Delta's cities show its plight; Blytheville, Pine Bluff face future after population drops
This story was produced as part of a project for the 2021 National Fellowship, a program of USC Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.
Other stories by Stephen Simpson includes:
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Tom Sylvester used to look up at the sky above Blytheville in the 1970s, watch the planes fly out of the nearby Air Force base and dream about being able to glide among the clouds.
"The Air Force base was part of our lives," he said.
That was a time of uncertainty for America, as the country was embroiled in the Cold War, and one of the key pieces in this silent battleground was Blytheville Air Force Base, located in the Northeast Arkansas Delta. But for Blytheville residents, the base was an important piece of the "Mayberry"-like town.
"The base provided a constant flow of people and revenue to the town," Sylvester said. "Clothes stores were filled and shoe stores were packed with people. It was just a big boost to the town."
Sylvester would grow up and fulfill his dream of being a pilot, but Blytheville suffered an economic downturn when the base -- renamed in 1988 for Gen. Ira C. Eaker -- was shuttered in 1992.
Poverty, population loss, abandonment and crime are issues that affect the rural parts of the Delta, but some urban parts of the region have also suffered from those things. Two cities that bear these scars are Pine Bluff and Blytheville.
At its peak, Blytheville's population was nearly 25,000 in the 1970 census, but by 2020, the number of people had dropped to close to 13,000.
Barrett Harrison, president of the Blytheville-Gosnell Regional Airport Authority, said that when he was growing up, Mississippi County was the premier region in Northeast Arkansas, and Blytheville was a key reason behind it.
"There used to be a time when license plates had numbers on it for each county based on population and Pulaski County was one and Jefferson County and Mississippi County were two and three."
Harrison said Blytheville was a lively place.
"Every building on Main Street had a business in it and every church had people in the pews. It was a wonderful and incredible place to live," he said.
Mary Gay Shipley, former owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, also remembers that the city of the past was a good place to live.
"Everybody pretty much raised each other and it was a thriving business district," she said. "A lot of the people who lived or associated with the Air Force base were part of volunteer organizations and helped in various key ways around town and then that was just gone one day."
"Just imagine what happens when 6,000 people leave town one day," Harrison said. "I remember the mayor of Little Rock told me years ago if they closed the Air Force base down [in Jacksonville] there they would feel that. Now you can imagine what it did to a community of our size. The Air Force base had just an incredible economic impact on Northeast Arkansas."
"We lost 8,000 jobs in Mississippi County in the 1990s and we lost 7,500 people when the Air Base closed," Cliff Chitwood, Mississippi County's economic development director, said. "It wasn't because people didn't like it here. It wasn't because we didn't have the amenities."
In addition to the air base, multiple factories closed, Chitwood said.
Local government officials and businesses turned their sights into making Mississippi County the steel capital of the state.
"We played our part in bringing 4,000 jobs to Mississippi County, but 4,000 is not 8,000," Chitwood said.
Chitwood said he believes the interest in Mississippi County is still growing and industries are coming, but the biggest challenge they face is getting people to live in the area.
"It hasn't proceeded the way history has indicated it should," he said. "Normally you bring in jobs the people follow, but that hasn't been the case."
Despite the high-paying salaries of the steel mills, per capita incomes in Blytheville ($21,100) and Mississippi County ($22,750) are less than the state average of $26,577.
Chitwood said steel mill jobs pay so well that it can attract people from far away.
"The job is a four days on and four days off type of business, so people are coming here from Little Rock and Fayetteville, staying in their fancy trailers while working here and then going back home," he said. "We are aggressively trying to find ways to address that."
Chitwood also said Mississippi County has suffered unemployment and educational problems.
"The unemployment we are dealing with here is systemic and generational," he said.
On a cool September morning this year, World War II-era planes landed at the old air base, but this time these planes were here to provide the city support.
"We sold every single table and the participation we have seen has been incredible," Harrison said as he drove his vehicle around the expansive runway.
