Some might say that downtown Pine Bluff has seen its better days, while others might argue that the best is still ahead. Whichever side one aligns with, probably few – if any – would disagree that the district is sorely in need of revival.
Incumbent Carl A. Redus Jr., speaking at Tuesday night’s University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Student Government Association Mayoral Forum, said he believes a downtown renaissance is already under way.
Referencing UAPB’s Small Business Incubator as a major building block, Redus said recent grants have helped in funding eight new downtown businesses. Also, eight district properties have been sold during the past 90 days, he said.
The mayor said he’s hoping that the police department’s patrol division will soon be working out of a Main Street location. Meanwhile, he indicated excitement in relating that the city is pursuing a $10-million infrastructure grant that, if approved, could help generate “remarkable” improvements, by his estimation.
But John James Jr. took strong issue with the mayor’s notions, saying, “If we don’t stop the bleeding population, there will be no downtown.”
The city’s population dropped to below 50,000 during Redus’ eight-year administration. James said businesses won’t come to a shrinking city “where there is no market.”
James said downtown’s renovation will have to follow “other developments” already in progress under Redus’ watch, and told the audience that anyone “who tells you differently is lying to your face.”
Debe Hollingsworth said the district is still alive, adding that she knows of an investment firm that is “ready,” contingent on gathering some financial backers, to restore Main Street’s old Hotel Pines and transform it into an apartment complex.
Hollingsworth said downtown Pine Bluff could easily be compared to downtown Meridian, Miss., which she said has recently experienced a dramatic resurgence.
Tim Whisenhunt said he thinks the city should spotlight downtown’s historical significance. He said that if elected, he would actively seek restoration grants to help capture the district’s past character “before it’s gone.”
Clarence Davis said a key to attracting more businesses to the district is to “make sure prices are right” on rental properties. He said high rental or lease fees may have prompted potential downtown business owners and/or operators to have looked elsewhere or simply abandon their quests.
Alderwoman Thelma Walker said a renovation precursor should be the application of an old-fashioned scrubbing to give the district as much of a spic-and-span appearance as possible.
“First, we have to clean up what’s been messed up,” Walker said.
Afterward, she said the creation of a progressive partnership between the city and downtown property owners would be beneficial. But she said the real thrust of the district’s initial rally would be strict code enforcement by the city as a means of “making the building owners take responsibility for their properties.”
Peter F. Daniels Jr. said the district is the city’s “most glaring example” of Pine Bluff’s failure to remain current. Daniels said downtown won’t truly enjoy a renewal until citizens again “feel safe” in the area.
In response to a question on what the candidates might do as mayor to help generate high-paying jobs of $60,000 a year or more for UAPB graduates, the hopefuls didn’t offer any easy fixings.
“Become an entrepreneur,” said, who reminded students in attendance that companies typically “don’t come here” to pay big money, but rather to make big money. Davis said he started and is operating his own business and would be happy to help others do the same.
Walker said it’s not necessary to make $100,000 to live well in Pine Bluff.
Whisenhunt said UAPB — as the city’s “brain trust” — might look at generating its own high-paying positions with future developments. Kent Broughton struck a similar chord, saying that UAPB brings in skilled students who can help the city benefit from access to the institution’s “research and resources.”
Asked about improvements to the university area, Redus said he sees himself as a pacesetter because he’s the first Pine Bluff mayor to have “even looked” at north Pine Bluff.
“I’m from north Pine Bluff,” he said.
He cited a number of University Drive enhancements that he said have been supported by the city under his leadership.
Alderman Steven Mays agreed that a number of improvements have occurred. He said he wants to continue those efforts and said he intends to take steps to increase tourism at UAPB and thereby increase vehicular and pedestrian traffic around the campus.
The SGA will host a similar forum for contested city council candidates at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2.