El Dorado, Arkansas

2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner

Download Main Street News PDF - 2009/02-03

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From a thriving oil boom town in the 1920s to a fading ghost town in the Great Depression, El Dorado endured the boom-to-bust story of many other communities during the early to mid-20th century. Shopping mall developments on the outskirts of town in the 1960s and '70s created even greater economic hardships for the community, drawing commerce away until, by 1979, the downtown's building occupancy rate was a meager 35 percent.

Oil Heritage Park in El Dorado, Ark.

"Like many downtowns across the country," recalls one local resident and business owner, "we let the heart of our city flounder and nearly die."

It was not until the mid-1980s that El Dorado began a true recovery process. In 1984, Vertis Mason, a downtown property owner, attended a statewide Main Street Arkansas meeting and returned home eager to convince others that revitalizing the commercial district was possible. At the same time, a local consumer data service conducted a market research survey of 400 area residents. The survey revealed the community's desire for a vibrant downtown with specialty shopping and dining opportunities.

Under Mason's leadership, a coalition of downtown merchants and civic leaders raised enough funds to guarantee a three-year program and successfully applied to become a Main Street Arkansas community in 1987. Main Street El Dorado first priority was to convince the community of the business potential inherent in the downtown's historic building stock.

Pride of Place

Downtown El Dorado attributes its distinct physical character to a combination of historic building rehabilitations, complementary new construction, streetscape projects, and an eclectic public art program.

Preserving the town's historic assets was a major goal of Main Street El Dorado (MSED) from the beginning. The program "was the driving force behind downtown's listing as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places," note Cheryl Nichols and Deborah Shea, Arkansas Advisors to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Fourteen National Register structures are located downtown, including the ornate neo-Classical Rialto Theatre, built in 1929.

Main Street also played a key role in getting the community to pass a local historic district ordinance, with design review and a preservation commission.

Revitalization Statistics – 1987-2008

  • Population: 21,530
  • District Size: 20 blocks
  • Year of Incorporation: 1987
  • Net jobs gained: 566
  • Net new businesses: 87
  • Number of rehabilitation projects: 134
  • Number of new buildings: 3
  • Vacancy rate when program began: 20%
  • Vacancy rate today: 0%
  • Public investment: $20,000,000
  • Private investment: $90,000,000

Since the mid-1990s, MSED has offered a mini-grant program to encourage property owners to improve their building façades. "The program has invested tens of thousands of dollars in property improvements," says MSED Executive Director Mark Givens, "and is a key component of our image-building process."

Restaurant owner Jim Robinson, an early grant recipient is a model for this program, says Givens. "He used the funds to rehabilitate the exterior of his building and redesign the interior of his restaurant and gift store."

Robinson's successful rehab sparked other downtown merchants and building owners to improve their properties. And as a result, says Givens, "today, for the first time perhaps since the oil boom, there are no vacancies in downtown El Dorado."

Another significant downtown project transformed the interior of the historic Garrett Building and turned it from a beauty shop back into its original use as a bakery, a project that was no easy task. The owners redesigned the interior around the 1920s soda fountain and tin ceiling to evoke nostalgia for the building's earliest days. The dark wood – and the dark coffee – make it the one of the most inviting places to gather in downtown El Dorado and helped earn it a 2008 Main Street Arkansas award for "Best Building Rehabilitation over $10,000."

El Dorado's strong commitment to a unique quality of place has led to new construction that complements the community's historic assets. After a fire destroyed one of downtown's historic anchor buildings, the owners, long-time MSED members, replaced it with a multi-use building that caters to overnight tourists and provides an outside courtyard that serves as a community gathering place. For its sensitive design and compatibility with its surroundings, the project won the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas's award for "Best New Construction in a Historic Setting."

In 2002, El Dorado capitalized on its oil boom heritage by gathering 40 local artists to paint and sculpt 55 oil drums donated by local Murphy Oil Company. The project raised funds for both the artists and the sponsoring arts organizations, while the colorful, often humorous "art drums" gave visitors something fun to look for around town.

A few years later, MSED teamed up with the city to improve the downtown streetscape. A thousand trees were planted and dozens of park benches and metal garbage cans, along with 20 period streetlights, were installed downtown.

"Through the high maintenance of its buildings and streetscape and the colorfully painted oil drums that adorn the street corners," says State Historic Preservation Officer Cathie Matthews, "it is evident that the people of El Dorado are proud of their downtown heritage."

