Yes, a lot of tourists are already coming. Thousands are arriving daily in our fair State, as Crystal Bridges pulls them in, and this September there will be a new kid on the block, which will be a bookend in South Arkansas to Crystal Bridges in the North. It’s the MAD, (The Murphy Arts District) in downtown El Dorado, and they are expecting somewhere around the same number of visitors (175,000) that Crystal Bridges was expecting their first year. Well, we all know Crystal Bridges did a little better than expected—like a lot better—hundreds of thousands better. Would you believe 650,000?
On September 27, the MAD is planning a grand opening week of Phase One, with a lineup of talent that makes RiverFest look like the Emerson Purple-hull Pea Festival. Will anyone show up for a week featuring the biggest group of talent ever put together in Arkansas? Of course, they will come by the thousands just as they did when Crystal Bridges opened, and they will keep coming because not only will the first week have talent out the gazoo, but every week of the year will feature more of the same.
Phase One of the MAD will feature an 8000 capacity amphitheater, a 2200 seat Griffin Auditorium, a cabaret with an assortment of live entertainment, a world class farm to table restaurant—(no instant mashed potatoes there boys) and the best children’s play-area in the state with a water feature to draw thousands of kids in the summer. That’s just Phase One. Phase Two will have a multi-level art museum, and as the centerpiece of the entire MAD, the Rialto Theater, the finest vaudeville theater in the state, will be renovated into a live theater complete with its original massive pipe organ to boom out a welcome to all.
Yes, the MAD will be the south bookend to Crystal Bridges on the north and the two entertainment entities will complement each other. The entire State of Arkansas will benefit because of the influx of tourists, and as the attractions of new exhibits from Crystal Bridges, and the headliners from MAD become a destination to do both, the number of visitors to our state will mushroom. We certainly need to be aware of this very real possibility, and get ready to welcome multi-thousands of visitors.
Well, let’s just look at the real possibilities of a massive influx of tourists, and try and understand what we need to do in order to welcome the crowds who are going to show up on our doorstep. I remember, as a boy, my momma saying, “Richard, the preacher will be coming for dinner Sunday, and we need….”. I would reply, “Yep”. Yes, that was me, and that meant mow the yard, wash the car, wash off the porch, and sweep it. Well, I guess the preacher is coming to Arkansas in droves, and we need to spruce up things, Right? And not only spruce things up, but get ready to handle an influx of cars, busses, bikes, and motorcycles. We need to have wayfaring signage, parking for not only car but bikes, and motorcycles, encourage residents of join Air B & B because in South Arkansas, we don’t have hotel or motel space for a tenth of the visitors who will be coming.
As I write this are there are 83 days left to get ready, and yes, El Dorado has made a start: they have placed tiny MAD banners on the downtown light poles—whoopee! Yes, we’re moving at Glacial Speed down here in South Arkansas, but the to-do list is longer than my arm. Are we going to wake up with ten thousand attendees in town looking for the MAD, a place to sleep, and a place to park? But just getting directions and a place to park is only part of getting ready. What our towns and cities need to do is get the entire town ready, and of course that means the entrances into all our cities must be made ready. Bentonville has spent several million in sprucing up their downtown, and their signage to Crystal Bridges is great. Okay, so we know how Bentonville is doing it and it’s passable, except for Walton Boulevard, which needs to have several thousand trees and more green-space, but what but the rest of our state, the towns that will have secondary visits from Crystal Bridges and the MAD?
El Dorado, the south bookend has two primary entrances into the center of town, North West Avenue, which is an ugly, disgraceful entrance and Hillsboro Street, which is even worse. If the El Dorado City Council is serious about making a halfway decent first impression to the tens of thousands of visitors who will start showing on their doorstep September 27 they should immediately start work on North West Avenue. Pass a sign ordinance, mandate 25% green-space for the dozens of parking lots, and plant crepe myrtle trees every twenty feet down both sides of the street, and of course do underground utilities and make the center of the street a boulevard with trees down the center of the street.
I really believe, we’re looking at a bookend MAD in South Arkansas, which, when tied to the hit Crystal Bridge Museum in the north, will increase visits to entire State by huge numbers. I think Crystal Bridges will see a 20 to 30 percent increase and the MAD visitors could easily hit 500,000. I know you’re shaking your head, but what if I’m right? Well, there were some head-shakers in Bentonville when Crystal Bridges predicted 175,000 their first year, so I think you’re with the head-shakers, and I’m with Crystal Bridge 650,000 who showed up that first year, and what is even more remarkable only 55% were from Arkansas.
We do know this; all those visitors won’t just go to Bentonville and El Dorado. Every city in the state will see hundreds, and a city the size of Little Rock will have thousands show up. That puts the “get ready for company” on virtually every town in the state. Of course, the feature towns of El Dorado and Bentonville will need to take the lead. Will we be ready? What do you think?