Going MAD in El Dorado

SEVENTH IN A SERIES

Just across Cedar Street from the 1929 Rialto Theater in downtown El Dorado is a small park with displays chronicling the oil boom that transformed this south Arkansas city.

One marker describes the cold afternoon of Jan. 10, 1921, when a physician and oil speculator named Sam Busey struck oil at a well near El Dorado. The plume of oil that sprayed into the sky could clearly be seen throughout the town of 3,800 residents.

By 1925, El Dorado’s population had soared to almost 30,000.

“The town would never be the same,” the marker reads. “Church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded and people streamed out of town to see the oil spewing up through the 75-foot wooden derrick.”

Writing for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Kenneth Bridges describes the transformation of El Dorado: “The discovery well touched off a wave of speculators into the area seeking fame and fortune from oil. The state Legislature immediately sent an exploratory train from Little Rock for legislators to inspect the find. Oil production increased exponentially in a matter of months. In March 1921, Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil to sell on the open market, which increased to 908,000 barrels by June.

“By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state. … El Dorado became the epicenter of the oil boom. It changed from an isolated agricultural city to the oil capital of Arkansas. Twenty-two trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

Now, 99 years after the oil boom began, downtown El Dorado is hopping again. But this has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry, which has been depressed in these parts for years. Instead, it’s about music, theater, art and even fine food and wine. It’s an effort by the city’s business and civic leaders to reverse a decades-long pattern of population loss. The goal is to turn El Dorado into the arts and entertainment capital of a region that includes south Arkansas, north Louisiana, east Texas and even parts of west Mississippi.

Many consider it to be El Dorado’s last, best chance to break out of the economic doldrums infecting so much of south Arkansas.

El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. was created several years ago and then charged with giving life to this vision. More than $60 million was raised for the first phase of the project. The Griffin Building, constructed in 1928-29 during the oil boom to house a Ford dealership and a gas station, was transformed into a fine-dining venue and an indoor performance hall that holds more than 2,000 seated patrons.

An adjacent amphitheater was built to hold 8,000 people for outdoor concerts. There’s even a two-acre children’s playground and splash pad.

A planned second phase of the project will transform the Rialto into an 850-seat hall for film festivals, touring productions and performances by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A new lobby will connect the Rialto to the 1928 McWilliams Building, a former furniture store that will become an art gallery, provide housing for artists and host traveling exhibitions from around the world.

Once all is said and done, more than $100 million will have been spent in downtown El Dorado.

The sounds of construction can be heard downtown as workers rush to complete a boutique hotel known as The Haywood.

Last spring, I went to El Dorado to emcee the groundbreaking event for the hotel. The shovels went into the dirt and the cameras clicked as city leaders, all wearing hardhats for the photo op, participated in the ceremony. The early spring weather couldn’t have been much better that day with temperatures in the 70s. In the old neighborhoods throughout the city, azaleas and dogwoods were beginning to bloom. Hope springs eternal in the spring, and the folks in El Dorado are hoping The Haywood will be another successful piece in the complex puzzle that’s designed to offset the population losses that beset this part of the state.

Despite the presence of companies such as Murphy Oil Corp., Murphy USA and what’s now PotlatchDeltic, El Dorado’s population has decreased from 23,146 in the 1990 census to about 18,000 today. There are plenty of jobs available, mind you. There are also visionary leaders, scholarships for graduates of El Dorado High School and more things to do than ever before thanks to the money being sunk into the Murphy Arts District (known locally as MAD).

“If we can’t make it work here with the inherent advantages we already have, I’m not sure it can work at all in rural areas in this part of the country,” one business executive told me.

Rather than being resigned to consistent population losses, El Dorado’s leaders began fighting back more than a decade ago when they implemented the El Dorado Promise. The scholarship program provides graduating seniors with a grant for tuition and expenses at any two-year or four-year institution of higher education in the country. The initiative was the brainchild of Claiborne Deming, who at the time was the chief executive officer at Murphy Oil. Deming modeled it after the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan. The Murphy Oil board approved an investment of $50 million to fund the scholarships.

Later that year, local voters passed an economic development tax. In 2011, a $43 million high school opened, and numerous advanced placement courses were added to the high school curriculum.

The El Dorado Conference Center, a $14.4 million facility downtown, was dedicated in 2011.

Even with all of these developments, El Dorado’s population has dropped by another 2,000 residents since 2007.

In August 2017, I spent a day in El Dorado with Deming and Madison Murphy to learn more about MAD. I asked Deming during lunch if the vast amount of money being spent on MAD was, in essence, an admission that the El Dorado Promise hadn’t worked as well as its founders had hoped.

Before Deming could answer, Murphy interjected: “I would hate to think where we would be without it.”