Trading on History

El Dorado's festivals and special gatherings have earned it a reputation as the entertainment capital of South Arkansas.

"Showdown at Sunset," now 11 years old, draws thousands downtown to celebrate El Dorado's raucous oil-boom history. An award-winning event, Showdown is a historical reenactment of a 1902 duel between two brothers, who fought it out on the county courthouse steps. "A cast of seven actors—from local politicians to chefs to anonymous dads—dress in period costume to perform the duel on site six consecutive weekends each summer," says Givens.

In 2006, Main Street El Dorado produced trading cards with the actors' portraits and character biographies. Revenue from the card sales goes directly to the Main Street program. Showdown at Sunset is not only growing in popularity locally; it was also named one of the "Top 100 Events in America" by the American Bus Association in 2008. Named "Festival of the Year," by the Arkansas Festival Association, MusicFest is another enormously popular event. The festival, which draws nearly 20,000 people annually, spans nine city blocks and has become the largest weekend event in the region. More than 200 volunteers run the event, which pulls in over $200,000 in in-kind donations from sponsors.

But that's only the beginning. Main Street El Dorado has been the driving force behind many other events: the Mayhew Festival; the Bugs, Bands, and Bikes Crawfish Boil; and the Holiday Trail of Lights have branded the downtown as the center of entertainment and the heart of the community.

Smaller retail events are used to promote El Dorado's specialty stores and restaurants, and new media are being tapped to connect the community to all of the goings-on downtown. "Last year, we created our first MySpace page and use it daily to promote the program and the community," says Givens. "With MySpace, we've been able to social network with a younger constituency."

The Death of a Mall

Downtown El Dorado has more than 65 speciality shops, restaurants, and accommodations, as well as a booming nightlife.

In a town of just over 23,000 people, more than 2,500 work downtown and thousands more think of it as a shopping, cultural, and entertainment destination. Downtown El Dorado has more than 65 specialty shops, restaurants, and accommodations, as well as a booming nightlife with a classic European pub, a true billiards hall, and venues that play host to one of the strongest live music scenes in the state of Arkansas.

It's also the only town in Arkansas where the success of downtown did away with the shopping mall, says Main Street Arkansas Director Cary Tyson with great pride.

The closure of the Mellor Park Mall "is tied directly to the revitalization of El Dorado's downtown," says Givens. Progressive marketing and merchandising techniques implemented downtown at the same time the mall was struggling led directly to its closing in 1994.

Among its many economic achievements, MSED has worked with the Arkansas Small Business Development Center and alt.Consulting, the state's only microenterprise consultant, to provide business assistance to downtown merchants; developed a merchant mentoring program that pairs new business owners with experienced retailers; and collaborated with local banks to provide a low-interest loan pool for downtown merchants. "Just last year," says Givens, "MSED worked with a downtown merchant to obtain a business start-up grant that was the 'tipping point' in opening the business…. Since this seed investment, the business has expanded twice and become a major gathering spot downtown."

The achievement with the greatest impact on downtown's economy, however, grew out of MSED's partnership with the downtown business association, which recently became part of the Main Street program. The groups worked with property owners to create a cooperative leasing agreement that requires downtown businesses to stay open from 10 to 6, Monday through Saturday, a feat, says Tyson, worthy of an award in and of itself.

Engaging the Community

Over the last 20 years, El Dorado's residents, building owners, merchants, and organizations have stepped up to take ownership of their community. Organizationally, Main Street El Dorado "is the premier board for citizen service," says Givens, "with a waiting list that boasts some of our community's finest citizens. Volunteers begin at the committee level and work their way up."

"The hundreds of volunteers who serve energetically and consistently are what truly sets El Dorado apart," says one local leader. "Over and over again, when called to serve, the people of El Dorado ensure our continued success."

This Place Matters

Looking to the future, MSED and its partners will continue to nurture the town's unique quality of place. Goals include developing and recruiting unique destination businesses; helping local microenterprise entrepreneurs locate downtown when they are ready; expanding upper-story housing; and becoming a property owner and developer should the market require it.

Using the Main Street Four-Point Approach®, Main Street El Dorado has instilled a preservation ethic and a sense of pride in the downtown. It has created one of the most vibrant and exciting commercial districts in the entire region while remaining true to the town's character. Above all else, says Givens, "place matters in El Dorado."