It is crunch time and the city of El Dorado is kicking into overdrive with preparations for the 49th annual Arkansas Governor's Conference on Tourism, which will be held Feb. 26 - 28.
As a first-time host of the conference, the city is pulling out all the stops and the community is rallying together to not only show hospitality to and make a good impression on state government and tourism officials from Arkansas and neighboring states, but also want to encourage them to come back to El Dorado.
The annual conference is presented by the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and is considered the premier tourism event in the Natural State.
One of the aims of the conference is to celebrate tourism and highlight its impact as one of the top industries in Arkansas.
Go anywhere in town these days and one would be hard-pressed to not hear talk about the AGCT.
During an El Dorado City Council meeting last Thursday, council members approved $237,000 from the El Dorado Works tax to repave the parking lot of the El Dorado Municipal Auditorium ahead of the conference.
The one-cent sales tax is designated for economic development, municipal infrastructure and quality-of-life projects.
The AGCT will open with a welcoming event at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 26 in the auditorium.
The evening will include hor d'oeuvres, exhibits from the South Arkansas Arts Center, a live art demonstration from artists Jorge and Maria Villegas (in conjunction with the Arkansas Arts Council), a performance by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the 3 Phantoms in Concert -- opera tenors Craig Shulman Gary Mauer and Keith Buterbaugh.
Mayor Paul Choate and Madison Murphy, of Murphy Oil and Murphy USA and a founding member of El Dorado Festivals and Event, Inc. -- which developed MAD --, will deliver the welcome address.
During an El Dorado Historic District Commission meeting, also held last Thursday, commissioners learned that nearly 360 people had signed up to attend the AGCT and few hotel rooms were available in the city during Feb. 26 - 28.
Additionally, the EHDC heard that tickets had already sold out for the closing night AGCT event, the Henry Awards banquet.
The annual banquet doles out awards in various tourism categories -- including the highly-coveted Tourism Person of the Year Award -- to individuals, groups, events and municipalities that help to make an impact on tourism around the state.
Since announcing in January of 2022 that El Dorado has been selected to host this year's AGCT, a local steering committee has been working closely with the conference's planning team to coordinate the components of the event on the ground in El Dorado.
Groups from all facets of the community have pitched in to work on the many moving parts of the AGCT.
For instance, the One City Movement is teaming up with Keep El Dorado Beautiful for a community cleanup on Feb. 18 to help spruce up the city for the conference.
The idea for the cleanup was born from a conversation with Mayor Paul Choate about the what One City could do to help prepare for the AGCT, Josh Emery -- who, along with wife Kaila, founded One City in 2022 --, previously told the News-Times.
One City and KEB are encouraging local residents to participate in the cleanup.
The group will gather at 10 a.m. in the parking lot of the Boys and Girls Club of El Dorado, 1201 N. West Ave.
Following a briefing in which cleanup teams will receive work assignments, volunteers will fan out into key areas around the city.
Approximately 200 people are expected to participate in the cleanup.
KEB spent its regular meeting last month discussing the AGCT.
"Everyone needs to step up their games now," KEB president Janis Van Hook said.
She said KEB is calling on 10 pop-up groups to hold cleanups around the city prior to Feb. 26.
KEB discussed forming the pop-up groups in 2022 to encourage local youth to participate in building a sustainable program to help keep El Dorado clean.
The pop-up groups will also be asked to participate in quarterly cleanups that will be held in each of the city's four wards this year.
The groups be offered cash incentives as part of an effort by KEB to reboot its quarterly cleanup campaign and assist local youth groups with expenses for activities, such as youth sports teams and church groups.
City Council Member Dianne Hammond, who serves on KEB and is a member of the local steering committee that is coordinating the AGCT, is helping to organize the pop-up groups, said Van Hook.
Van Hook also said several groups who have adopted city streets within the past three years have said they are also planning cleanups ahead of the governor's conference.
"Most of them clean up their (adopted) areas at least once a month and we're asking them to do extra for the governor's conference," said Van Hook.
Local residents may do their part by working together to clean up their neighborhoods and not throw litter on the ground, she said.
"We want to make a good impression on the people who are coming to town. They may come down streets that are not on a main artery," Van Hook said.
"We want it to stay that way all the time. We want people to start to stay clean and if everybody would clean right in front of their house, you would see a great difference," she added.
The Haywood El Dorado, Tapestry Collection by Hilton is the host hotel for the AGCT and the newly-opened MAD House 101 restaurant is the caterer for most conference activities.
The El Dorado Conference Center will serve as ground zero for AGCT sessions.
Greg Withrow, a member of the steering committee and a tenacious community volunteer, is the primary on the task of arranging shuttle service for conference attendees while they are in town.
