This is the second in a three-part series of editorials by Richard Mason running weekly.
This second column is going to be a detailed look at an organization which I believe could be the single most important key to get our city moving forward and improve the well-being of our community. But first let me say this: I am not involved nor do I own property, nor have I contributed in any substantial way to the organization I am going to write about.
The top of the list is easy. Some five plus years ago, the City of El Dorado and 50 for the Future hired Roger Brooks, a destination expert from Seattle, to recommend a plan to reverse the loss in population and get the City growing again. After almost a year’s study he came up with a plan. The basis for the plan was that El Dorado was one of some 60,000 medium size towns in the county, which are losing population to large urban centers. The primary reason for the population exodus, according to Mr. Brooks, was the lack of amenities such as entertainment venues and restaurants, along with other quality of life items. El Dorado’s plan was based on a successful counterpart, Ashland, Oregon. The goal was to create an entertainment district with the amenities which could attract young professionals and early retirement individuals who want to leave the overcrowded urban centers. To encourage them to move to El Dorado, several entertainment venues would be constructed along with quality restaurants, a new downtown hotel, a new Conference Center, a Playscape for kids and a fine arts museum.
That was to come into fruition via the Murphy Arts District, Phase One. As you know, the Griffin Restaurant, the Amphitheater, the First Financial Music Hall, a new Farmers Market, the largest Playscape in the state along with the MAD ice rink came as the result of the Phase One. It was an immediate boost to the community, and when 8,000 attendees came to hear Hank Williams Jr., it was obvious that MAD was going to be a great addition to the community. Construction on Phase Two was preparing to start when the pandemic hit.
Of course, with the COVID-19 restrictions, MAD was forced to suspend a large part of their activities and close the Griffin Restaurant. However, the work on the new Haywood Hotel continued, and the hotel is now a great addition to the entertainment district. How many towns in the past decade have seen a gorgeous new 70 room hotel built in their downtown?
When the pandemic hit, El Dorado Festivals and Events was in the final stage of planning Phase Two of MAD. The additions of the two major entities in Phase Two — the Fine Arts Museum and the Rialto Theater — to the El Dorado Entertainment District are keys to El Dorado’s goal to improve the lives of its citizens and to grow quality jobs. The completion of Phase One and Two will give the Murphy Arts District a huge boost and move El Dorado away from the Precipice quicker than any other city project. Of course the pandemic has screwed up the timetable and pushed Phase Two back an extra year, but I believe the commitment is still there, and when the pandemic is behind us in 2021, Phase One will fully start up again, and construction of Phase Two will get under way. It will take some time and a lot of money, but I believe the principals behind MAD will continue to move forward.
To understand the impact of the project, we should look ten years into the future, after Phase One and Two are finished and every venue is up and running. The Griffin Cabaret will be serving quality food along with great almost nightly entertainment. The Amphitheater will have stars packing the grounds such as Hank Williams Jr. The ice rink will return, kids will flood to the Playscape, Broadway plays will be standard features at the Rialto, and the multi floored Fine Art Museum will be hosting exhibits from national and regional museums.
We will probably see our population cross the 25,000 mark again as the mix of quality food and entertainment items become established. In addition, we should see an influx of skilled workers who will create jobs, and as the town’s population and regional clout increase, I can visualize South Arkansas Community College become a four year fully accredited university.
I know it’s difficult to grasp the impact MAD will have on the city, but the above noted entertainment features will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors into our city each year, and the impact will be county-wide. (Ashland, Oregon, the prototype, has 167,000 visitors a year). MAD will change the Conference Center from a $250,000-a-year loser into a cash cow by hosting multiple conventions. The entertainment, food and art museum will make the convention booking skyrocket. The thousands of conventions growers will pack the hotels and restaurants in town bringing in a raft of new businesses and jobs. The success of MAD will even turn another white elephant into a positive entertainment center — of course that’s the new-old Municipal Auditorium.
Of course, with the potential impact the success could have on not on the area surrounding MAD, but the entire Union County area, everyone and every business in the county should do whatever they can to help, especially during this delay caused by the pandemic. After all, even though MAD suspended work on Phase Two because of the pandemic, they incurred a significant loss in shutting down the restaurant and other activities. This is the time we should do what we can to help MAD survive and help them move into Phase Two. El Dorado Works, the City and especially the County should allocate emergency funding to help MAD move forward with the entertainment district concept. The success of El Dorado as a quality community is directly keyed to the success of MAD, and since everyone, whether in the city or county, will benefit from its success, we should all feel obligated to contribute funding to MAD. Every store and restaurant in Union County should send MAD a sizable check.
If you believe in MAD and would like to encourage them, you can also send them a check. This is not only to help with the losses incurred during the pandemic, but more of an encouragement to let them know you are behind them. Encouragement is the key, and the check can be $5 or $10 or more. Just think, if next Monday, after this column runs on Friday, what if MAD received 500 encouragement checks? I’ll be writing one. If you want to see Union County prosper and grow, write an encouragement check.
Make out your check to: MAD, Murphy Arts District, 101 East Locust St. El Dorado, AR 71730.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]