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Someone posted a photo on social media last week of a fancy scoreboard going up inside the Pine Bluff Convention Center, and the memories came flooding back.

I'm old enough to remember when the convention center was the "shiny new object" among Arkansas arenas. At the time, all Little Rock could offer was aging, dimly lit, often smelly Barton Coliseum. Some of the best concerts and sports events were in Pine Bluff, something my sons have a difficult time comprehending when I tell them stories about road trips there.

I was among the lucky Arkansans in attendance on that Sunday afternoon in February 1984 when Charles Balentine hit the shot that propelled the University of Arkansas basketball team to a 65-64 victory over the previously undefeated Tar Heels from the University of North Carolina. It was the Razorbacks' first win over a No. 1 team in basketball, and that Tar Heel squad had a player named Michael Jordan. The game was on NBC with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire on the call.

Two years earlier, Pine Bluff banker Travis Creed had come up with the idea of a high school basketball tournament that would draw top teams from across the country. The tournament continued until 1999, was televised for several years by ESPN and was described by The New York Times as the most prestigious tournament of its type in the country.

The first high school basketball game aired on national television was from the 7,500-seat arena at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Dec. 28, 1987. Local businesses and a Pine Bluff civic group known as Fifty for the Future donated money for the first tournament. By 1989, there were 112 corporate sponsors.

Back then, the only similar tournaments were in Las Vegas and on the South Carolina coast. The King Cotton Classic was the first to pay teams' expenses. There were eight teams the first year. The tournament later expanded to 12 teams. The King Cotton Classic hosted more than 175 teams during its run with almost 30 future NBA players coming to Pine Bluff.

In 1991, an overflow crowd of 7,600 people showed up to see the Russellville High School team led by Corliss Williamson take on a California team led by Jason Kidd. Russellville won by a point when Williamson blocked Kidd's final shot.

"The fire marshal wouldn't let anyone else in," Creed said.

Williamson was named the tournament's most valuable player but gave his medal to Kidd at the podium.

As the Pine Bluff Convention Center declined as a facility--and as Pine Bluff declined as a city--the tournament was discontinued. Now there's an organized effort to bring Pine Bluff back. In September, it was announced that the King Cotton Classic also is coming back.

The tournament will be held Dec. 27-29. Plans were unveiled for new scoreboards, renovated floors, expanded dressing rooms, brighter lights, improved restrooms and concession stands, and fresh coats of paint at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. More than $500,000 is being spent on those improvements.

Crime rates are still too high in Pine Bluff, and the public schools are a mess. But symbolism is important in our media-driven society, and the return of the King Cotton Classic sends a message to the rest of the state that business and civic leaders in Pine Bluff are serious about a renaissance.

"King Cotton is the best example of what I know can happen in a community when everybody gets on the same page," Creed said. "All of the leaders of the community get together and say we're going to make this work. We didn't hear no. Everybody wanted to help. . . . King Cotton is right where Pine Bluff needs to be in the future. We all need to get on the same page."

Simmons Bank, which continues to invest heavily in its home city, is the title sponsor of the tournament. King Cotton's rebirth comes at a time when big things are starting to happen downtown. An aquatics center is being built, a downtown library is being constructed and a group of private investors are trying to raise funds for the renovation of the Hotel Pines.

The aquatics center is funded by the so-called Penny for Progress sales tax that Pine Bluff voters approved in 2011. In November 2016, voters approved a property tax increase to raise $14 million for a new library in downtown Pine Bluff and the renovation of existing libraries elsewhere in Jefferson County. In the summer of 2017, Pine Bluff voters approved a five-eighth-cent sales tax to fund Go Forward Pine Bluff initiatives in the areas of quality of life, economic development, education and infrastructure.

Despite the negative publicity from crime and failing public schools, Pine Bluff voters consistently have chosen to invest in the city in recent years. Those efforts are now bearing fruit. Voter approval last month of a casino that likely will cost more than $100 million should spur additional economic development.

It was announced last week that a streetscape improvement project downtown has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Arkansas Department of Transportation's Transportation Alternatives Program and Recreational Trails Program. The project will include extensive landscaping, new water lines and better sidewalks. The Penny for Progress tax provided an additional $2 million for the streetscape effort, $1.35 million came from the Delta Regional Authority and an earlier $1 million came from the Transportation Department. The program should vastly improve the looks of downtown and help investors raise the money needed to restore the Hotel Pines.

"We still have outstanding people here," said Ryan Watley, chief executive officer of Go Forward Pine Bluff. "We still have the capacity to be great."

Earlier this year, I was the speaker at the annual banquet of the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce. I noted that there must be a serious sustained effort to improve public education while lowering crime rates in the city. But quality of life also must be a part of the equation if Pine Bluff is to stop the population drain. In the 1990 census, Pine Bluff had 57,140 residents. The Census Bureau estimates that the city's population had fallen to 43,841 by 2016.

I suggested that the quality-of-life campaign focus on four areas for now--a relentless effort to bring back downtown, a series of signature events that will entice people from other parts of the state to visit Pine Bluff again, a campaign to capitalize on the city's colorful history and a long-term initiative to beautify Pine Bluff by picking up trash, restoring empty homes and adding gardens throughout the city. The return of the King Cotton Classic is a good start.


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

Editorial on 12/02/2018

Print Headline: REX NELSON: King Cotton returns

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