By Ryan Nix / Photography by Jamison Mosley
Pine Bluff, one of the oldest cities in Arkansas, is making strides into the future. After a few decades of gradual decline, Pine Bluff now is home to a progressive municipal government, dynamic economic planning and the largest construction project in Arkansas.
While Pine Bluff was officially incorporated in 1839, that spot along the Arkansas River has been inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans. By the time European settlers reached the area that would become Jefferson County, it had been home to the Quapaw tribe for a few hundred years. They would remain in the area until being forcibly removed in 1834.
Pine Bluff began life as an upstream offshoot of Arkansas Post, the first European settlement in Arkansas and first capital of the Arkansas Territory, and accordingly was the state’s first port on the Arkansas River’s western shores.
The city’s access to vital river transport and status as a large cotton producer led to its golden era in the 1880s, according to James Leslie, author of a pictorial history of Pine Bluff. These economic forces attracted other industries and institutions to the city, fostering explosive growth.
Despite becoming the state’s third-largest city and housing profitable agriculture and lumber operations accessible to river and rail commerce, Pine Bluff began to experience bumps in the road. Not only was the entirety of Jefferson County flooded by the Mississippi in 1927, a huge drought a few years later compounded the disastrous effects of the Great Depression. But the start of World War II marked a boom period for Pine Bluff as the federal government became the county’s largest employer, opening the Grider Field airport and the Pine Bluff Arsenal, a chemical weapons plant.
This industrial injection gave Pine Bluff a diverse economy, drawing in other manufacturers and small businesses. The city enjoyed a few decades of prosperity and became something of a hotbed of civil rights activism, but around 1980 the wheels fell off. People began moving away from Pine Bluff, unemployment and crime rates increased exponentially, and the city’s infrastructure began crumbling. For the past 20 years, most of the news about Pine Bluff seems to focus on the city’s disproportionate crime rate, contributing to a poor reputation across the state.
This is not entirely undeserved, as the violent crime rate in Pine Bluff is four times higher than the national average, but many locals believe the city’s dangerous reputation is overblown. “Frankly, there’s this perception that Pine Bluff is this scary, crime-ridden place, but in every large and older metropolitan area, there are certain parts of town that are more dangerous,” says Allison Thompson, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County. “That’s not unique to Pine Bluff. I will say that I work late and I’ve never felt unsafe or uncomfortable at night.”
Despite the city’s decay over the past few decades, unlike many similar towns there isn’t one specific event, like a factory closure or natural disaster that one can point to as the primary cause for the city’s decline. This may be one of the reasons Pine Bluff residents and community leaders have refused to give up on their town and been working tirelessly to turn things around.
Uplift Through Education
One of the oldest institutions that has been working for more than a century to promote achievement in and around Pine Bluff is the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Originally established in 1875 as Branch Normal College for the education of African American students, UAPB is the second-oldest educational institution in Arkansas.
“UAPB is one of two state land-grant institutions in Arkansas, the other being the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville,” says UAPB Chancellor Laurence Alexander. “That’s not just a sense of history and a source of pride, our university has historically been instrumental in uplifting our students and community.”
Despite its designation as a historically black university, UAPB has become an educational destination for people of all backgrounds. In pursuit of this goal, the university’s administration follows a philosophy of accessibility. As demonstration of that commitment, UAPB offers the lowest net price of any 4-year institution in Arkansas accounting for tuition, fees and scholarships. “We’ve really made an effort to keep tuition low and increase our generosity with scholarships. UAPB needs to be a place that is accessible, regardless of your economic background,” says Alexander.
Further cementing its status as a community builder, UAPB recently began A2B, a collaborative partnership with Pine Bluff’s community college, Southeast Arkansas College (SEARK). Under A2B, students who apply at UAPB have the option to pursue an associate’s degree at SEARK, then transition into a bachelor’s program at UAPB. “For many students, this is the best possible pathway to success,” says Steven Bloomberg, president of SEARK. “A2B creates a wonderful new tradition that we share with our partners at UAPB.”
In addition to partnering with SEARK, UAPB administration is taking direct steps to promote graduate retention and help address Pine Bluff’s population decline. “We received a $200,000 grant last year that allowed us to place our students into paid internships with local companies,” says Alexander. Those internships may prove invaluable with keeping UAPB graduates in Pine Bluff, the first step toward a quality career with a local employer, officials hope.
“It’s about getting their foot in the door and building the beginning of the kind of professional relationships that will make our students want to stay after they graduate,” says Alexander.
Alexander is optimistic about the intertwined futures of UAPB and Pine Bluff. “We are currently writing the story of student success here at UAPB. In just the past few years, we’ve seen our four-year graduation rate grow from 6.5 percent to 25percent. that’s an incredible increase,” says Alexander. “There are some truly magnificent things happening not only at UAPB, but around the community. There is boundless opportunity here for UAPB to not just be the intellectual hub of southeast Arkansas, but to become an economic driver for the city of Pine Bluff.”
