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$50M Revitalization Plan Aims To Turn El Dorado into Cultural Mecca

7 min read

With a declining population and an unstable job market, the city of El Dorado is investing in quality of life in an effort to boost its economy.

Madison Murphy, president of the Murphy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life through the support of education and culture, said there are four things that will bring jobs to El Dorado: education, infrastructure, tax incentives and quality of life.

After the creation of the El Dorado Promise, the Murphy Oil scholarship program, in 2007 and the passage of a 1 percent sales tax for a conference center and other economic development projects, city leaders began an initiative with destination developer Roger Brooks to look into further improving quality of life.

Brooks worked with city leaders from 2009 to 2011 to develop a master plan for the city of El Dorado. His challenge was to take the focus off of El Dorado’s former success in the oil industry and give the city a new identity.

Brooks originally pitched the idea to start a Shakespeare festival, drawing many comparisons between El Dorado and Ashland, Oregon, home of the longest running and most financially successful Shakespeare festival in the U.S.

But El Dorado was a little late to that game since an Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre had already been established in Conway. However, the idea of economic development through arts and entertainment took hold, and El Dorado set out to brand itself as “the festival city” with the tagline “It’s Showtime!”

Out of Brooks’ original 40-page plan, the city chose several concepts to implement, including a multiple-venue district that would allow El Dorado to trumpet a new identity completely separate from its earlier incarnation as “Arkansas’ original boomtown.”

The city and some of its biggest companies are investing in a $50 million revitalization plan. The goal is to arrest the population decline that has plagued the city since major companies like Copper-Standard Automotive and, most recently, Pilgrim’s Pride shut down operating facilities, eliminating hundreds of jobs.

The population of El Dorado dropped 12 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate for 2013 showed that it continued to decline, albeit more slowly, to about 18,500.

Jeremy Stratton, president and CEO of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce, said that as companies have left and not been replaced, residents have had to move to where the jobs are.

Stratton, who describes himself as “not your typical ribbon-cutting chamber guy,” was brought on board about six months ago to create a budget to operate and market industrial parks. He’s been in preliminary discussions and on visits with companies in China, particularly a wood furniture and flooring manufacturer.

Stratton said he can’t guarantee that bringing the Chinese companies to El Dorado would replace all the jobs that have been lost, but he’s also marketing El Dorado and working on a new economic development website.

One of the major challenges Stratton said he faces when recruiting companies to El Dorado is the city’s isolation from an interstate highway.

The Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department’s Connecting Arkansas Program will ease this issue when it widens about 6 miles of Highway 82 to four lanes in 2017, beginning at the intersection of Airport Drive and ending at the start of Highway 82B.

In the meantime, Stratton said, the city’s efforts to attract business through a vibrant downtown are a step in the right direction. The city’s three publicly traded companies — Murphy Oil Corp. and spinoffs Deltic Timber Corp. and Murphy USA Inc. — have been the initiative’s biggest supporters.

The founding Murphy family realizes the correlation between quality of life and the success of their business interests, Stratton said. “To make their company grow and prosper, it will require amenities to attract the best talent,” he said.

New Murphy Headquarters

In addition to the revitalization and philanthropic support, the Murphy family is also making an infrastructure investment to ensure their flagship company remains in El Dorado with the construction of the new Murphy Oil Corp. headquarters.

With energy exploration and production operations that span the globe, Murphy Oil could have established a new headquarters anywhere, but chose to build a new facility directly next to its current building in downtown El Dorado.

When Murphy Oil spun off its retail fuel station business last year, a decision was made to keep the new Murphy USA in the existing building while Murphy Oil would build a new facility.

Stratton said generations removed from the founders often feel the pull to move businesses to bigger cities. “My hat’s off to them to keep that from happening,” he said.

Polk Stanley Wilcox of Little Rock is the architect of the building, and PDR Corp. of Houston is designing the interior.

The 86,000-SF building will consist of a two-story lobby and gallery with meeting rooms connected to a five-story office tower by a glass stairwell that features the Murphy Oil Corp. logo.

Three lawyers’ offices and the former office of the South Arkansas Historic Society were demolished earlier this summer to make room for the new Murphy headquarters. Construction has started, and the headquarters is expected to open in September 2015.

Allison Parker, general manager of global communications for Murphy, said the 140 Murphy Oil employees who are currently working in El Dorado will move to the new building when construction is complete.

The company as a whole has added jobs, she said, but it isn’t known whether additional employees will be hired in El Dorado with the completion of the new building.

From Boomtown to Showtime

El Dorado has a well-established arts and entertainment community on which to build its new economy: The city is home to Arkansas’ oldest symphony, South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and the South Arkansas Arts Center.

The city also hosts a multitude of festivals, including the flagship MusicFest, a two-day event in historic downtown El Dorado. In its 27th year, the event has been named Festival of the Year five times by the Arkansas Festivals & Events Association.

The city’s many festivals and performances have primarily been produced by either Main Street El Dorado, a nonprofit established in 1989 with a mission to stimulate downtown economic development, or the South Arkansas Historical Foundation.

In 2011, a new nonprofit, El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc., was created to oversee an effort to establish an arts and entertainment district between South Arkansas Community College and the historic Union Square.

“For the past few years we’ve worked to rebrand the city into a cultural performance mecca,” said President and COO Austin Barrow. “El Dorado has a very unique situation that we’ve created for ourselves — looking at arts and entertainment as a way to boost our economy.”

In 2012, the El Dorado City Council gave unanimous support to the plan and designated $9 million in economic development funds. A week later, the Murphy Foundation committed $5 million.

While most organizations create a plan and then work to secure funding, El Dorado Festivals & Events got a head start: Its executive committee consists of Madison Murphy; Edwin Alderson, the founder of Noalmark Broadcasting Corp. and a former county judge; and Claiborne Deming, chairman of Murphy Oil.

Barrow said fundraising for the district is about 80 percent complete. Although there is fundraising to do, the gap is narrow enough that the city should be able to start construction soon and El Dorado can “start seeing some real progress,” he said.

“When you start getting that much money in your coffers raised,” Barrow said, “we decided to put a pause on everything and do one final gut check.”

That’s when Terry Stewart, former president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland, was recruited to serve as chairman and CEO of the board of the nonprofit.

Through the friendships the executive committee had with Stewart, they were able to convince him to take a look at their plan to turn a depressed part of downtown into an artistic and entertaining economy booster.

The first thing Stewart did was validate the plan with a local and regional feasibility study.

The study found Arkansans and those of surrounding communities want a variety of entertainment from live music and theater to good restaurants and activities for young families.

Stewart said people don’t often realize the importance of the culinary arts and how dining out is becoming as much a part of the entertainment industry as performance.

Stewart’s fundraising goal is to establish an operating reserve and endowment. He also plans to take advantage of historic tax credits during construction.

With the El Dorado Promise, continuing infrastructure improvements and a plan for improved quality of life, El Dorado city leaders are hoping to attract the jobs they need to cultivate and sustain a steady population.

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