South Arkansas’ shining star

I love downtowns. I love the downtowns of big cities, and I love small town downtowns.

My love of downtowns may come from the fact that my father was a Main Street merchant in Arkadelphia in the 1960s (after which he moved over to Clinton Street in the old post office building). In those days, you had your choice of five-and-dime stores on either side of  Main Street. I thought Ben Franklin (always with a friendly greeting from Mr. Caldwell) had the best mixed nuts while Sterling had the best popcorn.

You had the Royal Theater, which even showed movies on Wednesday afternoons in the summer. You had your choice of drugstores — Woodell’s, Heard’s and Fuller’s on Main Street itself and the Phillips’ Rexall store just a block over. They all had soda fountains at one time.

While not on Main Street itself, the downtown area even had two newsstands — Red’s (later Woody’s) and Langley’s. You could even get the Sunday New York Times from Mrs. Langley. There was Mr. Allen’s bookstore on Main Street.

You could buy jewelry from Ace Finger and a men’s suit from Red Bethea and later Eddie Clark. Tom Chandler (now a noted interior decorator in Little Rock) would sell you shoes. Dew-Orr Department Store had a bit of everything. Mr. Echols could set you up at the Otasco store. And the businessmen could get free coffee in any of the three banks — Elk Horn, Citizens or Merchants and Planters. Sadly, none of those bank names live on.

Like downtowns all over America, downtown Arkadelphia has changed drastically since the 1960s. It had changed even before that March 1, 1997, tornado that devastated much of downtown.

I was thinking about my favorite downtowns in Arkansas recently, and I believe I’ve decided on El Dorado as No. 1. Drinking a good cup of coffee last week in The Olde Towne Store on the El Dorado square, I was struck again by just how active downtown El Dorado is. It was, in fact, not easy to find a parking space on a Tuesday morning. And downtown is about to get even better as Claiborne Deming, recently retired as president and chief executive officer of Murphy Oil Corp., begins renovation of a three-story building.

El Dorado has suffered along with the rest of south Arkansas from job and population losses. Witness the recent closure of the Pilgrim’s Pride plant. The forestry industry also still struggles

But El Dorado continues to be a place where the leadership has its act together. There’s a sense of optimism among the city’s business and civic leaders. A lot of that was spurred by Murphy Oil’s $50 million commitment in 2007 to provide students who graduate from El Dorado High School with tuition scholarships to any accredited two-year or four-year institution of higher learning in the country. Known as the El Dorado Promise, it has increased the college-going rate of El Dorado High School students from 60 percent to 95 percent. The national average is 66 percent, and the state average is 65 percent.

Families have moved to El Dorado from 28 states to take advantage of the El Dorado Promise. The school district already has seen an enrollment increase of more than 4 percent.

Add to this the fact that:

— The El Dorado Education Foundation has invested more than $1.7 million into the El Dorado School District during the past dozen years. The foundation assisted in the establishment of the nation’s first elementary and secondary school endowed chair program with experts hired in the areas of in mathematics, science, foreign language and literacy. You expect to find endowed chairs at colleges and universities, not in public school districts.

— El Dorado residents approved a millage increase that will pay for a new high school facility that will open in the fall of 2011.

— The El Dorado Convention Center will open in 2011, covering 50,000 square feet. The new convention center will be walking distance from downtown.

— South Arkansas Community College, which now has a record enrollment, has a new president and by 2011 will have a new health sciences facility.

— El Dorado is even getting into the college football business. On Nov. 7, the Boomtown Classic will pit the Muleriders of Southern Arkansas University against the Boll Weevils of the University of Arkansas at Monticello. A concert, a giant tailgate party, band competitions and pep rallies will be held in conjunction with the game.

As I said, there’s a sense of excitement and optimism in this town. Downtown El Dorado is still alive, filled with places to shop, eat and even spend the night.

For now, it has my vote of the best downtown in Arkansas.

Which Arkansas downtown gets your vote and why? Certainly, Conway has come on strong in recent years.

And what’s the most depressing downtown and why? Main Street in Little Rock is too obvious. So let’s go for something other than that.

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