With the dangerous collapse of a second aging building along Main Street, Pine Bluff has arrived at a critical juncture. Either our municipal leaders step up to the plate and do what needs be done; or we steel ourselves for worse to come.
To this point we have been lucky. When these dilapidated structures crumbled, no one was hurt. Only prideful fools would hope for such fortune to extend indefinitely.
The present situation downtown is a result of several bad things coming to confluence along one sad old stretch of road. In what was once a thriving hub of commerce, we now have rows of structurally unsound, often vacant buildings just waiting for their turn to fall.
As a community we should be ashamed that it has come to this. We should be ashamed because we did not do the things necessary to prevent it. We should be ashamed that we did not elect leaders with enough vision and wisdom to do it in our stead.
For decades there’s been a popular mantra about bringing back downtown. Fueled more by romanticism than real dollars, this is a noble sentiment and one that should not be abandoned. While we still have the historic facades to sustain the idea, we should act.
We should also know that it won’t be what it once was. That’s fine. In fact, that’s preferable.
A modern downtown should be a symbol of inclusivity, progress and social evolution. Those buildings that are still viable should be repurposed — adaptive reuse, as preservationists term it — into a combination of retail, office and residential spaces.
Those that need to be razed, should be razed, but with a caveat — anything to be built anew in downtown should be subject to strict stylistic guidelines so as to preserve the character of the area.
Many people won’t like that restriction, but such laws are necessary to keep downtown from looking like so many other indistinct communities found along any interstate. The distinctiveness is exactly why downtown is worth saving. That distinctiveness will not be preserved without regulation.
There’s also need for another kind of regulation. As evidenced by the thousands of abandoned, neglected and decrepit structures all over this community, we have no discernable program of inspections or standards of keeping. Property owners are largely allowed to live by their own rules with little fear of governmental sanction.
They have no fear because they know there will be no consequences. There are no consequences because our municipal government lacks the backbone to assign them.
Worried more about the next election than the next collapse, our leaders permit this laissez faire environment to eat away at the very fiber of our community.
To be sure, meaningful public policy — policy with real teeth — will offend some and cost others money. It will mean changing the way we do things and the way we think about our community.
If we are to have a community in the future, hard changes will be necessary. Of course we don’t have to have a downtown. We can let it fall back to Earth. Life would go on, but in making that choice we will sacrifice one of the things that makes Pine Bluff unique and worth embracing.