Soon after I was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Delta Regional Authority in 2005, I was invited to speak at the annual chamber of commerce banquet in a tiny Delta town. The DRA region includes parts of eight states. Like so many towns in the region, this one had its problems. The population had been falling for years. Most of the buildings downtown were empty. The school system was struggling. Race relations were bad.
An annual chamber banquet is supposed to be a celebration--a night to honor businesses that are doing well, volunteers who have contributed to the community and civic leaders who are making things happen. As much as I tried, I couldn't find a reason for hope in this town. I called someone who had been with the DRA for several years, knowing that he had been in similar situations. "This is designed to be a happy occasion," I said. "So what should I do when I speak?"
I'll never forget his answer: "You need to do exactly what I do. You stand behind the podium, look out at those folks, and lie."
That community wasn't Pine Bluff. It was a much smaller place. But during the four years I was at the DRA, Pine Bluff was a poster child for the problems affecting the region. Last month, I spoke at the annual banquet of the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has been around since 1911. And I didn't have to lie. For the past two years, the people of Pine Bluff have been making up for lost time. It's as if they said collectively: "Enough. We're tired of the jokes about Pine Bluff. We're tired of Main Street being closed because buildings are falling down. We're tired of the crime. We're tired of the dysfunction. We're going to do what it takes to patch up this sinking ship."
The banquet room at the Pine Bluff Country Club was filled that night. I can assure you that it wasn't because I was speaking. It was because there's much to celebrate. I believe 2018 will be the year that we see the planning efforts of the past two years come to fruition. The foundation for a turnaround has been laid. This is a city whose population fell from 57,140 in the 1990 census to 49,083 in the 2010 census. It has continued to fall since that time to about 42,000 residents. Almost a third of the remaining residents live below the poverty line with a median household income of $30,719 citywide.
Following my speech, the first person to approach me was Sissy Jones, a Pine Bluff business icon. One afternoon in 1970, Jones noticed a log cabin that was for sale as she drove down U.S. 79. She pulled into a doughnut shop across the street and called the number on the for-sale sign. Jones learned that she could rent the cabin for $50 a month as a place to sell the antiques she had been collecting. It didn't take long for people across the state to begin talking about the log cabin as a good place to buy antiques and have them appraised. Jones later changed her focus to jewelry. She took Gemological Institute of America training and became a licensed appraiser of antique jewelry. The business took off. On the day after Thanksgiving in 1991, everything was moved from the old log cabin to newer buildings. The modern structure that now houses Sissy's Log Cabin in Pine Bluff covers 12,000 square feet.
In 2010, Jones opened a store in the upscale Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. In 2012, a Sissy's Log Cabin opened in booming Jonesboro. A Memphis store was added in 2014. Jones refused to give up on Pine Bluff. She told me that she agreed with the optimism I had expressed in my speech. She wanted me to know that business had increased at the Pine Bluff location in each of the past three years. Sissy Jones' optimism matches that of other Pine Bluff business owners who decided to stick it out. They're about to be rewarded with the construction of a $14 million library and a $12 million aquatics center that will change the direction of downtown.
A city doesn't turn around solely with public-sector investments, of course. There must be substantial private-sector involvement. The most exciting news these days in Pine Bluff is that a group is trying to raise $28 million in capital to restore the Hotel Pines, create a venue for live blues music, add a brewery and put additional restaurants downtown.
These capitalists need to look no farther than Greenwood, Miss., a much smaller Delta town with a population of about 15,000. Greenwood became a regional tourist attraction after the Alluvian Hotel was opened by Viking Range Corp. in 2003. Architectural Digest wrote that "its sleekly contemporary design would be right at home in New York or San Francisco."
There were other rave reviews. Southern Living said: "What global jet-setter would believe that a hotel in Greenwood, Miss., beats out the Four Seasons in Egypt? Yet it's true." National Geographic Traveler called the Alluvian "the biggest surprise in Dixie, if not the country." The hotel, with 45 rooms and five suites, is in a building that housed the Hotel Irving from 1917 until the 1980s.
The Hotel Pines opened in 1913 and closed in 1970. Its resurrection--when combined with downtown restaurants and music venues--would change the perception of Pine Bluff and likely lead to the types of boutiques, independent bookstores and other amenities now in downtown Greenwood. There's a lot of money still to be raised, but an experienced team is in place to do just that.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 02/21/2018
Print Headline: No reason to lie