Travel | October 20, 2017 9:00 am

America’s Next Great City for the Arts Is in … Arkansas?

After a $100M renovation, a Southern renaissance is underway

Setting: A once prosperous oil boomtown isolated in the American South. After decades of economic stability, a slow decay begins as people leave for larger cities and new opportunities. Main Street grows quieter by the year.

No, this isn’t the setup for Clint Eastwood’s next flick.

It’s the very real problem faced by the town of El Dorado, Arkansas.

The solution? A $100 million arts and entertainment complex, dubbed the Murphy Arts District (MAD), which hopes to make El Dorado the next great American cultural hub.  

A local called the project “the last best chance” for the town. Brad Paisley — who headlined MAD’s inaugural musical festival last month — said, “If I had this, I don’t know if I’d of moved away [from my hometown].”

Leveraging the arts to bring a city back to life is hardly a new practice. The people behind MAD pitch their endeavor as analogous to the rise of Marfa, a Texas town with a population of 2,000 that has evolved into one of the country’s most important centers for visual arts. Pittsburgh, which has seen a revival of late thanks to funding from the Heinz Endowments, may be a better example, but their population is exponentially larger.

El Dorado, a quaint town with some 20,000 residents, is something of a Goldilocks-ian medium between the two.

We recently headed down to scope out what a $100 million renovation looks like in the flesh — and see whether it’s worthy of your next long weekend.

El Dorado (6 images)

The first thing to know about El Dorado is the locals pronounce it “Al Doraydo.”

The second thing is before MAD, there was no real reason for outsiders to visit.

But from September 27th to October 1st, the city held an opening weekend music festival showcasing their new facilities: an 8,000-person capacity outdoor amphitheater, a 2,000-seat indoor music hall, a farm-to-table restaurant and bar, and a cabaret space — not to mention a buzz in the city that had been absent for decades.

Everything is situated around downtown’s Griffin Auto Company Building, built in 1928. Hence the name of the new complex: the Griffin Restaurant, Music Hall and Plaza. On said plaza sits an old oil derrick, calling to mind the namesake of the arts district and lifeblood of the town: the Murphys, progenitors of the Murphy Oil Corporation (exploration and production) and Murphy USA (retail), both headquartered in El Dorado. And they’d very much like to keep their roots down, which explains how a pair of state-of-the-art music venues sprouted up in a relatively short four years.

The other part of the equation is Terry Stewart, the CEO brought in to manage the project. He was previously CEO and president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and president of Marvel Comics. Despite that résumé, the initial press release quotes him as saying MAD is “the most important work of [his] career.”

If you’ve read anything about MAD, it most likely pertains to what Mashable (and many others) called the “weirdest music festival ever,” aka Musicfest El Dorado (a name adopted from a smaller 30-year-old local event). The answer to the number-one question of the weekend — What the heck do Train, Migos, ZZ Top, Ludacris and Brad Paisley fans have in common? — is simple: the city wanted to showcase its capacity to play a ready and willing host to all comers.

Which is important in a city as diverse as El Dorado (the local population is 50% black and 45% white, with a similar spread between young and old).

The center’s outdoor amphitheater — where ZZ Top, Paisley and Smokey Robinson played — is a bandshell-park-arena hybrid. Immediately in front of the stage is a pit area where attendees picked up passes for the weekend’s various events (festival tickets were sold, interestingly, on a per-show basis), while the area behind it comprises artful swaths of concrete and artificial grass where patrons could grab a beer or cocktail and relax in a rented folding chair.

The architecture of the place is deliberate and effective, and the production values (massive stage, impressive light bank, expert sound design) were so fine-tuned that the grueling opening weekend went off without a hitch, even though Paisley swapped guitars at least 20 times on Saturday night.

But it’s also the residents themselves that lend the place an air of distinction.

People fly to destination festivals not only for the music, but for the company they’ll keep. At Burning Man, it’s Mad Max cosplayers and breast milk purveyors. At Coachella, Instagram models and egalitarian ravers. And in El Dorado, old-world Southern charm meets a tapped well of latent excitement.

These Arkansans had been dying for an excuse to party, and at the late-night shows in the Griffin Music Hall — played by Train, Ludacris and Migos to a raucous reception — they found it.

Unless you go during next year’s Musicfest, you’ll probably find slightly less eclectic entertainment options on your visit. But when it comes to where to eat, stay and while away your daytime hours, we’ve got some ideas worth sharing.

El Dorado (6 images)

Where to Eat:
The best places to grub in town are standalone shacks. The townspeople know where the good eats are, so what’s the use in gussying it up? For smoked meats there’s Howell’s Bar-B-Que and Brummett’s Market. For donuts, there’s the Spudnut Shoppe (a rare potato-flour treat) and Shipley Do-Nuts (a Southern favorite). And for alcohol-extracting diner food there’s Johnny B’s.

Needless to say, they could stand to add a produce-forward joint.

On that front, the new Griffin Restaurant is filling the void, and will be the most recognizable to city denizens. The far wall is painted with the names of the different sources that supply their farm-to-table fare from. From the complimentary hush puppies to the Grilled Marinated Pesto Portobello, the recipes and ingredients are stellar, even if the service was a bit slow and haphazard (as is to be expected on opening weekend). But with a wine cellar in the works and training by way of out-of-state experts, these growing pains are sure to pass shortly.

Where to Stay:
Phase Two of the Murphy Arts District (so far, they’ve spent around $54 million of the proposed $100) includes a new hotel which — from talking to a local architect who had a hand in Phase One — is still in the planning stages. So you’re going to stay at the spacious Union Square Guest Quarters.

Located in the heart of downtown, with a variety of rooms in multiple buildings, you’ll be just blocks from the MAD facilities. And if you stay in the block of rooms 11-20 (highly suggested), you’ll walk down the stairs and straight onto the main drag.

What’s Next:
Besides the hotel, the next phase of the revitalization includes a $32 million overhaul of the Rialto Theater (a stunning Classical Revival building built in 1929) for performing arts and film, as well as the construction of a 10,000-square-foot art gallery. Both were slated for completion in 2018, but with work not quite underway during opening weekend, expect that to be pushed back. As with the diverse festival acts, El Dorado is looking to diversify its arts offerings beyond music.

So when’s the next all-star lineup coming to town? Well, there’s the rub. The only upcoming act worth mentioning is The Beach Boys on November 1st, which is certainly road trip-worthy but probably not quite airplane-worthy.

On Saturday night, Brad Paisley tipped his cowboy hat near the end of his set, admiring the amphitheater, and — speaking to the staff of El Dorado Festivals & Events — said he’d love to be invited back. And if they’d like out-of-towners to come back, too, they’d do well to listen.

Once there’s a bill big enough to grab the attention of concert-saturated cities, I for one will be heading back.

So keep an eye on the schedule, and we’ll see you on Main Street.

All photos by Jay Paul Photography