The man who bought Pine Bluff, Arkansas
A Hackernews comment opens up a strange new world
Since the dawn of human history, certain archetypal stories have recurred, appearing again and again in myth and legend across cultures, continents, and centuries. The Deluge. The Resurrection. The Hero’s Journey. On the internet, among the most important archetypes is “The Overconfident Optimist and His Ill-Advised DIY Project.” We see it in Groverhaus, in Reddit Island, in the Child-Annihilating Zipline.
On Monday the user @i_zzzzzz -- a person to whom I feel personally indebted for their coinage of the extremely useful term “chaos meal” -- revealed what seemed like a new instance of this time-honored archetype. “This guy on Hacker News is buying up the entire town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas for reasons that seem unclear even to him. Someone please help him go home to his children,” @i_zzzzzz wrote.
The comment appears, it seems worth noting, underneath a Hackernews post from a tech worker looking to relocate for remote work, asking for advice on finding a small town with a walkable downtown, good schools, a nearby airport, and houses that cost less than $1 million. “Pick some states, and go visit towns with colleges in them,” one commenter suggests. “The internet means there are no undiscovered places, and the economics can undermine what makes a place special in the first place,” another commenter warns. But one commenter -- writing under the name pontifier -- has very different way of thinking about the problem: why not find the biggest, cheapest warehouse building in the U.S., and buy it?
My method sure hasn't worked very well... or has it? I was looking for cheap warehouse space to start a business in, and did a nation-wide search for the largest, cheapest building in the entire continental US.
I found one that seemed too good to be true. a 220,000 sqft metal warehouse and office complex on 17 acres. I thought the price was a typo at $375k.The agent assured me that the price was correct, and I flew out to see the place.
It was in a little town called Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
I offered about 3/4 what they were asking, and they accepted the offer.
Fast forward 2 1/2 years, and I've had nothing but problems. Break in after break in. Can't work through the red tape with the city so my warehouse sits empty. It feels like they are actively working against myself and other entrepreneurs I talk to. At least 2 others who bought buildings and tried to open businesses left after getting nowhere.
Maybe I'm daft, but I ended up buying about 75 more properties here... all surprisingly cheap.
The town is killing me though. I haven't seen my kids very much lately - I don't think it's safe enough for them. I'm probably going to be moving back to Utah in the next couple of months because it's just too much out here.
It’s hard to express the number of questions that a comment like this raises. Questions like: What? What on earth, bro? Was this (as some commenters imagined) a libertarian tech bro trying to take over a depressed town? A comedian doing a weird bit? A man with some kind of mental illness?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t fake: “Pontifier” is the handle used across a number of platforms by a Utahn named John Fenley, a compulsive entrepreneur, amateur nuclear engineer, and, now -- public records show1 -- among the largest property owners in Jefferson County, Arkansas. Fenley has an extensive internet-content trail -- including, besides hundreds of HackerNews comments, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, a Soundcloud page, and many different registered URLs2 -- some portion of which is dedicated to documenting his Pine Bluff odyssey. But none of it really clarifies what Fenley’s deal is.
So I called Fenley on Tuesday morning, and reached him at his home in Pine Bluff. He was an engaging, talkative interview, and I appreciated his candor and admired his ambition and his positive attitude. He was more than happy to discuss his dreams, troubles, and real-estate activity in Pine Bluff.
If I’m being honest, I can’t really promise it will clarify anything.
“Only time will tell if this was a good idea,” he told me. “I mean, yeah, I've experienced, you know, thousands, and thousands, and thousands of dollars of loss. But the upside still could be millions and millions of dollars. Because I still own a warehouse.”
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Fenley’s story -- this chapter, at any rate -- begins in 2019. After separating from his wife, with whom he has three kids, Fenley had moved in with his father, a sculptor, and uncle in Los Angeles, working on a start-up he’d founded called Crossies, which stores and digitizes physical media collections and offers them for streaming on the cloud. Two weeks after his arrival, his uncle received an eviction notice, and Fenley and his father began to look for somewhere new.
Fenley had run a a makerspace workshop called “Provolt” in Utah until the landlord had raised the rent. “There was a 65,000 square foot jail that I'd wanted wanted to move the makerspace into in Provo, and that that whole thing hadn't worked out,” he told me on the phone. (The city only wanted to sell the asbestos-riddled jail, which it described as “grim,” to owners who would demolish it; Fenley had wanted to rehabilitate the building.) The jail’s size became his minimum lower bound.
“I didn't care where it was in the country. And I wanted to find the cheapest possible price,” he said.” So Fenley hopped on the commercial real-estate listing site Loopnet and searched, as he later described to The Capital Times of Madison, Wis., “for properties over 65,000 square feet and sorted by price.” At the top of the list was the former home of the steel company Varco Pruden -- a 17-acre property with a warehouse and office complex in Pine Bluff that had been vacant and decaying for 15 years. The property was listed at $375,000; Fenley initially assumed the price was a typo. In the summer of 2019, Fenley flew out to tour it, making a YouTube video of his first visit:
“It was awesome,” Fenley recalled. “It didn't seem like in that bad condition. I mean, for $375,000, how picky can you be about the condition of a place? It had a roof. It had concrete slabs. It had walls, you know3?” That fall, Fenley made an offer of $300,000, and the owners accepted. He started packing up his things in L.A. and Utah, preparing to relocate.