This event was held as a way to grow funds and interest in turning the abandoned alert facility at the base into the national Cold War Museum.
"This area was a Cold War battleground," Harrison said. "Blytheville was a big chess piece on a chess board that was in the Cold War and the nuclear capability out of this facility was unbelievable. All the Cold War stuff is being declassified so there is no better time than now to take advantage of this opportunity."
Harrison said when he sees abandoned buildings, he feels sadness, but also hopefulness.
"It's a sad reminder when you see all those empty buildings, but if you have a lot of vision and hope you can see what they can become," he said. "I know I am not giving up. It can't be what it once was, but there is a lot of opportunity here."
"People are in the Delta to work," Chitwood said, "to cut lumber, farm and cut steel. Our fate is tied to the number of jobs that are available here."
Chitwood said without economic recruitment and the rise of the steel industry, he is not sure where Mississippi County might be now.
"I don't even know if we would have had an open Walmart in Mississippi County, honestly," he said. "We were facing truly economic devastation."
Shipley said heritage tourism is the second biggest money maker in Arkansas followed by agriculture, and Mississippi County has both. She mentioned the Southern Tenant Farmer Museum, the renovation of the town of Wilson and Johnny Cash's boyhood home and the potential for a national Cold War Museum at the Air Force base as points of interest.
"I think our biggest problem is that we are invisible," she said. "We are the best kept secret in Arkansas."
Chitwood said the worst view "of the Delta is that we are in need of charity. No, we are in need of investment."
State Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, remembers when Pine Bluff was considered the cultural center of the lower Arkansas Delta.
It is home to the state's largest historically black university, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
"The success and the prosperity you saw for decades through the late 19th and early 20th century and even through Jim Crow era in Pine Bluff was due to the success that came out of the institutions [businesses, the college and community organizations] in the communities that you didn't see in other parts of the state and other parts of the country," she said. "You know, a great part of our history has been that leaders like Booker T. Washington had noted the success and prosperity of Pine Bluff. In the early 20th century, Pine Bluff was called the Negro Paradise of the South and was heralded for home ownership and business community success."
This all changed when technological changes in the manufacturing and agricultural industries starting to remove jobs from the area.
From the 1970 to 1990 censuses, Pine Bluff had a population of about 57,000, but as of the 2020 census, the population has declined to a little more than 41,000.
"The decline in Pine Bluff mirrors the kind of decline you saw all over the Delta region," Flowers said. "You see abandoned businesses, you see an abandoned downtown, empty homes, heir property [grassy lots], burned-out houses and then an influx of drugs. In the '70s it was heroin, in the '80s and early '90s, it was crack cocaine and in the early millennia, it was methamphetamine."
Flowers said adding to this situation was growing disparity between the races within the city.
"Black women didn't have the luxury of being stay-at-home mothers. They were cleaning other people's houses and taking care of somebody else's kids and then coming home and taking care of their own kids," she said.
The economic downturn in the city and the increasing price of medical care increased health care problems.
"It doesn't matter if you have a hospital in your community if you can't go unless it's an emergency without going into bankruptcy," Flowers said.
"You see a negative impact in areas in Pine Bluff, Helena-West Helena, Altheimer and all these places have seen their jobs, homes, schools and school districts impacted by the decline of the region," she said.
Pine Bluff's per capita income is $18,547 and Jefferson County's is $21,472. The state average for per capita income is $26,577.
Shirley Washington was a longtime resident of Pine Bluff before she became its mayor.
She said as the American economy shifted in the past century, people began to move away from Pine Bluff in search of better opportunities.
"Economic hardship subsequently rose," Washington said. "And evidence from countless communities shows that crime is more likely to rise in such hardship. This also spurred some individuals to move away."
Pine Bluff's current unemployment is at 4.8%, which is well below the 11.3% it reached in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This is still higher than the average 2% unemployment rate of the metropolitan areas of Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers.
Flowers said investing in Pine Bluff's housing stock is the first key to revitalizing the area, but first the infrastructure needs must be met.
