I have longed believed in the impact of culture on economic development, that is why two years ago when I started hearing rumblings about some serious efforts to build El Dorado as the cultural center of South Arkansas I had to go see those initial building blocks. It certainly wasn’t my first time in the city, but it was the first time through the lens of what was to come.
What I found in the summer of 2017 was a lot of mismatched pieces that, given a little organization, could breathe new life into the old oil town. Done poorly though it could crumble and send the city, already struggling like most south Arkansas spots, into further disrepair.
In a lot of ways, it reminded me of a trip to Bentonville just before Crystal Bridges opened. There was the huge talk of everything to come, but looking at what was there it seemed a bit crazy. The town has exploded over the 10 years since that visit, many of the things I heard back then are just now coming into reality. It is the same talk that I am hearing out of Pine Bluff and Hot Springs, both of those cities are desperately working in wildly different ways to build the foundation for growth.
A return visit to El Dorado this past week, however, showed me that the foundation there is set, with the final bricks sliding carefully into place. The foundation and the anchor here is very clearly the Murphy Arts District and the Griffin restaurant.
“I think people thought we were a little crazy by putting all this here in El Dorado,” Murphy Arts District CMO Bob Tarren says as we tour the surrounding area. “We have tried to build with meaning and purpose. Step one was to get people from surrounding markets to come to visit El Dorado. Step two is going to be giving them a reason to stay.”
The Murphy Arts District was able to open with an extremely impressive lineup of musical talent, it attracted folks from all over the lower half of Arkansas, northern Louisiana, East Texas, and Mississippi by providing shows that were as good as the nearest major market with the convenience of being a little closer.
Then they developed huge inroads on the culinary side. The reason for my visit was the annual Southern Food and Wine Festival. Typically in small-town food festivals, you find courses that are very reflective of the local food palate. The dinner held on the first night of this festival resembled similar dinners I’ve had in New York and other large cities. In fact between the chefs and sommelier, the dinner represented at least 5 Michelin Stars and countless other national and international awards.
If we talk about cities punching above their weight class in terms of food quality, this was like watching an amateur featherweight boxer take down Tyson in his prime. This food did not belong in El Dorado, yet here it was. It was able to attract a massive crowd all paying high dollar for a seat at a table serving better food than likely anywhere else in the state on that Friday night. It is impressive to watch, especially considering just a few short years ago the town’s biggest culinary draw was potato donuts and the last remaining location of a long forgotten hamburger franchise.
The next round of development should fully finish the first phase of the reimagining of El Dorado. A boutique hotel is currently underway that will add some much-needed lodging within walking distance of the downtown growth. Across from the Griffin, there is a new art museum in works that will feature art on loan from places like Crystal Bridges, allowing folks in South Arkansas who are not willing to make that 5+ hour journey the ability to check out works from the best-curated art collection in the United States. Finally, they are refurbishing an old theater a block over that should add further depth to the things to do during your weekend getaways in El Dorado.
It is all building toward a city with strong cultural amenities that rival places in the area three times their size. It should allow a solid foundation for further growth outside of the Murphy Arts District, adding to the overall quality. Finally, it will plant the seed for the second phase of allowing the companies in the area to attract top tier talent and further grow the economy of the city.
Watching the declining populations around South Arkansas, El Dorado is exactly what the state needs right now. Thankfully, the foundation is firm and ready to support the weight of South Arkansas.