Not many people move to Pine Bluff. Once a prosperous manufacturing and agricultural city located about 50 miles south of Little Rock, Pine Bluff most recently made national headlines for being the fastest-shrinking city in the country. As in many other industrial and agricultural cities in the U.S., white flight, capital flight, deindustrialization, and a multi-decade conservative assault on social spending have decimated Pine Bluff’s economy, leaving it caught in a negative feedback loop between a dwindling tax base and diminished municipal resources. Varco Pruden, the steel company that once owned the 19-acre property Fenley bought for $300,000 and is now itself owned by an Australian conglomerate, announced this year it would move its remaining 32 employees to the neighboring city of White Hall, which is 70 percent white (Pine Bluff is 75 percent black) and has among the highest median incomes in Arkansas. Pine Bluff, where median income is about 60 percent lower, suffers under one of the worst murder rates in the country.
Fenley would not make it to Pine Bluff for a few months yet. In December of 2019, while closing the deal for the Varco Pruden property, Fenley read on the Verge about the demise of a company called Murfie -- a music storage-digitizing-streaming company very similar to Crossies, which Fenley was still trying to get off the ground. Murfie, which was based out of Madison, had gone mysteriously bankrupt and the collections of CDs it was storing for customers were about to be abandoned. To Fenley, it was “a perfect storm of opportunity”: Murfie was “basically” Crossies, and he was in the process of purchasing a perfect storage facility for all those CDs. Fenley flew to Wisconsin and negotiated to purchase Murfie and its assets for $6,000, plus $2,000 in lawyers’ fees. He packed two shipping containers with Murfie customers’ CD collections and sent them down to Pine Bluff.
By the time the shipping containers, delayed by COVID-19, arrived in July, Fenley’s dreams had gotten more complicated. At this point his plans for the warehouse and surrounding property included not just a makerspace but a live/work business incubator, art studio, and science museum. It would be called “Serendipic.” “I was working with Pine Bluff City at the time,” Fenley said. “I made up my little proposal for the planning commission, submitted it, and they approved most of the stuff I wanted to do, with a notable exception exception of a go-kart track.”
But Fenley’s relationship with the city of Pine Bluff was deteriorating. Pine Bluff city government wanted Fenley to submit architectural and engineering drawings so it could determine the applicable building codes, but he had not done so and the city wouldn’t approve his permits. Fenley believes something else was at stake: “They denied my go-kart track that I proposed, and now they’re spending $2.6 million to build their own go-kart track. Yeah, surprising. I proposed residences for artists and entrepreneurs. Oh, suddenly, their little art space that they’re building is going to have residences for artists. Oh, what a surprise.” he said. “The city doesn't want any competition with anything they're trying to do. They have their own business incubator; they have their own science museum, which honestly sucks. Both of them. Their little makerspace, business incubator thing? It sucks. It's the worst one I've ever been to in my life.”
Fenley began recording his meetings with town officials and posting them to the Murfie site; they frequently end with Fenley being asked to calm down or leave. At one point, he told me, a zoning official “came across the room, ripped the clipboard out of my hand, and yelled at me to get out.” (He says he filed a police report over the incident.) Listening to Fenley’s recordings, the fairest thing you might say is that it seems like there is a mismatch between the scale and mutability of Fenley’s science museum–makerspace–go-kart track dreams and the capacity of Pine Bluff’s bureaucracy, not to mention between his eagerness to occupy the old warehouse and the city government’s caution over a long-abandoned space.
Permitting difficulty was not the only trouble Fenley was facing, anyway. In the early months of the process, Fenley had been staying in a tent and RV on the Varco Pruden site, sometimes with his father. (Fenley now lives in a house nearby.) “This whole time, there's this constant background of crime in this town,” he said. “People have come to the tent and put a gun in my face at one point, back in 2020 -- while I was waiting for this stuff to happen -- and my dad shot at them, and they ran away. I've got an audio recording of that.” (He does; it’s available on his Soundcloud; I can’t say I recommend listening to it.) At one point, trying to catch two thieves who’d stolen a catalytic converter from his car, he set up a website called “Bens for Bars” offering cash for tips leading to the thieves.
Fenley wasn’t exactly unaware of Pine Bluff’s reputation. “I saw some statistics,” he said on the phone. “And I was like, ‘Oh, well, I have one in X number of chance of being robbed each year or something.’ Right? Yeah. But that's on average, and well, I'm a huge target. I didn't really take that into account, I guess.” He’s mostly dealing with “career criminals,” he said, who arrive “with heavy machinery, cutting torches,” looking for metal and other materials to lift and sell for scrap.
