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A prescription for growth and quality

by Richard Mason | January 14, 2021 at 8:30 p.m.

In 1980, the city of El Dorado had a population of 26,685. The most recent census showed the city population to be 18,884, a loss of 7,793 residents. In 2010, as a response to the steady drop in population, 50 For the Future, a group I founded, brought the University of Arkansas Community Design Team to El Dorado. They spent a year working on a detailed plan, which, if implemented, would create a quality community and attract new residents. That was in 2010. To date, out of several hundred proposals, one building has been restored and three gateway signs built.

The recommendations below are primarily based on this extensive study. Every member of the City Council and the Mayor have copies of this study. The majority of the items recommended below are not my idea of what a quality city needs, they are recommendations from a team of experts. If the leadership in our community continues to ignore these recommendations, we will see a degrading of our quality of life, and our population will continue to drop. This is a serious matter, and if our community doesn’t respond to the deplorable condition of our city, El Dorado’s future is bleak. The items below should be a to-do list posted on the Mayor’s and every City Council person’s desk.

(1) The City Council should enact a sign ordinance. A number of years back the city passed a sign ordinance, but it disappeared from the Municipal Code Book. A new sign ordinance is a must for any quality town. That is one of the primary recommendations of the U of A Study.

(2) Adopt a landscape and tree ordinance. The Mayor, Council and City Attorney have an excellent ordinance in their hands from the City of Fayetteville. It should be modified to fit El Dorado and put on the Council’s agenda.

(3) New sidewalk construction and repairs should begin immediately to connect El Dorado Schools to the existing sidewalk system. The entryway streets of North West Avenue and Hillsboro Street should have new connecting sidewalks to link them with nearby subdivisions, and existing sidewalks should be repaired. New sidewalks should extend down North West Avenue to Walmart.

(4) The City Council should appoint a task force to improve the appearance of all entryway streets, as per the U of A recommended plans. These plans include underground utilities, removing inappropriate signage and extensive landscaping, not only along the street, but in the parking lots. The landscaping would be mandated under the new Tree and Landscaping Ordinance.

(5) The City, as part of the U of A plan, purchased 100 wayfaring signs, but they are in a warehouse because of inappropriate colors. They cost an estimated $100,000. These signs are critical for MAD and the Entertainment District to direct visitors to the area, as well as the Arts Center, the football stadium and other parts of town. The signs need only a small amount of repainting to make them usable.

(6) The City should do a city limits annexation of the surrounding subdivisions. That would put the city’s population to well over 20,000 and increase the turn-back money substantially. It has been 40 years since the city annexed any significant amount of property. Every quality town in the state has an annexed area much larger than El Dorado.

(7) The city should reactivate the El Dorado Tree Board, with a directive to replant the removed downtown trees, and to extend the tree planting down North West Avenue and Hillsboro Street. A critical part of the U of A Study focuses on El Dorado’s gateway street’s appearances. The improvement of these entryway streets that are without significant trees and landscaping, made even uglier by overhead utilities and inappropriate signage, should be a top priority.

(8) The City, County, Chamber of Commerce, Main Street and the Downtown Business Association should form a task force with a mandate to get empty downtown buildings, the mall and old hospital buildings occupied. These buildings should receive tax incentives, just as industrial companies have received in the past, to help these buildings become an active, contributing part of the town

(9) The city should form a Union County Advertising Committee, funded and mandated to promote things such as City Christmas lighting, MAD, the Municipal Auditorium events, and other happening in the area. While El Dorado had one to the best overall Christmas lighting displays in the state, nobody knew, because we weren’t on statewide advertising notices.

(10) There is a lack of co-operation between the various entities in the city. This must change. A committee made up of all the significant entities from city, county, business and industrial partners should meet to focus on significant city problems. Their goal must be that a problem in one part of the city is a problem for all to solve.

(11) The infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, sewer and water lines) of the City need additional funding for maintenance. Driving over manhole covers is like hitting a major pothole, and in some parts of town, no city sidewalk repairs have been made in the last several decades. The numerous City street extensions recommended by the U of A Report for the Fairview Neighborhood of the city have been ignored. These recommendations, such as extending Martin Luther King Jr Street to connect with the Highway 82 Bypass, are critical to this neighborhood. The boundaries of the Fairview Neighborhood are Hillsboro Street to the north and the Missouri-Pacific Railroad to the south. Almost all of the extensive recommendations for this neighborhood put forth by the U of A Report have been ignored. In many parts of the Fairview Neighborhood streets have no curbs or sidewalks and very few street lights. The City has just as much responsibility to the Fairview Neighborhood as other neighborhood in the city, but it has been neglected for decades.

(12) There must be a uniform enforcement of all city ordinances as a paramount part of city government, and no part of the city should be discriminated against. The Downtown Parking Enforcement Attendant was fired 24 months ago and the merchants and restaurant operators have suffered, especially during this pandemic. There are parking restrictions in the downtown all covered by city ordinances, and they have been in effect since the 1970s, but without any enforcement.

(13) The Citywide Trails program, recommended by the U of A, should be implemented. Especially the portion connecting the Lion’s Club Golf Course down the railroad tracks south to downtown.

Summary: If we want to have a quality, growing community, the Mayor, City Council, the County, Chamber of Commerce,and Downtown Business Association must become progressive, active and co-operative, and instead of ignoring the city’s problems, seek to solve them. If we continue on the present inactive course, the City will continue to lose population, major employers and significant downtown property owners will leave, and every citizen will see their quality of life slowly diminish.

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]

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