EL DORADO — Austin Barrow escaped from El Dorado just after high school, pledging never to return. “I didn’t even wait the summer; I was gone,” he says, but he was just taunting fate.
“I made the mistake of saying it out loud too many times; that guaranteed I’d be back.”
Now president and COO of nonprofit El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc., Barrow’s job is attracting people to his hometown and keeping residents here. And in a town where an oil gusher a century ago set off one of the wildest booms in American history, transforming El Dorado into south Arkansas’ richest town, Barrow presides over a boom in downtown construction.
A $54 million first phase is on time for a five-day grand opening of the Murphy Arts Center, named for one of the city’s leading oil families, starting Sept. 27. Phase 1 focuses on the historic Griffin Building, once a car showroom and assembly center for Model T’s. Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway is carefully reshaping the 1929 structure into a restaurant, cabaret and 2,000-seat music hall overlooking an 8,000-capacity outdoor amphitheater and a 2-acre children’s playscape. Murphy Oil Corp. has its headquarters five blocks to the north.
The $32 million second phase will remake the 1930s-vintage Rialto Theater, an old bus depot and the four-story McWilliams Building into an art gallery, exhibition hall and residence hall for artists.
“This is a quality-of-life initiative to make the town attractive to visitors and to residents,” Barrow said, citing recent studies that found that half of the downtown district’s 800 white-collar workers spend more than half of their weekends out of town, and that 150 jobs paying better than $75,000 a year are unfilled because “people won’t move to El Dorado to fill them.”
Barrow says the town is constantly exporting the cash of residents who keep condos in Hot Springs, Dallas and New Orleans. “I’m hoping our project will keep these people home more, and increase the likelihood of other companies relocating here with a large employee base.”
The overall $100 million project, based a few blocks south of Union Square, is an “arts story, a construction story, a historic preservation story and an economic development story,” said Festivals & Events Chief Marketing Officer Bob Tarren. Seeking to turn El Dorado into “the Festival City of the South,” the initiative struck a chord not just with Barrow and Mayor Frank Hash, but also with top business leaders in this town of 19,000, which has lost more than a quarter of its population since 1980.
“This is a venture with a purpose,” Hash told Arkansas Business last week. Beyond visitors, it targets employees at Murphy Oil and its publicly traded spinoffs, gasoline retailer Murphy USA and Deltic Timber. Chemical workers and other well-paid employees abound in town, Hash said. “It’s important that El Dorado has enough sophistication to keep those folks here, having a good time.”
The city has committed millions in economic-development tax proceeds, and the federal government is providing basically 25 percent of construction costs on the Griffin project in the form of historic preservation tax credits.
A 1 percent city sales tax approved by voters in 2007 produced some $34 million over eight years, with about $9.5 million of that going for the Arts Center, Hash said. The tax was renewed in 2015, leaving a 2.25 percent city sales tax burden on top of the state’s 6.5 percent and Union County’s 2 percent. The extension is expected to yield $50 million over 10 years. How much of that will go to the Arts Center will be determined after Phase 2 is underway.
City sales tax proceeds have fluctuated since rising from $3.45 million in 2007 to $6.42 million in 2008, the first full year of the economic development tax, according to figures from the state. El Dorado’s total slipped below $6 million in 2010 and 2012, and fell to a troubling $5.46 million in 2015 before rebounding to $6.83 million last year, the best revenue year ever.
A September Opening
But the bulk of the budget for the arts initiative, known as the Union Square project before it took the Murphy name, has been raised from donors. “We’ve raised about $65 million of our $100 million goal so far,” Barrow said. “I have no doubt that we’ll reach our target.”
The grand opening Sept. 27-Oct. 1 will feature events at the Griffin restaurant and cabaret, the attached music hall and the amphitheater. The weekend marks the 30th anniversary of MusicFest El Dorado, and the children’s playground opening and a large free outdoor concert are set for Sunday, Oct. 1.
Madison Murphy and Claiborne Deming of the Murphy Oil family were instrumental in initiating the Arts Center project, as was Edwin Alderson, another son of an Arkansas oil pioneer.
Murphy, a former chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission, has led efforts to get four lanes of highway all the way from Little Rock to El Dorado, and Barrow pointed to the 15 miles of orange construction barrels lining U.S. 167 north of town as evidence. The 2 1/2-hour drive has been cut closer to two hours, and the Highway & Transportation Department is working on plans to widen and improve Hillsboro Street, a major east-west artery in town, using a model imported from the streets and roundabouts near Hendrix College in Conway.
Roads are one of the four legs of Madison Murphy’s platform for economic development, Barrow said. Next is “taxing yourself to help yourself,” an ideal fulfilled by the economic development levy.
Then comes education, exemplified by construction of a new high school several years ago and by the El Dorado Promise, a program guaranteeing that Murphy Oil will pay college tuition costs for graduates of El Dorado High School. In the decade since its inception, the Promise has become a model, and the percentage of local graduates attending college has shot up, with some attending South Arkansas Community College just up the hill from the Arts Center site.
The economic development ingredient is quality of life, which is where El Dorado Festivals & Events fits in.
“The city had done a lot, winning awards with Main Street El Dorado’s renovations, building the El Dorado Conference Center to attract outside conferences and let our big publicly traded companies hold meetings,” Barrow said. “But there was more to be done.”
The city hired Destination Development International Inc., led by community marketing guru Roger Brooks, who spent months in El Dorado and noted similarities with Ashland, Oregon, home of a popular Shakespeare festival.
“What he found, quite earnestly, is that El Dorado has a very old and impassioned history in the arts,” Barrow said.
“The South Arkansas Arts Center [on East Fifth Street], for example, is celebrating its 53rd year. The South Arkansas Symphony has turned 61.”
