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OPINION | REX NELSON: Pine Bluff rising

by Rex Nelson | February 14, 2021 at 8:41 a.m.

It was a natural spot for a town to thrive, this place called Pine Bluff. The Arkansas River provided a transportation route connecting the interior of the state to the Mississippi River and thus to cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis.

On one side of the city were vast pine forests that could fuel a lucrative timber industry.

On the other side were lowlands filled with bottomland hardwoods. Those hardwoods were harvested, the land was drained, and the rich soil proved ideal for growing cotton.

"In the autumn of 1819, Joseph Bonne, making his way upstream from Arkansas Post, built a crude cabin for his Quapaw wife and family on a high bluff covered with pine trees on the river's south bank," Russell Bearden wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "A few years later, James Scull, also from Arkansas Post, arrived and set up an encampment on the north bank across from the future site of Pine Bluff. The encampment soon became a tavern and small inn.

"On March 3, 1819, President James Monroe named Robert Crittenden territorial secretary. Crittenden quickly set about exploiting the remaining Quapaw in southeast Arkansas to relinquish their last tracts of land."

With the Quapaw gone and steamboats beginning to ply the Arkansas River, the area began attracting settlers such as French-born Antoine Barraque, for whom a downtown Pine Bluff street is named. Jefferson County was established in 1829, and Pine Bluff became the county seat in 1832.

The railroad arrived in the 1880s, connecting Pine Bluff to Little Rock. The town grew from 460 residents in 1850 to 9,952 in 1890, making it the third-largest city in the state. The Cotton Belt located its main engine maintenance shops at Pine Bluff in 1894. The railroad was the largest industrial employer in the county until the Pine Bluff Arsenal was built during World War II.

Between the railroad operations, cotton industry, timber industry and arsenal (the arsenal alone employed almost 10,000 people during World War II), Pine Bluff boomed. The population almost tripled from 21,290 in 1940 to 57,389 in 1970.

International Paper Co. decided to locate a paper mill at Pine Bluff in 1957. By 1962, that mill employed 1,400 people.

Of the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Bearden wrote: "Construction costs were estimated at about $60 million. At the height of the war, the plant expanded from making magnesium and thermite incendiary munitions to a chemical warfare manufacturing facility as well, producing lethal gases and chemical compounds installed in artillery shells and specifically designed bombs. Fifteen civilian workers died in work-related accidents. The facility grew with its expanded mission.

"More than 900 buildings and production facilities consumed 3.3 million square feet of space, 43 miles of roads and 14 miles of track for diesel-electric locomotives pulling boxcars and flat cars of munitions. In February 1942, the arsenal also became one of the nation's storage depots for its expanding chemical stockpile munitions. These binary projectiles (lethal agents mixed after discharge of the projectile) were isolated in igloos near the northwest section of the facility."

President Richard Nixon banned the production and use of biological weapons in 1969. Part of the complex was renamed the National Center for Toxicological Research and became a branch of the federal Food & Drug Administration. On-site incineration of toxic nerve agents began in 2005 and was completed in 2010. The arsenal's mission changed to making smoke, incendiary and pyrotechnic devices.

Despite a consistent decline in population in recent decades (the city has lost about 15,000 residents since 1970), Pine Bluff continues to have a relatively strong manufacturing base due to companies such as Evergreen Packaging (in the former IP facility) and Tyson Foods.

In December, Highland Pellets announced a strategic alliance with Orion Energy Partners to fund an expansion and upgrade of its Pine Bluff plant. Orion will provide a $163 million capital investment. Highland Pellets supplies wood pellets for export. The fuel is used for renewable energy production at converted coal power plants. Wood used at the Pine Bluff facility often comes from trees that were thinned from crowded forests or from leftover sawmill materials.

In November, Good Day Farm Arkansas, a medical marijuana cultivator, received approval from the state to purchase Natural State Wellness Enterprises of Newport and move the operation to Pine Bluff. The company is constructing a 42,000-square-foot growth area. The Pine Bluff facility will employ 200 people with an annual payroll of $9.4 million. Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said the company's initial investment is $25 million for retrofitting a building in the Jefferson County Industrial Park.

At the arsenal, meanwhile, ReadyOne Industries began production in August and plans to hire 120 people. The company produces military clothing. A large portion of its workforce consists of disabled employees.

In the story I wrote for the front page of today's section, I outlined the beginnings of the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative in 2015. What no one could have foreseen at the time was that Arkansas voters in November 2018 would approve a constitutional amendment allowing the construction of casinos at Pine Bluff and Russellville along with the expansion of existing gaming operations in Hot Springs and West Memphis. It marked the return of the Quapaw to Pine Bluff.

The main casino at the Quapaw Nation's Saracen Casino Resort opened in October of last year. A nearby annex had opened in October 2019.

"When the project was proposed, many people that we have a lot of respect for said it was not going to work in Pine Bluff," said Saracen's Carlton Saffa. "And they're eating crow right now. This has been a success. We have proven the naysayers wrong."

A story last month in the Pine Bluff Commercial noted that the annex in its early days saw "people standing in line to get to a slot machine. But the grown-up casino, with slots and table games and restaurants--the one that will eventually be attached to a multistory hotel--opened amid a pandemic that has kept numbers and expectations down."

Still, Saffa said the casino has made money. There already are more than 800 people employed. That number is expected to grow to 1,000 once the hotel and conference center are constructed.

"We don't have all of the amenities yet," Saffa said. "And we're still building our brand. So our numbers are something that I'm extremely proud of."

In addition to providing 1,000 jobs, one thing the Quapaw Nation's business will do is change the perception of Pine Bluff. With a hotel and conference center, state associations will add Pine Bluff to the rotation for annual meetings.

Saracen is already putting a focus on food and beverage offerings, hiring Todd Gold away from his job as dean of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute in Little Rock. The Quapaw Nation developed its own cattle herd, buffalo herd, meat-processing facilities, coffee roastery and produce farms for its Downstream Casino in northeastern Oklahoma. Those products are now offered in Pine Bluff.

"Food is driving this just as much as gaming, and I can think of no better example than hiring Todd Gold from the culinary school," Saffa said. "If we have the best restaurant in Pine Bluff, we've failed. If we have the best restaurant in southeast Arkansas, we've failed. We need to have the best restaurant in the region."

Gold said he has hired staff with the goal of making Pine Bluff a culinary and hospitality destination. The flagship Red Oak Steakhouse features dry-aged beef displayed in glass aging racks and a wine case with more than 140 varieties.

"Our aim is for Red Oak Steakhouse to be the best restaurant in the state," Saffa said.

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

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