Once-Slick Oil Town Looks for Resurgence

With no four-lane highway access, a steady population decline and the recent loss of several large employers, El Dorado is far from its oil-rich glory days of the early and mid-20th century.

But a new emphasis that city officials and business leaders are putting on economic development, along with the guidance of a recently contracted consulting firm, have rejuvenated the optimism once commonplace during the southeastern Arkansas city's oil boom.

"We've lived on oil, chemical and timber for years, and we were pretty successful at that," said Mayor Bobby Beard. "But now we're losing population little by little, and we're going to have to be proactive in turning that around. I think you'll find that the people here are proud of this town and are eager to watch it grow again."

City officials thought the answer could be found in a countywide 0.875 percent sales tax that voters ultimately denied in November 2005. It turns out that the rest of Union County might not be as optimistic for El Dorado's resurgence as those within the city limits, as the measure suffered a wipeout among county voters while turning the table with city voters.

But as the late Charles Murphy, head of Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado, figured, "There's no education in getting kicked by the mule twice." So the city decided its original four-part plan would have to change to gain favorability from voters.

The 2005 tax package promised voters new infrastructure for a business park, work force development for potential employees, a promotional effort from the city, and a new facility at the Southeast Arkansas Community College campus that would include a civic center, bookstore and student union.

"After almost 70 promotional events for the tax around the county and an effort to get the word out about the benefits of such a tax, we didn't know really what the best direction would be for another attempt," said Don Wales, CEO of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce.

So the city formed an economic development task force that joined with the Union County Industrial Board to hire TIP Strategies Inc. of Austin, Texas, to do a thorough study of the region and offer its advice before a new tax strategy is put together.

That report is expected back Oct. 15, which is too late to put a measure on the November ballot.

"We'll have to have a special election sometime in December, January or February," Wales said. "We'll have to get the City Council on board with the study's results and have a little time to get feedback from others in the city."

Beard said the best-case scenario would be for county voters to be sold on the idea, but he is not ruling out the possibility of trying for a city-only tax.

"If the county was not involved, it won't hurt us too much as far as generating revenue," Beard said. "The thing is we would just like for them to be included. Economic development doesn't stop at the El Dorado border."

Beard said County Judge Bobby Edmonds stumped for the 2005 tax and is supportive of another run at a county tax.

Lost Highway

The key to El Dorado and Union County's revitalization is twofold, with the possibility of a county or city economic development tax riding shotgun alongside the development of a four-lane highway in and out of town.

Gov. Mike Huckabee's appointment of Madison Murphy, a member of the Murphy Oil family, to the state High-way Commission in 2002 brought new hope that El Dorado would soon lose the title of the state's largest city without four-lane access to Little Rock.

According to the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, its master plan calls for four lanes on U.S. Highway 167 from El Dorado south to Ruston, La., and eventually north to Fordyce. From For-dyce there are plans for four-lane access to Interstate 530 near Sheridan.

No money has been appropriated.

"When we can get four lanes from Fordyce up to I-530 that's the biggest chunk," Wales said. "When that happens, we can advertise to the world that we have four-lane access to I-20, I-30 and I-40, and that's pretty important when you start talking to site selection people."