Spectators for inadvertent tradition

As recently reported in The Commercial, the Pine Bluff Convention Center is undergoing a few renovations. The project was announced earlier this week by Bob Purvis, director of the facility. Speaking at a meeting of the Convention Center’s finance committee, Purvis indicated that the structure’s sprinkler system had been “redone” and that a new rubber roof was being installed thanks to an insurance claim related to hail damage.

One need not be too old to remember a day when the Convention Center was a bustling hub of high-draw attractions. Hosting everyone from Elvis to Ringling Brothers, the facility drew folks from miles around.

To be sure, it still does, but any honest appraisal would concede that today’s attractions are a shadow of those which once were. Recognition of this is in no way a criticism of the management. It is merely an artifact of the times and of the town we have become.

With the construction of facilities such as the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, competition for crowds has become much stiffer. Verizon is also a much larger facility. As anyone in the booking business might attest, size and location determine nearly all else.

That said, the task before Purvis and his staff is not unlike the one before the rest of us. We all know what we used to be. We could wistfully look backward at fatter days and wish we were still there. We could look to the present, while stuck in a well of self-pity over the distant peaks of the past. Or, as Purvis and his crew seem to be doing, we could look to the future; and get the place prepared for a new era.

The economics of entertainment have changed. Both the size of the facility and the world around it dictate the need for a new approach. Moreover, simply looking backward gives us a false perspective. After all, if the good old days were all that great, how come they led us to where we are now?

As with so many of the challenges we face, we need to be informed by our history, not owned by it. Many local institutions are coming to grips with that fact. We’ve seen evidence of this from very disparate corners. Both the new leadership at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and at the Pine Bluff Police Department have given public addresses expressing this sentiment.

Just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is no longer a sufficient mission statement. To this point Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, author of The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, observes: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

In so many ways, this is the overarching task for our entire community. We have allowed ourselves to become inadvertent traditionalists. We venerate many of the dysfunctional “traditions” that brought us the ills we now combat.

To this end, we need a new communal motto. The well-known quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living…” provides a good start. We need to figure out what works, what doesn’t and like the Convention Center staff, start fixing our own sprinklers. We need to ask ourselves what Pine Bluff should become, irrespective of what we have been or are now. Once we do that, there’ll be plenty to draw new crowds.