El Dorado Hopes 'the Promise' Brings Back the Golden Days

by Susan C. Thomson  on Monday, Feb. 16, 2009 12:00 am  

El Dorado, Ark., and the area around it are naturally rich in pine forests, salt water and oil. Now, the town is seeking to capitalize on a new resource - education. In January 2007, Murphy Oil Corp., the community's signature employer, announced that it was setting aside $50 million to endow the El Dorado Promise, a program that offers grants to graduates of El Dorado High School so that they can attend college.

"That started the ball rolling," Mayor Mike Dumas says. "That changed the whole attitude of the community."

He and other leaders in El Dorado (rhymes with "tornado") credit the Promise for energizing townspeople to approve later that year a one-cent sales tax for economic development and the town's first school tax increase in 31 years.

(To see El Dorado by the numbers, click here.)

They voted "yes" though times were hard for many. The local unemployment rate was hovering about two points above the national average. Luther Lewis, chief executive at the Medical Center of South Arkansas, says bad debt was rising at the hospital and more patients were qualifying for Medicaid.

The town's once-bedrock manufacturing industry was eroding and taking its toll. In 2003, lighting manufacturer Prescolite Inc. pulled out of El Dorado, moving the work of its 270 employees to Mexico. Two years later, Cooper-Standard Automotive closed its local vehicle-parts plant and consolidated production in Auburn, Ind., eliminating another 400 jobs.

Don Wales, chief executive of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce, says it had long been obvious that outsized employee fringe benefits made the Cooper-Standard plant uncompetitive. He puts the town's Pilgrim's Pride chicken-processing plant in that same precarious category, given its history of labor-management and productivity problems.

As chicken processing evolved into a big business, that plant grew accordingly - into a linchpin of the local economy. Now, it too is threatened. Late last summer - as part of a drastic overhaul that was prompted by spiking feed and fuel costs, an oversupply of processed chickens and mounting corporate red ink - Pilgrim's Pride cut its El Dorado work force by 700.

With a payroll of 1,000 left, Pilgrim's Pride remains the largest local employer. But for how long? A spokesman declined to elaborate on the company's notice last spring that it was considering the plant for possible shutdown. Last month, the company filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Fortunately, the natural-resource industries remain, of necessity, rooted in place. The forests feed a lumber industry that began just after the Civil War. After decades of industry consolidation, Deltic Timber Corp. and Anthony Forest Products Co., the largest surviving companies, are bucking a slowdown caused by the steep drop-off in U.S. home building. Aubra Anthony Jr., president of his family's company, takes the long view. Timber will come back, he says, "because of its increasing value not only for traditional building products and fiber for paper but also for the emerging biofuels industry and cellulosic ethanol."

El Dorado, just 14 miles north of the Louisiana border, lies over one of two commercially viable salt water reserves in the world, the Dead Sea being the other. Chemtura, the largest of three chemical plants in town, pumps that water, or brine, from the ground and uses the bromine it extracts from it to make products such as fire retardants and chemicals for use in oil drilling, water treatment and agriculture.

Plans are afoot for the leftover brine. Texas-based Tetra Technologies Inc. has broken ground nearby for a $110 million plant that is expected to employ about 80 people when in full production at the end of this year. It will buy brine from Chemtura and process it into calcium chloride, whose uses include controlling pressure in oil and gas drilling, curing cement, processing food and melting ice and snow.

No commodity, though, has so driven and defined the town over the years as oil. Its discovery in the area in 1921 set off an explosion in population and wealth that lasted through that decade and earned El Dorado its enduring nickname - Boomtown.



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