El Dorado has always embraced its “Boomtown” past, but with no new oil gushing out of the south Arkansas timberlands, city leaders have found a new way to lure folks to town.
Oil may have attracted them by the tens of thousands in the 1920s, but these days Main Street is the top draw. El Dorado’s commitment to downtown preservation has earned it recognition as one of Arkansas Business’ Cities of Distinction in the Main Street Preservation category.
After oil was discovered underneath south Arkansas almost a century ago, El Dorado prospered. The population of the Union County seat grew from 3,800 in 1920 to more than 16,000 a decade later, an increase of 322 percent. Thousands of newcomers flooded the city for a stake in the oil boom.
El Dorado became not only a south Arkansas economic and cultural hub, it was the de facto capital of the region. The city’s population topped out at just over 25,000 in the 1960s and ‘70s. While population began to slowly decline in the ‘80s, it’s settled in at roughly 19,000 today. But still, El Dorado boasts the markings of a larger city – “skyscrapers,” a thriving performing arts community, even a regional symphony orchestra.
Partly because of that boom, partly because it’s remained the center of things in south Arkansas — perhaps in part because of the continued presence of hometown Fortune 500 company Murphy Oil, a tangible nod to the city’s black gold past — El Dorado feels bigger than it is.
The roots of El Dorado’s downtown revitalization go back to the 1980s, when El Dorado began to lose population. City leaders recognized the need for an attempted recovery, said Don Hale, civic leader, local businessman and advisory board member of Main Street El Dorado, the nonprofit organization that puts on many award-winning events in town, like MusicFest El Dorado and Bugs, Bands & Bikes.
“A coalition of downtown merchants and civic leaders raised enough funds to guarantee a three-year program and successfully applied to become a Main Street Arkansas community in 1987,” Hale said. “Main Street El Dorado’s first priority was to convince the community of the business potential inherent in the downtown’s historic building stock.”
Hale said downtown El Dorado attributes its distinct physical character to a combination of historic building makeovers and new construction that complements them, streetscape projects and an eclectic public arts program.
“Preserving the town’s historic assets was a major goal from the beginning,” he said.
Main Street El Dorado’s efforts resulted in downtown El Dorado’s listing as a historic district within the National Register of Historic Places; fourteen downtown structures are listed.
“Main Street played a key role in persuading the community to pass a local historic ordinance with design review and a preservation commission,” Hale said.
A mini-grant program encourages downtown property owners and retail merchants to make improvements.
“The program has invested thousands of dollars in property improvement and is a key component to image building in our community,” Hale said.
The hard work has paid off — gone are the boarded-up shops and windows that began to crop up in the late ‘80s. Downtown El Dorado has been transformed into a vibrant and unique area, offering bed-and-breakfasts, shopping, upscale restaurants and more.
In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the old Boomtown a Great American Main Street City, recognizing the transformation of its historic downtown into a “vibrant place to live, work and play without sacrificing what makes it special.”