An oil and timber town that was Arkansas' richest community nearly a century ago believes that building a $100 million arts district in its historic downtown will spark a "cultural infusion" that can reverse a decadeslong population slide.
El Dorado, with about 18,300 residents near the Louisiana border, believes that after shoring up its tax base, infrastructure and school system, the entertainment hub will bring back the glory years that followed a 1920s oil boom.
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"We have to create a destination," said Terry Stewart, the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and a former president of Marvel Comics.
Stewart, now the chairman of El Dorado Festivals and Events, draws inspiration from the rock hall he once ran and from Marfa, Texas, which entered a renaissance after artist Donald Judd moved there in 1972.
If a town in the high Plains 500 miles (805 kilometers) southwest of Dallas can draw visitors, so can a town in the piney woods.
"We went around the region to make sure we were right about what people were looking for," Stewart said. "That takes us into all kinds of entertainment: something for kids, good food, good service."
Rebooting a boomtown began a decade ago — after El Dorado lost a quarter of its population in a quarter of a century. Murphy Oil launched the El Dorado Promise, a 20-year pledge to pay college tuition for graduates from the local high school, then voters approved a property tax increase to build a state-of-the-art high school and a 1-cent sales tax increase for economic development.
"A lot of people were seeing the decline," said Madison Murphy, the son of Murphy Oil founder Charles Murphy Sr. and president of the Murphy Family Foundation. "You can either be proactive and get in front of it or you can just continue the slow pernicious decline."
His cousin Claiborne Deming is the chairman and a former president of Murphy Oil, a major backer. Deming said district organizers are spending $54 million in a first phase and $35 million in a second one. The city has kicked in $14 million in development tax revenues since 2013.
"We need a lifestyle. We need a restaurant and bar scene," Deming said. "One thing I've always wanted was a town watering hole — a place where the town congregates."
El Dorado's downtown drew crowds before, but that was a long time ago.
Oil wells began producing here in 1921, just as loggers ran out of trees to cut. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly wrote that El Dorado's population grew from 4,000 to 15,000 in weeks; its per-capita income at one point led the state.
A Little Rock newspaper described downtown as "the most cosmopolitan section in the whole state," with a cotton shed converted into an auditorium.
"You can ... purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told," the newspaper said at the time.
But a jobs exodus began during the 1980s oil bust and continued as small manufacturing jobs moved overseas, where labor was cheaper. The city's population fell after hitting a high near 26,000; few young people return after leaving for college.
"I'm probably a prime example: When I graduated from high school, I moved away and got a degree in theater," said El Dorado native Austin Barrow, now the president and chief operating officer of El Dorado Festivals and Events. "Moving back to El Dorado was not going to be an option for me. In fact, not moving back to El Dorado was a mission for me."
The Murphy Arts District draws its name from the Murphy Oil exploration company, the Murphy USA retail operation that provides gasoline to many Walmart stores, and Deltic Timber — three companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange that are based here. The area this weekend is hosting concerts by Ludacris, Brad Paisley, Smokey Robinson and ZZ Top, among others — with the hope that the 6 million people who live within 200 miles (320 kilometers) will find at least one reason to visit.
"We're trying to jump into as many genres as possible to get attention," Barrow said.
The project's first phase is complete and includes a 2,000-seat auditorium, an 8,000-seat amphitheater and restaurants, with a playground still to come. The second phase will include the $32 million renovation of the Rialto Theater and the opening of a fine arts gallery with in-residence quarters.
"Lives will be changed by the economic redevelopment and cultural infusion we are working to achieve," Stewart said.
Murphy Arts District: www.eldomad.com
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