Whatever you think of Google Forms-based private snitch sites, and whatever might expect from the circumstances, Fenley is a fraction as bloodthirsty as tough-on-crime local columnists in much less dangerous metropolises. “It’s a nice town,” he told me about Pine Bluff. “It feels like they’re trying to fix things. New York was terrible, in the ‘80s. Everything they’re saying about Pine Bluff now they were saying about New York in the ‘80s! And I sure wish I could have bought some real estate in New York in the 80s!”
For most of the next year, Fenley, living on the property and subsisting on ramen, was engaged in battle on multiple fronts: Against the city of Pine Bluff, against the scrappers stealing from his property, and against angry Murfie customers who wanted to know where their CDs were. (Still packed into the shipping containers sitting outside the Varco Pruden warehouse, as it happened.) But in the summer of 2021, he came into a windfall: He was able to sell nearly $900,000 worth of stock in a company to whom he’d sold a patent4. A certain kind of person might use that money to extricate themselves from what had become a clearly stressful and likely unsustainable real-estate situation in Pine Bluff. Fenley, instead, used it to buy more property.
“All of a sudden I went from scraping by to having $890,000 in my bank account. And then a tax auction, like three weeks later? Of course I'm gonna buy some property.” He spent $138,000 and ended up with 74 parcels of land in Pine Bluff, to go along with his 19-acre industrial park. “I didn’t really have a plan,” he said. Fenley’s mom was a real estate agent, and he told me it was “drilled into me from a young child: You buy property when you can.” He still sounds awed by how much land he bought, and how cheaply. “There were a few hundred other people in that room. And anybody else that had the money could have done it,” he said. “But I'm the one that actually did it. That's what a lot of this boils down to, in a way. A lot of the things that I'm doing, anybody could do them. But I'm the one that's actually doing them.”
And yet becoming one of the top landowners (by parcel) in Jefferson County didn’t change much for Fenley’s overall situation. He moved into a house, but he still hasn’t broken ground on his dream makerspace; his YouTube feed is still taken up by increasingly apologetic messages to Murfie customers interspersed with security footage of alleged thieves. This summer, he and his 12-year-old son drove from Provo to Pine Bluff in a Volkswagen bus loaded up with electronics and supplies. “Saturday, we came to the house and played video games. And Sunday, went back over the warehouse, and the containers were robbed. Everything,” he said.” “Everything I brought from Utah was stolen. They stole my turbomolecular vacuum pumps for my fusion reactor5!”
This seems to have been something of a final straw for even the eternally optimistic Fenley. A year after buying a chunk of Pine Bluff at auction, he’s finally decided to leave: “My finances are fine,” he told me. “I'm in no danger of losing the warehouse or any of the property that I bought. But right now, my mother and girlfriend are working on building a warehouse in Utah, and moving everything back to Utah. That's the plan at this point as of today.”
But what about the makerspace? What about the warehouse? What about his Pine Bluff holdings? I asked Fenley what his long-term plans were. He hesitated. “There's a hotel available at auction right now that I bid on three weeks ago. There's like a week left in the auction. If nobody bids on this hotel against me, I'm gonna buy a hotel for $31,400,” he said. The hotel is in Pine Bluff, with good highway access. It’s been unoccupied since 2019. “It'd be freaking fantastic to own a hotel, and like, have rooftop parties and turn the whole top floor into a penthouse for me. You know? Like, that's, like, how would I not want to do that?”
Including “itanimulli.com” -- that’s “Illuminati” backwards -- which redirects to the NSA’s official webpage and is intermittently of interest to conspiracy theorists.
This may have been an optimistic assessment. Fenley closed on the warehouse in February 2020, as he was dealing with the Murfie sale and just in time for COVID to hit; he didn’t return to Pine Bluff until April. He discovered “walls, full walls, whole rooms, in this building that scrappers have come in and stolen,” he said. “There was a whole building that was stripped of three entire sides. It was like a little garage building. They stripped three walls and both garage doors. Wow. And so there's like one wall left. That's it. There's one wall sitting out in the middle of nowhere.”
The company was VidAngel, a Provo-based streaming start-up that “bleeped swears and scrubbed sex scenes from popular movies.” VidAngel was sued, lost, and resurrected as a conservative streaming content company, as Max Chafkin documented recently in Bloomberg.
Fenley has a longstanding interest in nuclear fusion, a full narration of which is probably beyond the scope of this newsletter, except to say that Fenley has come up with his own, unique, fusion reactor design, detailed on this website. “I came up with a design and started running some simulations did some math, and I can't see where it goes wrong,” he told me. “Maybe somebody else can. But it almost is like a white elephant. It's almost like this warehouse. It's, like, this beautiful thing. It's beautiful. And if it works, it's fantastic, you know, but I can't quite make it work. And I can't convince anybody else that it's a good idea. But I still can't drop it.”