Delta Rhythm & Bayous: Pine Bluff Heritage Tourism Plan in a Nutshell

Delta Rhythm & Bayous Header Image. Composite of two images, an acoustic guitar against a gold background to the left and large cypress trees in Bayou Bartholomew to the right. Main Image. Revamped version to fit post image size. Credit: DRBA

The Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance (DRBA), a nonprofit focusing on heritage-based tourism, has a framework to foster economic growth in the Delta lowlands.  Though regional in focus, the framework has two anchor cities — Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi.  What that means for Pine Bluff was spelled out by DRBA on March 31, 2017, at the Pine Bluff / Jefferson County Historical Museum.  This post brings readers up to date with a key-point summary of DRBA’s vision plus their specific proposal for Pine Bluff.  The Alliance offers the proposal as a buffet of choices, with the intention of allowing the public a chance for dialogue and a chance to make choices.

DRBA in a Nutshell: Arts and Music Heritage as Basis for Tourism

Jimmy Cunningham, Jr., Board Director of Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance
Jimmy Cunningham, Jr., Board Director of Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance

DRBA’s vision draws from the region’s heritage in the arts, music, and entertainment, all of which readily lend themselves to business opportunities in tourism.  DRBA board members feel confident in the plan based on research of both Arkansas Delta heritage and economic success of similar models elsewhere.  According to Jimmy Cunningham, Jr., DRBA board director, Stone County (with Mountain View), Arkansas, serves as an example: it is the state’s 56th largest county but is 18th in tourism revenue.  Likewise, Coahoma County (with Clarksdale), Mississippi, is the 38th largest county by population but the 17th largest in tourism revenue in its state.  Regional efforts include the Americana Music Triangle, which covers portions of five states in the Delta, and cities along The Blues Highway (Highway 61), which runs from Memphis on down through Mississippi.

Pine Bluff resident Caleb Olumofin and Mayor Shirley Washington at the signing of The Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway Act on March 31, 2017. Credit: Colette Ficklin
Pine Bluff resident Caleb Olumofin and Mayor Shirley Washington at the signing of The Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway Act on March 31, 2017. Credit: Colette Ficklin

Thus far, DRBA, a 501(c)(3), has fostered partnerships with several cities in the Arkansas Delta and one in a neighboring area of Mississippi.  Institutional partnerships have been formed with the Southeast Arkansas Arts and Science Center, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, the UALR Center on Race and Ethnicity, and UAPB Arts Department — all of which offer expertise in bringing the plans to fruition.  For example, a UAPB artist is available to network with artists who may contribute to a mural gallery.

Representative Vivian Flowers, lead sponsor of HB1054 which led to the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway (Act 451). Credit: Vivian Flowers
Representative Vivian Flowers, lead sponsor of HB1054 which led to the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway (Act 451). Credit: Vivian Flowers

Also, after learning of DRBA’s plans, the Pine Bluff City Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution to support DRBA.  Most recently, the Arkansas state legislature passed Act 451.  This act designates the Arkansas Delta portion of U.S. Highway 65 to be the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway; the new designation begins with the fiscal year starting in July 2017.  DRBA sought this highway designation and, thanks to sponsorship by Representative Vivian Flowers, what started as house bill HB 1054 became state law — Act 451 — on March 14, with a ceremonial signing on March 31.

Proposal for Pine Bluff: A Buffet of Choices for Heritage Tourism

In short, the DRBA proposes that Pine Bluff – city government, key nonprofits, and interested entrepreneurs – develop a downtown focus area of heritage tourism businesses and nonprofits; outdoor venues (parks and trail) with educational signage; and two annual events that celebrate the arts and a famous waterway, Bayou Bartholomew.

A Sampling of DRBA Suggestions for Downtown
  • For downtown, the DRBA envisions a Delta Rhythm & Bayous Heritage Center in the Masonic Building (once renovated). The Center would house the DRBA and its oversight of fine and performing arts heritage.  The DRBA also recommends that the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum maintain an annex in the Center, with the main museum continuing in its current location, the old train depot.
  • The DRBA also suggests that the Arkansas Entertainer’s Hall of Fame (currently located in the Pine Bluff Convention Center) be relocated to an available facility on 4th Street.
  • The old bingo hall, with its open floor areas, would house business kiosks and a food court.  Next to this facility, DRBA would like to see a performance park next to the old bingo hall.
  • The proposal also lays out a plan for The Delta Rhythm & Bayous Outdoor Gallery; adding 75 murals over 10 years would make it the largest mural gallery in the United States.
  • These and other developments would be in a focus area from Second to Fourth Streets.
DRBA Recommendations for Other Venues
  • A Freedom trail, running from the downtown area to the Saracen Trail and University Avenue, with educational signage, would share the area’s civil rights history and how those struggles contributed to the many art and music forms.
  • Educational signage posted at the Delta Rivers Nature Center would educate the public about Bayou Bartholomew entwined in people’s lives through baptisms, moonshine activities, hunting, and fishing.
  • Annual events including a music and arts festival and a bayou rafting contest would extend Pine Bluff’s heritage tourism beyond the Main Street corridor.

These examples give a taste of DRBA’s heritage tourism vision; more can be found in the proposal.  The DRBA describes the proposal as a buffet of ideas for city leaders and voters to consider, not one wholesale, take-it-or-leave block.  DRBA leaders hope for public dialogue so that the public may choose what they like most.

The extent to which city revenue may be invested in some of the recommendations (except portions covered by grants) depends on that public dialogue and voter input.  The infrastructure and other expenses, if the entire plan were implemented, could reach an estimate up to $40 million over a 7 year period.  The amount that may come from the city has not yet been estimated, as the DRBA wishes to leave room for citizens to explore ideas and then have a voice in these matters.  As for other resources, multiple grants will be pursued by experienced grant writers.  And the DRBA plans to assist in identifyng 10% of the funding.  Also, if the plan comes to fruition, it is possible that low interest loans may be available for small businesses.

Follow-up Discussion at DRBA Presentation

The DRBA presentation was followed by an open discussion among those attending.  The overall reaction was undeniably positive, with one person calling the plan “gold”, literally.  One part of the discussion did deal with questions about different Pine Bluff plans possibly precluding others.  Mr. Cunningham simply wants decision-makers to leave room for DRBA’s plan to fit in with whatever residents, the mayor, and city council decide.

Another issue that garnered attention was the city’s general need for revenue and infrastructure improvements; but they still saw possibilities for DRBA’s recommendations to be implemented.  Mayor Shirley Washington stated that this DRBA proposal and other groups’ plans all had a place in Pine Bluff.

Learn More about the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance

For more information about the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Alliance, contact them through their Facebook page, Delta Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous Alliance.

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