Local business leaders, nonprofit representatives, public officials and other stakeholders gathered this week at the First Financial Music Hall for the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting.
Chamber President and CEO Bill Luther presented an update on economic development efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic while keynote speaker Rex Nelson, senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, painted a picture of what could be south Arkansas's future if it can reverse current downward population trends.
Additionally, several nonprofits were recognized for their contributions to the community, and Janice Hicks became emotional when she was named the Chamber's Ambassador of the Year.
Luther began his report with an announcement: El Dorado will soon be home to a Whataburger fast food restaurant. The Texas-based burger chain recently opened in Magnolia, and during a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Golden Triangle Economic Development Council, Director Britta Clark said the Magnolia location has averaged 35,000 orders a day.
Information provided by the Chamber shows that in the first quarter of 2022, the Chamber worked on six commercial development projects, two housing development projects, five new restaurant projects, three forest products industry projects and one manufacturing project, in addition to helping two local, existing businesses work to expand.
Also, in partnership with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Chamber had 15 projects in the works at the end of the first quarter, including three forest products industry projects, three chemical industry projects, one food and beverage industry project, six undisclosed projects and two existing industry expansions.
The Chamber, both alone and with the AEDC, continued economic development efforts throughout 2020 and 2021, Luther noted, but things have picked up significantly this year, since COVID-19 cases have dropped off dramatically.
Luther also noted several changes at the Chamber, including former project manager Brandon Barnette's departure and former communications manager Kaitlyn Rigdon's elevation to role he left vacant. Faye Brown joined the team to provide communications services. Jaren Books remains the Chamber's membership coordinator, Luther said, noting that membership has grown steadily since 2019, even during the pandemic.
"I want to publicly thank the team for their dedication," Luther said.
Nelson, who last visited El Dorado for the groundbreaking at the Haywood Hotel in 2019, envisioned a future for the community, which he noted has steadily lost population -- like much of Arkansas, particularly areas in the southern and eastern parts of the state --, a trend he said he thinks the community must reverse in order to progress.
"We need you very much to succeed... You are really key to overcome a broad demographic trend here," Nelson said. "El Dorado is what I think of as a 'critical mass community' -- you need to survive; the key isn't just to hold your own."
Key to keeping a community thriving, Nelson said, are several factors: high quality public schools, moderate and attentive public officials and a willingness to identify and pass the reigns to leaders in younger generations.
"I know how hard it is to run a business, but what I feel has happened... is a lot of us have been so busy focusing on our business that we've given up on public services and it allows the people on the fringes -- left and right -- to get in," Nelson said. "We need to identify the leaders of the future and do everything possible to bring them along."
He said he also thinks economic development efforts look a lot different in 2022 than they did two decades ago.
"It used to be all about industrial development; that's not the end all be all of economic development now," he said. "Younger people move where they think is cool then find a job or start a business. It's all about quality of life."
Examples of such efforts El Dorado has already undertaken, Nelson said, include the Murphy Arts District, the El Dorado Promise and even small businesses like Three Birds Brewing Co.
"If we do these things, Arkansas's best days are still ahead. El Dorado... you have made great steps, but guess what. It never stops. It's hard work," Nelson said. "I will continues to say to people 'Have you been to El Dorado? Have you seen their downtown? Have you seen MAD?' El Dorado is doing it right."
Three finalists for this year's Nonprofit Excellence Award were featured during the luncheon: El Dorado Connections; the Single Parent Scholarship Fund; and the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society.
Presented annually by First Financial Bank, the Nonprofit Excellence Award provides $10,000 in prize money to one winning organization and two other finalist organizations and helps all three finalists produce a video for use in marketing.
This year's winner was El Dorado Connections, which works to recruit and match volunteers with needed services throughout south Arkansas. Director Julie Amis and Volunteer Manager Cheryl Splawn accepted the award, $5,000, for the organization.
El Dorado Connections' (RSVP) Retired Senior Volunteer Program was highlighted in their video. The program helps to match retirees with volunteer projects that fit them; for example, matching retired teachers with programs at the Literacy Council.
The Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund was the first finalist. Program Manager Sandra Warren and Board Member Ray Winiecki accepted the award of $2,500.
South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society Executive Director Steve Biernacki and Board Chair Vince Dawson accepted the $2,500 second finalist award.
Also recognized during the luncheon were participants in the Chamber's annual Leadership Union County program. ULead class X graduated in February, and members of ULead class XI started the program on April 19.
Janice Hicks was named the Chamber Ambassador of the Year.
"I appreciate everyone," she said, wiping away tears of gratitude.
The annual meeting was held on Wednesday, April 20, and was sponsored by Murphy USA.