With just about one week before the long awaited grand opening of the Murphy Arts District, construction crews and district employees are trying to ensure every last detail is in place.
And it’s been a long road to get to the opening stage.
The first phase of the $100 million project, which includes the Griffin Restaurant, the Griffin Music Hall, the Ampitheater and the yet-to-be-completed playscape, is what’s slated to open next week with several days of concerts meant to both lead into the annual MusicFest and operate as headliner performances. The series will kick off Sept. 28 with Train and Natasha Bedingfield at the Griffin Music Hall.
But in developing several concert venues in downtown El Dorado, organizers hit several snags, including coming across out-dated infrastructure incapable of handling the thousands of patrons organizers expect.
“This area was developed starting in the mid ’20s and you would be amazed to see sewer lines that were installed at that time,” said Austin Barrow, president and chief operating officer of El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc., who is developing MAD. “It’s not too dissimilar than where we are today - they were prepping for an oil boom and we’re prepping for a music boom … We’re moving very quickly to try to get open and be ready and I think, in a very similar sense, they were doing the same.”
Barrow said the district has easily spent millions on infrastructure within its boundaries, dealing with water and sewer lines to electrical infrastructure. In Phase 1 of the project, Barrow said about $30 million was spent on construction of the Griffin building, which houses both the restaurant and music hall, while about $6 million has been spent constructing the Ampitheater.
“El Dorado - we were built in the early ’20s, when money was fresh and the oil boom was moving, and there’s not really much that’s happened since then,” Barrow said.
While he declined to give specific figures, Barrow said the district budgeted about 10 percent of the construction budget for infrastructure and that’s been exceeded, meaning the district has spent at least $3.6 million on infrastructure since starting construction, though he noted that figure could change as things continue to move forward. Barrow noted the playscape, on which construction has not yet begun, will cost another $3 million to build.
Barrow said the district needed to ensure the “arteries” of the downtown core - the storm drains, sewers, water lines, gas lines, electrical lines, etc. - could handle the business that was being planned for it.
“You could pretty much draw a line from Cedar Street down to Hillsboro and that area has had little to no attention paid to it, probably since the ’50s, because there has not been any sort of major project or major infrastructural need in that area,” Barrow said, noting that the one exception to that would be the El Dorado Conference Center on South West Avenue.
Early on in the construction process, Barrow said, they quickly learned that they needed to do something about water drainage. When it rains heavily, he said, more than half of the rainfall in downtown El Dorado would run down the hill from Main Street and collect into one pipe and go down the railroad tracks.
“Before when it was just a large dirt field that people occasionally park boats in, nobody really cared if it got muddy,” Barrow said. “When you had an industrial complex that for the most part only used the top floor, they didn’t really care if mud came into the building down below a little bit.”
But now those areas are meant for performers and patrons, as well as as security and expensive pieces of equipment. Barrow said they had to completely redo the stormwater drains, which included increasing the size and amount of pipes to be able to handle thousands of people at once and even more water than usual.
“We got up to 6 inches of mud in the basement of the (Griffin) building,” Barrow said. “We had to replace some pretty expensive equipment very early on … That was probably the first large rain event we had at the beginning of the year and so we had, for a long period of time, the construction workers built these heavy barricades at all the exterior doors and just covered them in sandbags to prevent any of that water getting back into the building.”
With the drainage systems fixed and in place, Barrow said the heavy rains that have happened in the last few months have not caused any issues.
“It affects everybody up the hill and on the other side of the downtown square. I mean that infrastructure change is going to allow for better water flow for heavy rainfall for everybody, whether you’re just passing through on the street or whether you own a business within four blocks of here.,” Barrow said. “That’s just one example of something that we’ve solved.”
Barrow said the district also had to tackle the electric grid very early on. He said one of the first things they did was work with Entergy to bury electrical lines from Cedar to Pony Street. Though it had an aesthetic appeal to bury the lines, he said, the primary reason to do so was that a crane can not operate within a 50-foot radius of a primary electrical line.
“Which meant you can do no construction at all south of Cedar, all the way to Hillsboro,” Barrow said “It was completely impossible.”
In burying the lines, the grid also received what Barrow called “an immense amount of upgrades” and Entergy was able to gain a better understanding of their system and its capabilities. Plus, “we got the benefit of a state-of-the-art electrical grid now in the south end of downtown,” Barrow said, noting that it was a multimillion dollar project just to complete that.
Construction may have seemed to move slowly to El Dorado residents, especially at first.
The reason, Barrow said, was that no one was entirely sure where some of the underground infrastructure was located.
“Early on, when you saw a lot of the streets opened up, they were opened up for so long because they didn’t want to hit a gas line, they didn’t want to break a water line,” Barrow said.
He told a story of construction crews working on the Ampitheater finding an old, abandoned water well that had a tall tree growing around and over the top of it as an example of some of the unexpected things crews can find under ground.
Barrow noted that sewer pipes were often ceramic and collapsed and have now been repaired and replaced.
“(The water department was) really taxed for a long time, coming out and repairing some of these old systems - if they could find them,” Barrow said. “And now these old systems have been repaired and replaced.”
These types of issues, said Bob Tarren, chief marketing officer for the district, can easily cause production time to be four times longer than planned. Barrow said it’s also what can add to a budget.
“You can say, ‘well this is how much we’re going to spend,’ and you have no idea what’s in the ground, you just really don’t,” Barrow said.
