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In the years and months leading to its grand opening last October, the Murphy Arts District generated buzz across the state and grabbed headlines around the nation.

Now, that buzz has resulted in a statewide award and major news that was announced during the El Dorado City Council meeting on Thursday.

El Dorado won the bid to host the 2019 Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

The news came after Mayor Frank Hash presented MAD representatives with a plaque naming MAD as the Arkansas Business Trendsetter City for 2017.

The category was for Arkansas cities with a population of 5,000 — 20,000.

Hash accepted the award on behalf of MAD during the Arkansas Municipal League Winter Conference, which was held last week in Fort Smith.

Several city officials attended the conference.

On hand to receive the plaque from Hash on Thursday were MAD representatives Austin Barrow, president and chief operating officer; Bob Tarren, chief marketing officer; and Pamela Griffin, chief financial officer.

The Trendsetter City award honors cities that are leaders in innovative programs and initiatives for improvement and growth, according to Arkansas Business.

The awards are presented by Crews and Associates investment banking firm.

The goal of the $100-plus million MAD project is to transform El Dorado into an entertainment destination by renovating several downtown properties into a variety of arts, music, dining and recreation venues, which include the Griffin restaurant and music hall and the adjacent outdoor amphitheater on the south end of Downtown El Dorado.

The district opened last October with five days of concerts that featured a mix of popular new- and old-school artists, including Smokey Robinson, Ludacris, Train, Lyle Lovett and Migos.

The massive project is being done in two phases, with a children’s playscape and open-air market nearing completion as the last remaining components of Phase 1 and the renovation of the Rialto Theater and the McWilliams’ building (on the corner of Washington and Locust) to come in Phase 2.

Following the award presentation Thursday, Barrow and Alderman Dianne Hammond said they had learned earlier Thursday that El Dorado had been selected as the host city of the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism in March 2019.

The pair said they traveled to Little Rock Thursday and made a presentation before the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.

Barrow said the El Dorado delegation — which included Barry Bagwell, director of the El Dorado Conference Center — had the opportunity to witness the voting process among the commissioners.

Barrow said the group received word last month that El Dorado had made the short list of finalists among cities that were vying for the conference.

He said the selection had boiled down to El Dorado and Fayetteville, and he thought commissioners would possibly select Fayetteville for next year and El Dorado for 2021.

However, a conversation following the vote explained why the outcome was the opposite of what Barrow had expected.

“A couple of commissioners came up to me and said some of the commissioners won’t be on the commission in 2021, so they wanted to go to El Dorado,” Barrow said, drawing a laugh from the audience.

The annual conference celebrates tourism in Arkansas and highlights its impact as one of the leading industries in the state.

According to a letter from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, 29.2 million visitors spent approximately 7.6 billion in Arkansas in 2017, providing direct employment for nearly 66,000 Arkansans and paying out $393 million in state taxes.

It will be the first time the governor’s conference on tourism has been held in El Dorado. Barrow said one of the barriers for the city has been the lack of facilities to support conference activities, accommodate a conference crowd and provide adequate lodging.

However, with the opening of MAD and two new hotels expected to be completed here by spring 2019, Barrow said the El Dorado delegation decided to “go for it.”

Barrow and Hammond noted that the conference draws between 450 and 700 people each year.

The 2018 conference is slated for March 11 - 13 in West Memphis, and Barrow said MAD will represent the city of El Dorado.

Capping off the conference each year is the Henry Awards banquet, which recognizes achievements in the tourism industry for the year.

MAD is up for a Henry Award this year, having been nominated for The Natural State Award, which is presented to “a community, organization, special event or attraction that stands out in a crowd because of its unique appeal, media coverage, creative approach and/or enhancement of community pride, thus benefiting the state’s quality of life.”

ALFiE Awards

MAD was also instrumental in helping to secure the bid for the 2018 ALFiE (Arkansans Love Festivals and Events) Awards, which are presented during the annual Arkansas Festival and Events Association Conference and Trade Show.

The conference is set for Feb. 7 and 8, and the ALFiE awards will be presented on Feb. 8 at the Griffin.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or

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