourgeoning Harlem section of New York is afoot in the Motor City.

According to a recent report by Les Christie, many of Detroit’s long-tenured residents are finding they can no longer afford to live where they have historically. This displacement is a latent consequence of several well-intended financial gifts and programs.

“Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy last July, has received millions of dollars from individuals, corporations and other organizations to help save its neighborhoods. One program, called Live Downtown, has attracted as many as 15,000 new residents to the downtown area,” Christie writes.

The idea is quite creative — and proving attractive. Under the Live Downtown program, local companies, including Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield, give employees $20,000 loans that will be completely forgiven if they buy and stay in a home downtown for five years. Renters there receive $2,500 their first year and $1,000 the second.

Aspiring downtown residents bring with them money and much needed tax revenue, but there’s a dark side. They are causing housing prices to skyrocket and, as above, forcing some long-time residents out. We should have such problems.

Some of this is just endemic to regentrification, but Live Downtown’s core problems would prove no fetter were such a program available to the people of Pine Bluff. In the first instance, nobody lives in the old central business district. Yes, there are neighborhoods on the periphery, but the old businesses — many of which would be prime candidates for mixed adaptive reuse — stand vacant.

There is of course the considerable bull elephant in the room: Why would anyone want to live downtown, even if rent was cheap?

The answer is complex. First, we would need a few intrepid explorers to demonstrate the viability of it, but soon after they took root a snowball effect would occur. People need groceries, clothes and other things. They also want convenience. The new residents would beget opportunity for merchants. All one need do is look at the ballooning population of once-blighted downtown Little Rock to see this self-reinforcing cycle in action.

Sadly, this opportunity comes with an expiration date. Soon the now-vacant buildings will be unsalvageable. They’ll fall or be taken down. If they’re replaced it will be by some modern structure with a tenth the character and originality that we have right now.

As former President George H. W. Bush once said, it’s “that vision thing.” While some folks have trumpeted this cause, most of the folks with the capital to make this happen haven’t moved off zero. They either lack the vision or have given up.

We have all of the investors, all of the talent and all of the people we need right here. What we appear to lack is the wherewithal to capitalize on it. Until that changes, we’ll continue to watch dismal places like Detroit extricate themselves, while we continue to crumble.