Bringing It Home
So when Barrow came home for a Christmas visit in 2010, a group led by Murphy and Alderson took him to lunch.
“Brooks had suggested building a Shakespeare theater similar to Ashland,” Barrow recalled. “I said that was the craziest thing I’d ever heard, and I hoped that they had an enormous endowment because nobody was going to come; there were already three major Shakespeare companies within 200 miles of El Dorado.”
Later, Barrow got a call from Alderson. “I didn’t realize the lunch had been an interview; I just thought they wanted me to vet an idea. But he said, ‘Hey, you were the crazy guy that told us we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, so we want to hire you.’
“I’m a guy from the arts, so of course the Arts Center idea resonated with me,” said Barrow, who has an undergraduate degree in theater from Louisiana Tech University and ran the fine arts division at Andrew College in Georgia after earning an MFA at the University of Arkansas. “But I was surprised that these very powerful, wealthy men were saying, you know, this has some merit.”
Barrow moved back to El Dorado in May 2011. “I think they wanted someone from here on the project,” Barrow said. “We’ve all heard of towns that commissioned big plans and never followed through.”
He was eventually joined by Terry Stewart of Cleveland, who became Festivals & Events’ CEO. “He’s the former president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he ran Marvel Comics before that. Terry’s been around the block, and he’s had a real hard life, as you can tell from his resume,” Barrow said with a sly grin. “We did our own study and found that entertainment and music were high on the list of what people wanted. Kids’ activities was also high, as were great places to eat. Food is actually entertainment now.”
After initial fundraising among “true believers,” the project acquired about eight blocks on the south side of downtown for about $2 million. “As they develop a property, the city buys it and leases it back for a nominal fee,” Mayor Hash said. “That lets Festivals & Events reinvest their money in the program.”
Architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, led by managing principal Paul Westlake, identified several structures that could be renovated to serve the project, primarily the Griffin, Rialto and McWilliams buildings. Other structures will be coming down, with one notable exception — Hill’s Recreation Parlor on Cedar Street. “We can’t touch that,” Barrow said. “It’s the oldest continuously operating pool hall in the state.”
Star Amenities, and a Jail
Barrow turned to his knowledge of artists to aid in designing a hall to help the Griffin attract top acts. The huge stage can accommodate the largest touring rock shows, and amenities like a VIP dressing room only steps from the bus bay, and an artists’ elevator directly to the stage, should get music stars talking, Barrow hopes. “They’ll tell other artists, tell their managers and agents, and I think that will put us on these stars’ radar.”
Other features of the 70,000-SF Griffin are practical, including a central production suite and concessions and food service areas. “We have enough facilities down below to do shows in the cabaret, the music hall and out there [the amphitheater] at the same time,” Barrow said. There will even be a holding jail. “With the number of shows we’re going to have, you gotta have a jail,” Barrow said with a laugh. “There will always be a few crazies.”
El Dorado Glass, which owned the Griffin building, moved to another site in town, as did Delta Press, a magazine and book publisher in the area. That cleared the way for Nabholz to start, along with Milam Construction of El Dorado, the general contractor on the amphitheater, and the Weber Group, general contractor on the playground.
“Milam has done more ground work around El Dorado than anybody else, and an amphitheater is about 90 percent grounds, so that made sense,” Barrow said over the hammering and roar of construction equipment while leading a reporter on a tour. “Nabholz, with its experience at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, we definitely wanted them involved. And Weber, out of Indiana, is known for its work with Great Wolf Lodge [a chain of indoor water parks] and other huge entertainment projects for kids.”
Lance Wright, the project manager for Nabholz, described the Griffin as a unique challenge. “It’s a great project, and working on a building from the 1920s has been exciting,” he said, though requirements for the historic restoration tax incentives were exacting. “We couldn’t significantly alter the structure, so we had all of this electrical and plumbing and hundreds of feet of conduit that had to go into a limited space. With a new project you can adjust, raise ceilings, do other things, but all this had to fit into what space was there.”
Wright, who said construction is on time and on budget, was given a priority of working with local subcontractors, including Glenn Mechanical for HVAC and plumbing; El Dorado Roofing; El Dorado Glass; Storey’s Floor & Carpet; and the Systems Group for steel fabrication and erecting.
Many supplies came from local vendors, including Barker Steel, Ken’s Hardware, Hays Rental and Artattack Graphic Design. Union County Solid Waste handled construction debris.
Merchants around the courthouse square, where streetlight banners announce “It’s Showtime!” are hoping the Arts Center will stimulate business. “Traffic has been down this spring,” said Sandra Vaughn, owner of Jefferson Street Books, a bright, tidy shop filled with popular titles, volumes on philosophy and politics and book-related plush toys. “Business is slow, and if it weren’t for out-of-town customers, people from nearby towns that make a trip out of it, we would be worse off.”
Nick McKinney, who relocated from Monroe, Louisiana, about a year ago to open an antiques shop around the corner, praised El Dorado’s beauty and friendliness, but agreed that business could be better. “Hopefully the Arts Center will bring a big boost to the entire community, but of course visitors don’t really buy antiques.”
Barrow has no illusions that his mission will be easy. He doesn’t expect concerts and exhibitions to bring 40,000 people running to El Dorado overnight as the Busey No. 1 gusher did in January 1921.
“El Dorado isn’t a big crossroads, but we have spent years refining a plan, and our $100 million fundraising goal should give us a cushion,” he said.
Barrow said that people don’t like to talk about it, but “arts centers lose money; they all do.” The books of any entertainment district will reveal a contributed line and an earned line, he said. “The contributed line is about 60 percent and the earned line is about 40. We would love to correct that model, but when we hit our funding goal, and if we operate with success, we’ll have about five years to close up about a $2 million annual hole. And we have lots of ideas for doing that.”