PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Early Saturday morning, you could find children from the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson County learning all about planting, composting, and farming at the Pine Bluff Community Garden.
They were being taught by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's (UAPB) 4H Youth Development Program. 4H is a national organization that operates at grant universities with governance by the United States Department of Agriculture.
One of the many ways that different initiatives and programs are bridging the gap is by bringing communities together and investing in the future economic growth of the city.
A far cry from the reality of the city being labeled the fastest shrinking city in America, according to the latest census.
Pine Bluff had a 16% decrease over the last two years. They went from 49,083 to 41,253 residents over the last ten years.
Pine Bluff mayor Shirley Washington attended the garden event to support.
"Everybody's concerned about the population decline in Pine Bluff. Nobody can be more concerned than I am," said Washington. "I knew when I came into office that the census was going to take place under my reign. So, I started contacting people from the census under the national level."
She said she also started communicating with people on the state level to figure out best practices for having a successful census.
Looking at the census in 2010, Washington felt that they had an under-count, stating that it's common in many communities like Pine Bluff.
"COVID hit and when they took the e-numerators off the ground, because it was too dangerous for them to go into homes, we had to do everything we could imaginable to keep people focused on the census count," said Washington.
E-numerators are census takers who walk house-to -house collecting data.
She said when she drives through the town, she sees empty rooftops and knows that there were people who didn't want to complete the census: it's those factors that she said resulted in numbers going down.
Washington said they plan to combat those declining numbers by building. They're going to do so by bringing in community gardens, more recreational activities, and upgrading parks and streets.
“I don’t want a recount, because a recount would be another hard count and we don’t know that we would even get as many as we have. But our goal is to build. So, we’re going to build with events like what we’re having here today," said Washington.
One of the main areas of focus is housing for Washington.
She said once they start quality affordable housing in the community people will move in. With some jobs that have come and gone, they're seeing original residents retire back to Pine Bluff.
Washington said another age group of 35-42 is returning to Pine Bluff to help rebuild the city, which keeps her optimistic about the future.
Alison Wright is the section head of the data center at the Arkansas Economic Development Institute. They're a partner with the census bureau.
She said the most recent data released for the Pine Bluff metropolitan statistical area (MSA) showed a 12.5% decline over the last decade from 2010 to 2020. This is the most for any MSA in the country.
"That's no surprise for us, because we've been watching that area of the state decline for a few decades now," said Wright. "The MSA itself is made up of three counties: Jefferson, Lincoln and Cleveland counties. They've all lost population over the decade."
Cleveland county has 7,550 residents.
Jefferson county has 67,260 residents.
Lincoln county has 12,941 residents.
Research of the area reveals migration is the reason that decline in population.
People are moving out of the counties.
Surprisingly, the data center saw a small positive number of more, comparing births and deaths in the area. A rough estimate shows that there were 164 more births than deaths over the last ten years.
"Basically, the city of Pine Bluff saw a peak in about 1970. The next two decades had a small increase and then a small decrease that stayed consistence, but since 1990 we've seen it decline," said Wright. "The decline has picked up more rapid as we get closer to the decade we're in now."
Wright said there's a possibility that the loss of population could result in less financial support from the government.
There's also a possibility of losing their MSA status in the future.
"A metropolitan statistic area has a central core of 50,000 people or above. A lot of data, especially economic, data is released at the MSA level," said Wright. "So they would no longer have certain levels of data to help them make decisions."