To further assist with infrastructure to handle the additional facilities and larger crowds downtown, the El Dorado Water Utilities spent $60,000 to purchase materials for updated water and wastewater lines, mains, storm water drains, said Robert Edmonds, director of public works.
Another early project tackled by the district and the city was redoing the sidewalks in the downtown area. Barrow said the city used $2.7 million of its economic development tax to take on the project and enhance the aesthetics of the area, as well as the overall safety.
“It was, quite frankly, uncomfortable to walk,” Barrow said. “It wasn’t walkable and now it is completely walkable.”
But as crews began to dig up the sidewalk and try to get to the base in the ground, they found an old brick sidewalk. In fact, Barrow said, they found several.
“They had found old sidewalks from who knows how long that had been laid down,” Barrow said. “When they needed a new one they just put another on top of it.”
Union County contributed an additional $300,000 for the installation of new sidewalks around the county courthouse.
The sidewalk improvement project included the installation of water and electrical components to accommodate in increase in large outdoor events and the planting of some new trees downtown.
With the work ongoing, the city had been waiting until construction had advanced to a point where street repairs could commence in the Union Square District, something that started last week.
During an El Dorado City Council meeting in July, city officials learned that infrastructure installation and improvements —including electrical, water and wastewater components — and the use of heavy construction equipment have damaged several streets in and around the MAD perimeter.
Aldermen ultimately agreed to pull $840,000 from the reserve coffers of the city’s street fund to resurface portions of several downtown streets.
Because city revenue projections flatlined for 2016, the city held off on spending $1 million-plus on its street repair schedule last year.
The delay carried over into this year as city officials dealt with a $1 million revenue shortfall in the 2017 general fund.
Like much of the water and wastewater infrastructure improvements, Edmonds explained that the street repairs were needed and had been planned long before the MAD construction project was conceived.
“Hill, Locust and Pony were not in the best shape, and those streets had to be cut. The water, sewer and storm water system had to be updated,” he said.
Barrow said that street work actually finishes the earlier sidewalk project in that it’s the final step and covers the lip of the concrete barrier that was installed with the sidewalks.
“It’s the true kind of last step of the sidewalk project that the city took on, in a lot of ways,” Barrow said.
Tarren said the district has been able to improve the infrastructure for all in El Dorado, taking care of things that weren’t going to be dealt with otherwise, adding that the money is being spent with local people and contractors to fix the issues.
Barrow said any other major project done in an area of the city that is in a similar state to the downtown core before construction began will encounter many of the same issues the district did, noting that as the technology and needs change, the infrastructure will have to as well.
But in the meantime, the work done through the construction of the Murphy Arts District is something officials maintain will benefit everyone in the area.
“From an infrastructure perspective, we’ve touched all of the major utilities that you have to have,” Barrow said. “It has provided us, as a community, an upgraded system and it’s going to put less taxation and less work time into our water departments, our electrical departments, our gas departments, because they have a new system.”
Economic development taxes
The city of El Dorado pledged its of the new district support early on, first committing $9.02 million in 2013 and an additional $5 million 2015.
The larger amount was appropriated from the former El Dorado Forward economic development sales tax, which sunset in June 2015 after eight years.
Months earlier, a local group launched a campaign a new tax proposal, with supporters asking El Dorado voters to build on the momentum that had begun with El Dorado Forward.
El Dorado Works was born.
The self-described group of civic-minded residents dedicated to community and economic development — many of them part of El Dorado Fifty for the Future, which gave birth to El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc. — approached the El Dorado City Council with a new tax proposal.
The El Dorado Works tax would be effective for 10 years, with revenues conservatively projected at $50 million.
With the ball already rolling on the city’s new “Festival City” branding idea and expectations set high for the economic impact of the new arts and entertainment district, El Dorado Works dedicated 12 percent, or $5 million, toward Festival City development.
In June 2015, the El Dorado Works tax was approved in a special city election, and a year later, Festivals and Events requested $3.2 million of the $5 million from the new tax.
The remainder of MAD funding from the El Dorado Forward and El Dorado Works taxes was geared toward the purchase of several properties within the MAD boundaries, renovation of existing properties and new construction components of the district.
The city will own the properties and MAD will operate and maintain them
As part of Phase 1 of the two-phase MAD project, the city will take ownership of Oil Heritage Park, the amphitheater, children’s playscape and parking/pedestrian spaces in the area of Cedar, Jefferson, Locust and Hill streets.
In 2016, the city approved purchase and lease agreements for Oil Heritage Park, which was reconstituted with additional seasonal plantings, benches, brick pathways, lighting and plaques to existing monuments that detail El Dorado’s boomtown history.
The bill for the work came in at $416,879. In August 2016, city officials signed off on the bill and approved a 99-year lease agreement at a fee of $10.
Invoices on the other MAD projects have come in more slowly, Hash said last week, adding that the projects were expected to have been paid off by July.
Festivals and Events recently completed negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad to purchase property in the area of Pony and Block, the mayor said.
The property purchase pertains to the close proximity of the 1.5-acre children’s playscape to the railroad tracks. The playscape which will be built next to First United Methodist Church on Hill Avenue, and Hash said the project will not be completed in time for the grand opening of MAD.
According to information provided by the city treasure/accountant’s office, invoices for the amphitheater, playscape and parking lot projects have come in at $6.5 million since 2015, with the latest two bills arriving last Thursday.