"People are so excited right now that we finally got these grants to develop the sidewalks and infrastructure downtown," she said. "Basic stuff. Sidewalks. All throughout Pine Bluff we have had ditches. If you have cities and counties where people can't even walk on the sidewalks of their community and couple that with empty and burned out houses, who in the world is going to come there and buy that?"
Flowers said urban development is something a lot of the cities on the other side of the Mississippi River have benefited from.
"When I moved here Conway was two colleges and some houses scattered all over," she said. "There was no downtown that was bustling with cute and quaint shops and antique stores and there was no huge community of businesses. Now it's a bedroom community in Little Rock where a lot of people have moved to and a lot of people now call home."
Flowers said the answer for the state is simple.
"What you do for Conway, do for Pine Bluff," she said. "What you do for Jonesboro, do for Fort Smith. What you do for Fayetteville and Little Rock, do for Helena West-Helena."
Washington said despite the challenges, Pine Bluff is moving in the right trajectory.
"There's more opportunity here today than there has been in several decades," she said. "As the city continues to experience revitalization, quality health services are becoming more accessible. For example, the CARTI Cancer Treatment Center is being constructed. Our hospital is being expanded. A new county health unit has been built here. We're also seeing major business investments, such as Saracen Casino, PeopleShores, and a new gas-to-liquid plant that developers are working to build within the county. Pine Bluff is on the rise."
Low incomes, lack of access to medical care and food scarcity are among the factors that contribute to the life expectancy of someone living in the Delta being well below the national and state averages.
"You need a healthy economy to have healthy people and you need healthy people to have a healthy economy," Dr. Brookshield Laurent, the executive director for the Delta Population Health Institute, said. "If you don't have opportunities for jobs in the workforce then people will leave and there will be a disinvestment in the communities."
The ongoing covid-19 pandemic in Arkansas brought renewed attention to the health disparities within the state, specifically in the Delta areas.
"When it comes to the pandemic, like a lot of communities, there have been times when Jefferson County has been hit especially hard," Washington said. "Yet there are organizations that are working to share health resources and educate people on health topics, including those related to the pandemic."
"We can't keep having as a population a bunch of people who are sick and can't work, whose kids are dying before they are born and the ones who make it live in poverty worse than most industrialized nations," Flowers said. "This is a state issue and we can do better."
Creshelle Nash, medical director for health equity and public programs Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said unfortunately cities like Pine Bluff and Blytheville have found themselves stuck in a vicious cycle over the years.
"A lack of investment drives people away and a lack of investment concentrates poverty and concentrates problems that are manifested in the health of the community long term," she said. "If you have sicker people then there will be increased health care costs and economic loss from people dying early. Then it will be harder to maintain a community."
Nash said high-level changes will need to identified and led by the local community.
"We need long term investment with local control, not a top down approach," she said. "I would want local control because they are the experts in this community and they know what they need."
Nash said she is hopeful that the pandemic has created a renewed energy in people to address the health outcomes in cities like Pine Bluff and Blytheville and in turn the entire Delta region.
"It's not a foregone conclusion that people in the Delta will have poor health. I don't believe that," she said. "I just think that no matter where you live in the richest county in the world you should be able to develop to your fullest potential."
About this series
These stories on the health and life expectancy issues in the Arkansas Delta were done in partnership with the University of Southern California.
As participants in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism 2021 National Fellowship, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette staff writer Stephen Simpson and reporters for other publications across the country worked on projects of their choosing that addressed health issues. The reporters were assigned advisers with the program and work with their own editors.
To define the Delta, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette used the Delta Cultural Center’s list of 27 counties: Arkansas, Ashley, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Independence, Jackson, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lee, Lincoln, Lonoke, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett, Prairie, Pulaski, Randolph, St. Francis, White and Woodruff.
CORRECTION: Arkansas state Rep. Vivian Flowers referenced abandoned heir property as an example of the decline the city of Pine Bluff has experienced in recent years. The type of property was misspelled in a previous version of this story.