Withrow tapped J&T Charters, LLC, and said busses will ferry visitors to and from their hotels, the conference center, designated restaurants and other locations in and around El Dorado during the conference.
Committee members Pamela Griffin and Joanna Benson, MAD president/CEO and marketing coordinator, respectively, said they hope attendees will come to El Dorado early to take in a concert featuring acclaimed country music singer and Arkansas native Ashley McBryde on Feb. 25.
McBryde is set to take the stage at 8 p.m. in the MAD First Financial Music Hall.
She added Grammy Award winner to her list of musical accolades on Feb. 5, taking home a trophy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for the single "Never Wanted to be That Girl", a duet performed with Carly Pearce.
Griffin noted that Pearce has also performed at MAD.
"We encourage (AGCT attendees) to get here early to see Ashley McBryde," she said.
Steering committee members said many local businesses, shops and restaurants, will keep special hours during the AGCT.
They said attendees will be able to dine in a variety of local eateries, including the El Dorado Golf and Country Club and Mystic Grill at Mystic Creek Golf Club
Withrow said the EGCC, Mystic Creek and Lions Club Municipal Golf Course will also offer special rates for attendees who want to get in a few rounds of golf while they are in town.
The EGCC and Mystic Creek will kick in discounted rates for apparel in their pro shops, said Withrow.
With entertainment scheduled at various spots downtown during the governor's conference, including a hospitality room at MAD, the El Dorado City Council has approved a request from the steering committee to extend the hours in the city's entertainment district during the conference.
The entertainment district, which was established in 2019, permits the public consumption and carrying of alcoholic beverages -- including mixed drinks, beer and wine -- within the boundaries of the district.
Per the city ordinance, the open-carry allowance is active from noon until 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Brumley and Griffin asked that the hours be extended the days of the governor's conference.
A request for special hours is permitted in the ordinance.
The entertainment district encompasses a nine-block area that is roughly bordered by Oak, Hill, Pony and Cleveland streets in downtown El Dorado. The boundaries are marked in yellow near the crosswalks in the designated areas.
As attendees arrive in town on Feb. 26, they will be treated to a historic tour of El Dorado on the city's trolley bus at 1:30 p.m.
Registration is required for the tour.
"Get to Know El Dorado" will be the opening session of the conference at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 27.
Brumley; Don Hale, president of the Diamond Agency, the city's ad agency of record; downtown developer and business/property owner Richard Mason; and Sylvia Thompson, director of the El Dorado Promise scholarship program will team up to lead the session.
After the final session of the day, which is set for 4 until 5 p.m., AGCT attendees will leave the conference center and head two blocks north to the Union County Courthouse for a "Taste of El Dorado."
"Taste" will include a light snack with samples provided by local restaurants.
Crews and Associates, Inc., Little Rock a brokerage dealer that specializes in public finance, will sponsor the event.
Local dining guides will be distributed and attendees will be able to fan out to the restaurant of their choice, including boarding buses that will shuttle them to the El Dorado Golf and Country Club and Mystic Grill, which is just outside city limits on Club House Drive.
The Henry Awards banquet will close out the AGCT, starting with a reception at 6:30 p.m. at MAD House 101.
The annual Henry Awards doles out awards, including the highly coveted Tourism Person of the Year Award, in various categories to individuals, groups and events that make an impact on tourism in Arkansas.
The night will feature a performance by former Gov. Mike Huckabee and his band, Capitol Offense. Madison Murphy will make a special guest appearance during the show.
Banquet attendees will also be entered into a drawing to win a commemorative pendant that was crafted by Murphy-Pitard jewelers.
Proceeds from the raffle will benefit the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation.
The diamond encrusted pendant is shaped like the state of Arkansas and is valued at $7,000.
Steering committee members said they will also make sure that other attendees will not leave El Dorado empty-handed.
Attendees will have the opportunity to win a grand prize with the Downtown Passport.
Visitors will receive passports and have them stamped while they shop at participating businesses.
The passports may then be entered into a drawing to win prizes, including grand-prize package with a free a weekend stay at The Haywood, tickets to MusicFest, etc.
'Best foot forward'
Committee members encourage local residents to attend the conference and activities for which they are eligible, saying that conference will include tools, resources and topics that can be useful to everyone.
They also asked the local community to put its best foot forward to welcome and be hospitable to conference attendees.
For more information about the AGCT, including the agenda, or to sign up, visit www.arkansas.com.
To attend a portion or all of the welcome night activities in the auditorium, call 870-310-2244 or visit southarkansassymphony.com.
Also, call Main Street El Dorado at 870-862-4747 or the South Arkansas Historicak Preservation Society at 870-862-9890 to sign up for the historic tour of the city.
Visit www.eldomad.com to purchase tickets for the Ashley McBryde concert.