Can Pine Bluff actually be a food town? It is a question that I’ve heard asked a lot lately by folks higher up the food chain than myself. It was also a question that came up in a big way on a cold Monday night at the Donald W. Reynolds Center in downtown Pine Bluff earlier this week.
Over the years I’ve watched places like Northwest Arkansas grow by immeasurable proportions as it relates to their food culture. I’ve seen Hot Springs come back from the brink of extinction with their own food culture. Looking at spots like that it gives you hope, especially when comparing Hot Springs.
I’ve seen other spots like Siloam Springs, El Dorado, and Jonesboro try hard to develop their own place in the food scene with mixed results. Sure, it is progress, but it is a two steps forward, one step back type of progress. You wonder if they will ever get there before everyone just becomes frustrated and quits.
So can it be Pine Bluff? I don’t know, but they are pulling together the right resources to make it happen.
On that Monday night that was mentioned earlier, a group called Front Porch hospitality put on a dinner in an attempt to bring investors, community leaders, and those interested in the continued development of food tourism around the state. The event pulled chef Rob Nelson from Bentonville’s Tusk and Trotter together with Jennifer Booker, a great chef talent in Atlanta, to cook a meal around a vision of turning Pine Bluff around.
At the heart of this conversation was a good friend of mine Daniel Hintz, who has made a living out of developing and growing the culture and identity of a city through food. Since I’ve known Dan I have watched him be a key driver in Northwest Arkansas and is responsible for most of the growth in that area. He has also worked in many other cities across the region and country, including Detroit, through his company called Velocity Group. He is someone I personally believe has more talent than anyone else in this area.
Still, Pine Bluff is an uphill battle.
Facing an Uphill Battle
Driving in I gave myself a few extra minutes to drive around downtown. It had been a few years since I’ve hit those streets, and I wanted to see what has changed. Most of what I saw were boarded up storefronts and empty streets. Afterward, I stood outside the center with my friend and Little Rock native Josiah Moody. He looked at me and said “Listen… it is completely quiet. There is not a single sound and we are standing in the downtown of a city.”
We sat and listened in silence for a few minutes. I live in downtown Little Rock, the complete and total absence of noise, especially in a downtown area, is a little eery. The silence also spoke volumes about the giant hill to climb in order to make downtown Pine Bluff a hot spot.
A lot of the problem with a deserted downtown is the lack of people in the city period. They have a population in the low 40,000s that is dwindling by the second. Pine Bluff has seen the largest population loss of any moderately sized city in Arkansas this millennium, losing nearly 22% of their population since 2000.
The Right Pieces to Make it Work
On the other hand, it is a blank canvas to work. Even with the population loss they have a metro of 100,000 and serve as the gateway to another 100k in the South East area of the state. That is a population whom would rather not drive to Little Rock. Speaking of Little Rock, it is only a quick 30-40 minute drive down, and Hot Springs has shown the ability to pull folks in at a slightly longer drive for the right mix.
Add to that the ongoing revival of the Pine’s Hotel, an increased interest in convention center use, and just the sheer amount of quality affordable real estate. The setting starts to look a lot like Bentonville in the 2000s, or Hot Springs a decade later.
The elephant in the room for renewal of Pine Bluff, and one no one seems to want to talk about, is the casino that was approved for Jefferson County that will almost certainly be located in Pine Bluff. It will be a big draw the area, serving a lot of Central and South East Arkansas. It could a large steady crowd into the area that will have an additional impact of generating even more conventions and hotel stays.
Plus the cultural aspect of Pine Bluff needs to be factored in to make it a destination city. The rich history of Blues in the city could position Pine Bluff as an attraction for concerts and heritage in a way that no other spot in Arkansas can do.
So can Pine Bluff be a great food town? Maybe. It will require people to take a risk on an area that has nothing currently to offer. In the process you have the chance to shape the future of a city with all the possibilities in the world. The right combination of restaurants, bars, and music venues could set the area apart in a few years and make the people willing to take an early risk and give it time a butt load of money.
Finally, Arkansas needs a strong Pine Bluff. In the same way that Hot Springs provides an anchor to Southwest Arkansas, Pine Bluff provides the same for Southeast. Even more, it is the gateway between the Delta and the rest of Arkansas. That is important in the effort to help revive the delta, which is critical to our state. I’ve seen time and time again that food is a great foundation to build the identity and culture of a city.