Pine Bluff Productivity
One group specifically focused on driving Pine Bluff’s economy to the next level is the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County. Since 1994, the Alliance has operated as an umbrella corporation for all of Jefferson County’s various economic entities.
“The Alliance was created to unify our development efforts,” Thompson says. “To make things more efficient, the Alliance was created to staff multiple entities and efforts, including the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce and Port Authority.”
Thompson describes herself and the Alliance’s staff as the “worker bees” of Jefferson County’s economy. “We interact with government entities, we request the tax board for incentives, we work with site selectors for corporations to bring in new businesses,” says Thompson, who is a recent transplant from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Despite Pine Bluff’s decades-long population stagnation, Thompson is strongly optimistic about the city’s economic outlook. She credits much of the city’s recent economic upturn to Pine Bluff’s environment, both literally and in a business sense.
“We have the port, we just received a grant to upgrade our airport’s taxiways and we’re a crossroads for both highways and railroads,” says Thompson. “Pine Bluff’s location has great transportation access and is strongly pro-business, so we’ve got everything necessary for growth.”
Pine Bluff also is close enough for residents to easily access Little Rock’s large metropolitan area, but not so close that they lose an excessive amount of workers to capital commutes.
However, Thompson does see a need for improvement in one area: economic diversification. “Overall, our goal is to grow the economy in multiple sectors. We want to add more primary jobs, industries that bring new money into the community from outside,” she says.
Thompson wants to see more diversification of Jefferson County’s economy, building on an already-established range of industrial sectors. “We are focusing on manufacturing and warehousing, but we don’t want to focus on a single, specific industry, considering the breadth of the economic options around Jefferson County, even outside of Pine Bluff.”
She isn’t exaggerating. Jefferson County hosts an impressively diverse array of economic sectors. In the northern part of Jefferson County, the Pine Bluff Arsenal employs more than 820 locals in making incendiary and pyrotechnic devices. Nearby, you’ll find the only U.S. Food & Drug Administration center located outside of Washington D.C., the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). The 1 million-square foot facility houses NCTR scientists and researchers working to promote and protect individual and public health.
Further south is Tyson Foods, Evergreen Packaging’s paperboard mill and Central Moloney Inc., whose respective poultry processing plant, paper mill and transformer factory collectively employ 3,100 Jefferson County residents. There’s a $3.5 million gas-to-liquids plant in the works, an undertaking by the Energy Security Partners of Little Rock planned for construction just north of Pine Bluff. The plant will convert natural gas into clean-burning diesel and will be the first facility of its kind in the U.S. Indeed, Thompson doesn’t exaggerate the diverse industry in Jefferson County. But the one project Pine Bluff residents can’t seem to stop talking about, currently under construction within the city limits: The Saracen Casino Resort.
Rolling the Dice
It may come as some surprise that the largest construction project in Arkansas is underway in Pine Bluff. The Saracen Casino Resort is the culmination of years of work by the Quapaw Tribe’s Downstream Development Authority, work that began with the passing of the Arkansas Constitution’s 100th amendment.
Preceded by five failed attempts to amend the state constitution to allow casino gambling, Amendment 100 legalized “any game played with cards, dice, equipment, or any mechanical, electromechanical, or electronic device or machine for money, property, checks, credit, or any representative value, as well as accepting wagers on sporting events.” It also directed the Arkansas State Racing Commission to issue four new licenses to casinos located in Garland, Crittenden, Jefferson and Pope counties. Two of the licenses were immediately dispensed to existing organizations, Southland Racing Corp. in West Memphis and Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
That left the other two gaming licenses theoretically up for grabs. Considering that the Quapaws contributed $3.65 million to promote the amendment and had been planning their entry into the Arkansas market for at least five years, their winning the Jefferson County bid came as no surprise.
The Saracen Casino development is something of a homecoming for the Quapaw, according to Downstream Chairman John Berrey. “The Quapaw lived around Pine Bluff for several hundred years before the Europeans came to America,” Berrey says.
The resort is named for a Quapaw chief and Jefferson County cultural figure, Saracen, who is buried in Pine Bluff. “For years we’ve had a relationship with that area due to our cultural history. It seemed like a great fit, since it was part of our homeland,” says Berrey.
Upon completion, the Saracen Casino Resort will create 1,100 jobs for Jefferson County residents and hundreds of thousands in tax revenue for Pine Bluff. The facility will be appropriately gargantuan.
“The gaming floor alone will be 80,000 square feet, not accounting for the 14-story hotel and restaurants,” says Carlton Saffa, the development’s project manager. To put that in perspective, a football field is 57,760 square feet. There will be nearly two acres of gaming space in the Saracen Casino.
While the Saracen Resort is slated to open in June of this year, Downstream has already opened the Saracen Annex across the street as a proof of concept.
“Opening the annex allowed us to immediately employ 303 people, 75 percent of which are female, 75 percent are people of color and 90 percent live in Jefferson County,” Saffa notes. “We’re giving many of our employees their first chance at starting a 401k, and we’re seeing opt-in rates of 70 to 80 percent. A lot of people in Pine Bluff haven’t had a job before that provided these kinds of benefits.”
