The bad news for Pine Bluff, Ark., embedded in Thursday’s new census data, did not come much of a shock for civic leaders there: Their metro area saw a 12.5 percent population decline between 2010 and 2020, the largest percentage drop of any metro area in that period.
The city now has about 87,500 residents, down from just over 100,000 a decade ago.
But Pine Bluff residents have been living with a palpable sense of loss for years. A 2016 New York Times story recounted an ill-fated effort to use inmates and parolees to tear down hundreds of blighted, unoccupied homes.
Set among fields of grains, beans, peas and cotton, Pine Bluff epitomizes the kinds of struggle that many smaller American hub cities have gone through in recent decades, first with the mechanization of agriculture, which reduced the need for field hands, and then foreign competition and outsourcing, which has dealt repeated blows to Pine Bluff’s manufacturing base.
These twin forces have sent the city into a tailspin from which Pine Bluff has been unable to recover. “The economy continued to change, kids continued to leave,” State Representative Vivian Flowers, who represents the area, said in an interview Thursday. “And so then your tax base shrinks, and your ability to deal with infrastructure and beautify the city — all of that suffered.”
The state recently stepped in to take over two poorly performing local school districts in the area (the districts were recently combined). The city in recent years has also earned a reputation for a staggeringly high homicide rate.
In early June, a local TV news station reported that six slayings in the area occurred within a six-day span.
Joni Alexander, a Pine Bluff City Council member, said Thursday that the area had struggled to tap into some of the hot sectors that are powering the growth of other metro areas, like technology and health care.
She noted the announcement in July of the closure of a small auto-parts plant that had been in operation since the early 1980s.“We’re kind of dealing with a lot of things,” Ms. Alexander said.
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