MAD is the next step in a coordinated effort to create a jewel in the pine woods of far south Arkansas. During that 2017 visit, Murphy told me that he was convinced that MAD would be enough to make a high-quality downtown boutique hotel — something along the lines of The Alluvian at Greenwood, Miss. — feasible.

“I regret that the hotel isn’t already open,” he said that day. “But I believe it will happen.”

Less than two years later, the dirt was being turned for a 70-room hotel that will cost more than $14 million.

The concept of “build it and they will come” doesn’t always play out. But I’ve seen it happen with The Alluvian, which was opened in 2003 by Viking Range Corp. in the Delta city where the high-dollar appliances are manufactured. The Alluvian is in the former Hotel Irving in downtown Greenwood. In 2005, Viking added a 7,000-square-foot spa, cooking school and store across the street.

During the four years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, I attended numerous meetings at Greenwood. I noticed the prosperous couples who were coming there to spend long weekends from as far away as the state capital at Jackson, Little Rock and even New Orleans.

Greenwood offers a nationally known cooking school and spa, but El Dorado will have the concerts at MAD, fine dining, a top golf course (Mystic Creek) and world-class art exhibitions.

Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and PotlatchDeltic must compete for talent against companies with headquarters in Houston and other large metropolitan areas. Deming, a Tulane University graduate who began working as an attorney for Murphy Oil in 1979, is often asked why one of the best scholarship programs of its kind in the country didn’t do more to stop population loss.

“The fact that it didn’t shows just how daunting the situation is in south Arkansas,” he says. “Almost all of the Arkansas counties south of Interstate 40 are facing similar challenges.”

Murphy interjects: “It takes more than one thing to change long-term trends. You have to have a confluence of events.”

Murphy is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and headed the Murphy Commission, which from 1996-99 studied ways to make Arkansas state government more efficient and accountable to taxpayers. His interest in public policy was inherited from his father, the late Charles Murphy, who was considered to be among the state’s greatest business and civic leaders of the 20th century. Charles Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

“We started this effort with some ideas about how we could turn the economic situation around,” Madison Murphy says. “What you see now is far different from our original concepts. I don’t know what it’s going to look like years from now, but this could be a catalyst for things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Murphy would like to see more people living downtown. Asked why arts and entertainment was the sector the business leaders decided to focus on, Murphy says bluntly: “Because we’re not going to get the next Toyota plant.”

He goes on the explain: “I see four drivers when it comes to attracting jobs. Those are education, infrastructure, tax rates and quality of life. Quality of life was our weakest link.”

Deming says: “We have a lot of white-collar jobs here because of the companies that are headquartered in El Dorado, and we have high-paying blue-collar jobs. So we have jobs. We also have the El Dorado Promise. And we were still losing population. So what do we do? We address those quality-of-life issues.”

Murphy quotes Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s most famous architects and urban planners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speaking about the design for the city of Chicago, Burnham said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high.”

“This is not a small plan,” Murphy says of the effort to transform El Dorado into a four-state arts and entertainment hub. “It’s blood stirring.”

Deming believes the attention that MAD will bring to El Dorado could put it on the radar screen for everyone from young families to retired couples.

“The most appealing lifestyle in the country these days is the lifestyle of the small-town South,” he says. “People here are friendly. It’s easy to get around. This lifestyle is contagious. What we must do is be able to grow without losing that small-town feel. This is already a wonderful place to live. We now have the opportunity to make it even better while attracting the attention of people across the region.”

Murphy says those behind MAD aren’t oblivious to the challenges they still face.

“We’re not on an interstate highway,” he says. “We don’t have adequate air service. At least people in this region are willing to drive some distance for events.”

The focus is on what the visionaries behind MAD hope will be future growth. Still, they haven’t forgotten the past. A 110-foot oil derrick was placed adjacent to the Griffin Building, paying homage to the boom that first put El Dorado in the national spotlight. Once more, El Dorado seeks to draw the nation’s attention.

“The team we’ve assembled here makes me proud,” Murphy says. “These folks are living it, breathing it, walking it, talking it, making it happen. We’re going to succeed.”

As we toured MAD just before its formal opening back in 2017, Murphy stopped to take a call on his cell phone. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the subject of the phone conversation was wine. After all, the Murphy family owns a California winery named Presqu’ile in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley.

After the call, Murphy told me that the fine-dining restaurant at the Griffin would have one of the best wine lists around. He’s right. And every meal I’ve had there since it opened has been wonderful.

Everything about MAD is first class, from the wine list to the entertainment venues. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this audacious (yes, some would say they’re mad) effort to turn El Dorado into a regional arts and entertainment center is the leadership team that has been put together.

There has been worldwide attention — and rightfully so — on what Alice Walton has done to transform Bentonville into an arts hub. What has happened in the far northern part of the state since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on Nov. 11, 2011, has made Arkansans in all 75 counties proud. Meanwhile, down in far southern Arkansas, there’s a team at work whose background might surprise you.