The Saracen Annex has been running around the clock since October; its 300 slot machines have created more than $50,000 in tax revenue to Jefferson County and accounts for a six-figure monthly infusion into Pine Bluff. In fact, according to the Arkansas Racing Commission’s most-recent report on casino gaming, the Saracen Annex has already contributed more than $1.7 million dollars in tax revenue since September 2019.
Downstream isn’t just in the business of economic development. The Quapaws also see themselves as community builders, according to Saffa.
“Tribal gaming was a tool that gave tribes a path to self-sufficiency. For a tribal casino, the profits derived from the facility mostly go back to building the community, building housing for tribal elders, food and other housing programs,” he says. “The money isn’t sucked back into a dividend for a shareholder, it goes back into the community. You find yourself doing all sorts of communal things you wouldn’t necessarily do if you had a stock ticker.”
“Once we start building, we don’t stop. We’ve already replaced some of the flooring in the Pine Bluff Courthouse, we’ve set up some basketball courts and repaved parking lots, and we plan to do a lot more,” he says. “That’s the difference between us and a commercial casino. The Quapaw are a government. We’re community builders and it doesn’t matter if you’re in our tribe, we want to enhance your life and your community.”
Pine Bluff Progress
Although the Saracen Casino is probably the most obvious contributor of Pine Bluff’s revitalization, the Quapaws aren’t the only ones working to improve the city. Mayor Shirley Washington and the city government have toiled diligently to make Pine Bluff a better place while simultaneously trying to change the narrative about the city. Washington and others are vital players in the attempt to transform Pine Bluff’s reputation from a dangerous, crime-ridden speck of urban blight on the Arkansas River into a destination for cultural activities, economic opportunity and educational advancement.
Recognizing that Pine Bluff is the second-most dangerous city in Arkansas statistically speaking, with an overall crime rate 172% higher than the national average, Washington is taking a proactive approach to reducing criminal activity.
“We have a citizens’ crimes commission. Members monitor neighborhoods and meet monthly to come up with ideas we can implement to stop crime,” Washington says. “We also have strong neighborhood watch groups that we’ve been working to support and increase over the last three years.”
Beyond citizen groups, the city has also assembled a violent crimes task force, but Washington doesn’t believe that will be enough. “To truly fix the problem, we must address the roots of criminal behavior, which are poverty and urban blight.”
To do so, the city is working to provide more educational opportunities, focusing on workforce development. “We’re also creating strong youth engagement activities. When children have extracurriculars they participate in and care about, they’re far less likely to engage in activities that eventually lead to criminal behavior,” says Washington.
Washington also points to the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative, a community collaboration meant to revitalize the city. Wishing to support its home city, Simmons Bank provided $300,000 to fund Go Forward Pine Bluff’s development in late 2015. The initiative began formulating strategies focusing on improving four interconnected areas: education, economic development, government infrastructure and quality of life. After Pine Bluff voters approved a ⅝-cent sales tax to fund the initiative, Go Forward was able to immediately reinvest it into the community. Its efforts have led to many positive changes in Pine Bluff including the development of a downtown master vision and plan, the establishment of the Generator innovation hub and return of the renowned King Cotton high school basketball tournament which attracts teams from across the country.
“Thanks to Go Forward’s fundraising, we were able to finish the Pine Bluff Aquatic Center and begin construction on a new library,” says Washington. “One of the things I respect most about the initiative is its commitment to diversity. The group set out to include people of all races, ages and income levels in their planning committees, and it’s made a measurable difference.”
Washington points to the city’s role as facilitator and affector of positive change. “We’re trying to attract industries that’ll bring new and varied job opportunities. We’re also working to redevelop neighborhoods to create affordable and attractive housing, specifically nice apartments and condominiums,” she says. “Another thing we’re doing is diligently working to improve our educational opportunities and drainage systems.”
It seems Pine Bluff is moving in a positive direction, although Thompson warns, “Pine Bluff has to keep its momentum going. That consensus of opinion, the people pulling together and working is what keeps an area growing. Maintaining a common vision in our city is the key to success.” Saffa and Berrey are optimistic about the city’s future. “I’d challenge folks to pay attention to the news about Pine Bluff. It used to seem like it was all bad, but lately it’s been far more positive,” says Saffa.
Berrey said when he was a kid, his family would go to Pine Bluff and “it was a sad sort of town.” “Now there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of smiles,” he notes. “There’s a lot of hope and anticipation of a better life down there, and it’s very exciting to be a part of.”
Despite decades of decay and a poor reputation, momentum has returned to Pine Bluff.
“Every part of our community is honing in on doing everything we can to increase job opportunities, build better housing, rebuild our infrastructure and reduce crime,” says Washington. “We’re already seeing younger people in their 30s and 40s returning to Pine Bluff. They see this renaissance just getting into gear and they want to be part of our community’s transformation.”