REX NELSON: Lessons from Pine Bluff

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

There are just three people in the office, which is part of the Simmons Bank complex in downtown Pine Bluff. Still, it's a beehive of activity on this Thursday afternoon. Ryan Watley is the chief executive officer of Go Forward Pine Bluff. Lee Cockrum serves as office manager, and Mildred Franco directs an innovation hub. They're working feverishly to coordinate various efforts that, if successful, could change the trajectory of Arkansas' most maligned city. Should it occur, the rebirth of this historic city will be one of the biggest stories in Arkansas during the next decade.

I've written a lot about Pine Bluff lately. As a student of Arkansas history, I'm fascinated by the steep decline from its one-time position as the regional center for southeast Arkansas. It was a prosperous, progressive city. I'm equally fascinated now by a convergence of circumstances that could lead to a reversal of fortunes. These include the willingness of voters to invest in the city, the rapid growth of Pine Bluff-based Simmons Bank into a regional banking powerhouse, a renewed interest by young people in staying in the city and the emergence of several outside investors who see growth opportunities.

In the evolving Pine Bluff story, there's a lesson for other places across the state, especially towns in south and east Arkansas that long have been losing population. The message from a city that had been written off by most of the state's business and government leaders is this: It's never too late to turn things around.

The business cards for Watley, Cockrum and Franco contain the same mission statement: "The mission of Go Forward Pine Bluff is to increase the revenues of city government, enabling it to provide the level of services expected by our citizens." The way to do this is by halting the population loss while transforming Pine Bluff into a city that attracts people from throughout the region for shopping, medical visits, dining, entertainment and sports events. There was a time when Pine Bluff was the go-to spot for concerts and sports events. Barton Coliseum in Little Rock wasn't aging gracefully, and the Pine Bluff Convention Center was relatively new in those days, which now seem so long ago.

Watley talks about current projects such as the $4.3 million the Arkansas Department of Transportation is spending to rehabilitate four miles of the Martha Mitchell Expressway, which takes motorists from Interstate 530 into downtown Pine Bluff. He says there are plans for extensive landscaping along the route along with a sculpture park downtown. The sculpture park will be adjacent to a new library.

"We want to make the entrance to downtown and downtown itself again the focal point of the region," Watley says. "We must find ways to increase the amount of traffic down here. Next year is going to be a big year for Pine Bluff. You're going to see things that have been in the planning stages for years finally begin to come to fruition. The time for planning is over. It's now time to begin executing. There will be no excuses. People realized during the planning process last year that this was our last chance to turn things around. I saw people from all walks of life come together to be a part of that process. We shared the same sentiments. We knew it was our opportunity to do something. During those meetings, you got the feeling that things were about to happen."

Pine Bluff voters in June approved a 5/8-cent sales tax increase to help fund the proposals that came out of the year-long Go Forward Pine Bluff Planning process. The process was funded by the Simmons First Foundation. Tax collections began Oct. 1, and money will be available beginning Jan. 1. The tax is expected to generate almost $32 million during the seven years it's in place. Go Forward Pine Bluff officials are trying to raise an additional $20 million through grants and donations.

Watley graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2009 with a degree in chemistry. He played wide receiver for the Golden Lion football team and finished his career in the top 20 in school history for receptions despite missing significant playing time due to injuries. Watley went on to receive a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. He returned to UAPB as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics and also as a fundraiser for the school's athletic department. Watley wasn't looking to leave that academic setting, but Tommy May came calling. May, who heads the Simmons First Foundation, is a man who makes it hard to say "no."

May, a former Simmons Bank chairman, is known as the Iron Man of Arkansas for his courageous battle against ALS. I've attended numerous lectures at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock through the years, but the most memorable one came in March 2012 when May addressed a standing-room-only crowd. Bankers in expensive suits sat by retirees in casual clothes. The thing they all had in common was the respect they had for May. They gave him a standing ovation when his wheelchair was rolled to the podium at the start of the address, and they gave him another standing ovation 45 minutes later following a speech titled "A Journey with Many Crossroads." May's most daunting crossroad came in September 2005 when he noticed his running had slowed and his feet felt heavy. Following months of tests, he was diagnosed with ALS.

Legendary banker Louis Ramsey had convinced May in 1987 to leave his banking job in El Dorado and come to Pine Bluff. When May moved to Simmons, it had asserts of $527 million. Its assets are now more than $14 billion. May stepped down at the bank in early 2014 and moved to the foundation, where he began searching for ways to revitalize Pine Bluff. It may be the most important project in a life filled with accomplishments. Now May and Watley--one older and white, the other young and black--seek to put the pieces together while sending a message to the rest of the state that it's never too late.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 10/29/2017