The El Dorado Story
El Dorado had a rather ordinary beginning, and from its founding in 1845, the town, slowly grew to where in January of 1921 the city could boast 3800 rather ordinary farmers, merchants, and woodsmen, who struggled to survive. The area’s virgin timber had been harvested and the sandy soil could barely produce enough cotton to pay the bank for the seed. It was a grim outlook these El Dorado folks faced as they started the New Year. However, at 4:00 P. M. on January 11th, 1921 there was a thunderous roar west of town and almost the entire population of the little village hurried to the edge of town where oil was roaring through the top of a wooden derrick. The Bussey # 1 Armstrong had come in as a gusher ushering in an oil boom unlike anything anyone in Arkansas had ever seen. Within five years hundreds of wells had been drilled and the value of the oil produced during those five years was greater than the entire appraised value of all the property in the state. In those five years Union County’s population mushroomed from 5000 to 100,000 and El Dorado’s population of 3800 soared to an estimated 40,000.
Almost all of the wood-frame downtown buildings, the three center of town churches, and the red brick Victorian Courthouse were scraped off, and in their place some magnificent buildings were built. Many of El Dorado’s city leaders of the 1920s had been in World War I and had seen the wonderful buildings of Europe, and with the oil boom money they did their best to emulate them. After the excesses of the oil boom settled out, El Dorado’s population stabilize between 28,000 and 30,000 in the 50s and 60s.
However, as El Dorado’s manufacturing base relocated to cheaper labor out of the country, the county and city steadily lost population until it dipped under 20,000 in 2010. When it became obvious that the manufacturing jobs that sustained the city would never return, different ways to reverse the downtrend in growth were considered. A group called 50 For the Future was formed and their mission was to turn the negative growth rate around, and once again have a growing expanding economy. After hearing Roger Brooks, a destination expert from Seattle, speak at a State Main Street meeting in Little Rock, he was invited to address the business community in El Dorado. He was so impressive that 50 For The Future and the City of El Dorado each put up $25,000 and hired Mr. Brooks to recommend how to turn El Dorado’s decline around.
After working on the project a year, he came back into town with a thick packet of recommendations. The key to his vision was to make El Dorado an entertainment destination. He called the project El Dorado! The Festival City of the South. Mr. Brooks is a destination expert, and his premise is the small to medium size towns must be a destination if they are to grow and prosper.
To become a destination is very simple, you must have something that will attracted people to visit your city, but it goes further than that. A town also must have the things the skilled professional people, who are anxious to leave the mega cities and all the traffic, noise, and pollution where they won’t just visit, they will move there. Actually, they want what all of us desire: entertainment, good restaurants, a safe, attractive downtown, and good schools.
In 2009 El Dorado’s restored downtown was selected at the top downtown out of over a 1000 Main Street communities under 50,000 in population, and Mr. Brooks used that foundation to build upon his recommendations.
Phase One of MAD, the Murphy Arts District:
The project is just a block off of the downtown square and it is centered around the 1929 Rialto Theater and the adjacent buildings. The Griffin Auto Building, a 1920 era building was built as a Ford Motor Company showroom. It is a huge, open steel-arched building that has been converted into a 2200 seat Broadway stage quality theater called the Griffin Music Hall. It also includes a cabaret restaurant, the Griffin, which opened with sold out performances each Thursday from the cabaret stage. It’s Thursday Night Live at the Griffin!
Adjacent to the Griffin building an 8000 capacity amphitheater has been constructed, and during opening weekend festivities, Brad Paisley filled it to capacity. Work continues on the MAD PLAYSCAPE, which will be the largest children’s play area in the state. It will feature state-of-the-art water projects and numerous other children’s play items.
Phase Two of MAD
The MAD Art Museum is the next major agenda item, and renovation of the 1920 era McWilliams Furniture Building will start within a few weeks. The museum will have three floors of display area, and connections with other regional and national museums to offer rotating art displays featuring top American and European artists. As this work progresses, one of the remaining 1920s Ritchie Grocery Buildings will be converted into a recital hall and small, black-box theater.
After the MAD Art Museum opens, work will begin on the crown jewel of the MAD, the 1929 art deco, vaudeville-movie house the Rialto Theater. This major project will restore the interior and exterior to exactly the condition it was when it opened in 1929, plus the addition of numerous attendee enhancements.
The facilities that are finished and those under construction are the items that will bring in skilled professionals to reverse the population loss and create jobs. MAD is creating exactly what these folks are looking for as they leave the mega-cities. In ten years, after MAD is finished, I predict several positive things will have taken place in El Dorado.
Well over 500 new jobs will be created, the new, empty Industrial Park will become a high-end residential subdivision, El Dorado’s population will pass 30,000, dozens of stores and restaurants will open, South Arkansas Community College will become a four year university, real estate values in the two shopping areas, North West Avenue and Downtown, will double, and Hot Springs couples will start buying condos in El Dorado.
Actually, since the initial opening of MAD, exceeded all expectations in attendance and job creation, and the ongoing multiple events have attracted such a large audience, the above projections very likely underestimate the final success of the completed MAD. At the present MAD has 310 full and part-time employees, and they are still hiring.
. That is exactly how you make a town a destination, which will stem the outflow of jobs and population. Well, the bottom line to all of this is very simple: The skilled workers who will grow a town must have the quality of life items they want, and the town wants or the skilled workers won’t come and the young people won’t stay. It’s up to the town to give both groups what they want, or face a continuing population loss.