It starts with Terry Stewart, the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. He took over the Cleveland institution in 1999 (it had opened in 1995) and stayed there until 2013.

What on earth is he doing in south Arkansas?

For starters, he’s a south Alabama native. Stewart understands the rural South and was excited by the opportunity to help transform a city and maybe even an entire region of a state by improving the quality of life. I first met Stewart five years ago while sitting with a group in the back yard of well-known El Dorado downtown developer and writer Richard Mason. Stewart’s enthusiasm was contagious from the get-go.

Prior to joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stewart was the president and chief operating officer of the comic book company Marvel Entertainment Group. Marvel became a public company in 1991, and Stewart was named that year by CNBC as the Marketing Executive of the Year.

“My career has taken many twists and turns through the years, and that’s how I like it,” Stewart said when he was hired at El Dorado in August 2014. “Working with El Dorado Festivals & Events will give me an opportunity to harness my passions and hopefully improve the quality of life for this region.”

El Dorado Festivals & Events was formed in 2011 following the completion of a study by Roger Brooks, a nationally known destination development expert. Business leaders in El Dorado asked Brooks to go beyond the old concepts of industrial development and come up with a new way to stem the tide of population decline in El Dorado. It was Brooks who suggested an arts and entertainment district that would draw visitors from across the region.

“Many industry people think I’m mad when I tell them about the El Dorado project,” Stewart said in interview with the El Dorado newspaper. “But it’s going to be the most important work of my carer when one considers the lives that will be changed by the economic redevelopment and cultural infusion we’re working to achieve. … We’re bringing song, dance, good food and theater to a community and region that has long been underserved.”

In a recent article for The Bitter Southerner, Tony Rehagen wrote: “Stewart brought in architect Paul Westlake, who had a hand in designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and four of the six largest performing arts centers in the United States. The MAD chief marketing officer, Bob Tarren, came from jobs with Circuit City corporate, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Frick Pittsburgh, and he was succeeded in late 2019 by Lisaann Dupont, the former communications and digital marketing guru for the Ryman Auditorium. Even Austin Johnson, executive chef in charge of the Griffin and the food at the other venues, has a Parisian pedigree. If the scale of this project sounds a bit outsized for a town of 18,000 people, it is. But MAD president and COO Pam Griffin says there are already shoots of early progress: Annual sales tax receipts are up 15 to 20 percent from pre-MAD levels, downtown businesses are growing and The Haywood … is set to open downtown this summer.

“But El Dorado doesn’t just want transient tourism dollars. The city wants to rebuild its cultural scene, its nightlife, its infrastructure and the community to make it attractive for companies that might consider relocating here. More importantly, it wants to keep the talented young people who make the Murphy companies run and who could help new companies thrive. And the only thing bigger than the investment of capital and energy into MAD are the stakes riding on its success.”

Murphy told Rehagen: “It has always been a little difficult to recruit here. And if we can’t recruit people, we can’t stay.”

Murphy later told the writer: “We’re going to go down swinging.”

Rehagen wrote: “The idea for MAD wasn’t drawn out of a hat. El Dorado is unique in that it has an appreciation for the arts that rivals most Southern towns’ passion for high school football. The tradition dates back to the oil boom when businessmen who flooded the town needed something to do with their families in the off hours. The grand Rialto was built in 1929 as a draw for fans of vaudeville and increasingly popular moving picture shows. Founded here in 1956, the South Arkansas Symphony is the oldest continually operating orchestra in the state. Walk into the South Arkansas Arts Center, opened in 1964 on the western edge of downtown, on any given Friday and you’ll see exhibits by local visual artists, perhaps a touring exhibition and hear singing or music from the auditorium where children rehearse for recitals, concerts or plays.

“Although plenty of townspeople knew about art and the lords of local industry knew about economic development, no one really seemed to connect the two. Enter Austin Barrow, an El Dorado community theater expat who left right after high school, went to Fayetteville and earned a master’s degree in drama at the University of Arkansas, then ended up building a career in marketing and promotion for theaters and art galleries on the West Coast before moving to Georgia, where he was a drama department chair at a small college. In 2010, Madison Murphy and several other town leaders approached Barrow about coming home to oversee their best guess at what might work — an El Dorado Shakespeare Festival.”

Barrow, who resigned from MAD last year to return to the theater, told Rehagen: “I told them it was an absolutely crazy idea. Who’s going to come watch Shakespeare in El Dorado?”

Rehagen writes: “But Barrow was intrigued by the raw potential in his hometown. … Barrow joined Stewart, Tarren and Pam Griffin, then chair of the chamber of commerce. The group pitched the two-phase project to the city and met with little to no resistance. MAD was on its way to becoming reality.”

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