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

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

A rough version of the original boomtown survives in a downtown that was largely boarded up 20 years ago. It is now a picture-postcard vision of rehabbed storefronts and old-time kiosks, clocks, streetlights and telephone booths. Oil entrepreneur Richard Mason and his wife, Vertis, spearheaded the transformation by investing their own money. Other investors followed, as did Main Street El Dorado, an organization that raises money for improvements downtown and that stages events there. The Downtown Business Association is also a big promoter these days.

Recently, oil has been enjoying what Rodney Landes, president of El Dorado's First Financial Bank, describes as a "mini-boom." As world oil prices soared in 2008, small operators found profits in reworking old fields for deeply embedded oil. In doing so, they put hundreds to work and provided "a significant boost" to the local economy, he says.

Most of the local oil - along with offshore and foreign crude - passes through the Lion Oil Co. refinery. An El Dorado fixture since the go-go 1920s, it turns out gasoline that is sold in Arkansas and 14 other states. The company has invested several million dollars to double its capacity over the past 20 years and plans to expand it again this year, Vice President Steven M. Cousins says.

By far, the community's biggest name in oil is Murphy. By virtue of its $25 billion in annual revenue, Fortune magazine ranked the company the nation's 134th largest in 2008. Murphy Oil sells gasoline at Wal-Marts in 20 states and explores for oil and gas all over the world, though nowhere near El Dorado. Yet, loyal to its beginning in the region a century ago, the company maintains its headquarters here and is treasured as the city's largest white-collar employer.

Claiborne P. Deming, who retired as Murphy's president last month, says the Promise was motivated by the company's desire "to give kids an opportunity to go away and take advantage of their ability." As a plus, he adds, the company saw it as a potential lure to professionals, who are sometimes difficult for employers to attract to small, rural Southern towns.

Depending on how long they've been attending El Dorado public schools, graduates are promised up to the highest tuition at an Arkansas public university - $3,252 a semester this year. They can spend the money at any two- or four-year, public or private, in-state or out-of-state college or university.

The offer was an instant hit. Of the high school's 271 graduates that first year, 224, or 83 percent, went to college, compared with the usual 60 percent. Results were similar in 2008. James Fouse, the school district official who directs the Promise, says it has expanded the college options of many students.

For others, it has provided their only opportunity. Senior Paul Lowery, for instance, is the oldest of three siblings. He always wanted to go to college but wasn't always sure he'd be able to - until the Promise. "I can go now," he beams. This fall, he expects to enroll at the University of Arkansas.

Deming says the Promise has given El Dorado "a nice sense of pulling together and moving forward." Landes envisions it as "a tie breaker" that can work in the city's favor in attracting new business.

Don Hale, president of the advertising agency that promotes El Dorado tourism, predicts the Promise will succeed in attracting both new businesses and residents.

The school district, which had been losing between 80 and 100 students a year for the 20 years before the Promise, is already crediting it for an uptick in enrollment - 149 more students in 2007 and 50 more in 2008.

Soon, El Dorado taxpayers will start seeing physical evidence of their Promise-inspired largesse.



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