El Dorado was “Arkansas’ Original Boomtown,” harkening back to the south Arkansas oil boom of the 1920s, and for years that’s how the Union County seat marketed itself.
But the city started losing business and population in the 1980s, and eventually civic leaders questioned the wisdom of promoting their town by looking back.
“For more than a decade, El Dorado embraced its heritage of the 1920s oil boom, which focused on the past and did little to describe to potential visitors what El Dorado has to offer today, and more importantly, tomorrow,” said Mark Givens, executive director of Main Street El Dorado.
El Dorado began looking forward, rebranded itself, and became arguably the festival destination of the region. Its effort to bolster tourism with the development of a downtown entertainment district has earned it a 2012 Arkansas Business City of Distinction award.
Givens said a grass roots effort was started to establish a new city brand that could help lift El Dorado out of the doldrums. Out was “oil boomtown,” and in was … well, what? A series of town-hall style meetings asked that very question. These meetings represented not just a cross section of residents, but of ideas. Ultimately, city leaders knew they needed to move forward.
“Brands are not built on consensus, nor should they require the blessings of a city council or the chamber of commerce,” Givens said. “A brand is not a logo or a catchy slogan. A brand must truthfully offer a promise that can be fulfilled.”
The one thing civic leaders realized they had that distinguished El Dorado from other cities was its award-winning downtown, which Givens called unique and something that separates El Dorado from other towns.
“El Dorado is fortunate to have one of the best downtowns in the South,” he said. “Tree lined streets surround a stately courthouse with retail boutiques and restaurants in a pedestrian-friendly setting ideal for shopping or enjoying a live performance at one of our weekend events.
“It’s the same setting that retail developers in Branson and other destinations have attempted to create with ‘lifestyle centers’ that lure tourists, shoppers and overnight guests to their destination. But even the most vibrant downtown is not a destination that can provide several hundred new jobs and have a major economic impact.”
So, what could attract visitors from as far as 300 or 400 miles away to downtown? And in numbers that would make an economic impact?
City leaders determined an entertainment district featuring performing arts theaters, music venues, festivals and events could do it.
And El Dorado is doing it. No more boomtown. Now, just “Festival City.” Here’s a roster of its annual entertainment district offerings that would make many big cities jealous:
- Main Street’s St. Patrick’s Day Celebration
- The Mayhaw Festival
- Bugs, Bands & Bikes Weekend, which draws thousands to town and features prominent acts and grand marshals
- Showdown at Sunset, named to the American Bus Association’s “Top 100 Events in North America”
- Musicfest El Dorado, the city’s flagship fundraiser, a three-time winner of the Arkansas Festival of the Year Award
- The Southern Food & Wine Festival
- The Boomtown Classic college football game between local schools.
Other recent improvements to downtown that complement the entertainment district include the renovation of the historic El Dorado Municipal Auditorium and Rialto Theatre and the opening of the impressive El Dorado Conference Center. In addition, the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1956, was one of the first orchestras in the state, and the South Arkansas Arts Center has long served as the area’s cultural and artistic center.
Festival City’s theme is “It’s Showtime!” But no big marketing campaign will sell this new brand. Instead, city leaders want to earn the distinction the old fashioned way.
“Plans are to host an event every month along with year-round activities,” Givens said. “This ‘bridge brand’ will foster the promise that there is always something exciting going on in El Dorado.”