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El Dorado recognized for culture in national publication

Posted on June 10, 2020

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Best Small Town Cultural Scene 
USA Today 10Best Readers' Choice 2020

El Dorado has been nominated as a contender in USA Today’s 10Best Readers' Choice Awards in the ‘Best Small Town Cultural Scene’ category.

The ‘10Best’ Readers' Choice Awards represent a partnership between USA Today and, where the full list of nominees is available.

Nominees are selected by editors from USA Today and 10Best, as well as a panel of relevant experts, including travel writers, food experts and longtime journalists.

El Dorado stands among 19 other small towns across the country noted for their culture, including Camden, Maine; Cedar Key, Florida; Chautauqua and Saratoga Springs, New York; Elk Rapids and Traverse City, Michigan; Guthrie, Oklahoma; Haddonfield, New Jersey; Jacksonville, Oregon; Mancos, Colorado; Marfa, Texas; Media, Pennsylvania; Nashville, Indiana; Occidental, California; Perham, Minnesota; Point Pleasant, West Virginia; Sheridan, Wyoming; Staunton, Virginia; and Taos, New Mexico.

“[Between] the Murphy Arts District, South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (SASO), South Arkansas Arts Center and the festivals and events associated with these and many others, El Dorado is well credentialed to be a top contender,” Bill Luther, president and chief executive officer for the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.

The South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and festivals organized by MAD and Main Street El Dorado, including the Southern Food and Wine Fest and MusicFest, were cited in the city’s nomination.

“In my long association with SASO, I have always been impressed with the importance that the community of El Dorado puts on arts and culture. We have the oldest symphony in the state, and thanks to community support, it is one of the finest in the country,” said SASO Music Director Kermit Poling in an email. “Very proud, but not at all surprised, to see El Dorado nominated for such an honor!”

El Dorado began its “second act,” as destination developer Roger Brooks put it, in 2010 when his company, Destination Development, Inc., based in Seattle, generated the “Festival City” branding idea for the city with input from local stakeholders.

“It was a scary and exciting time,” Main Street El Dorado Executive Director Beth Brumley said. “The community knew we had to make a change, but what?”

In 2011, El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc. was formed, with El Dorado-native Austin Barrow taking the role of executive director that May. Efforts began right away to brainstorm ideas for events and attractions that would help market El Dorado as a tourism destination, including renaming the downtown area to the ‘Union Square District’ and holding monthly festivals for residents and visitors alike.

By 2017, construction on the Murphy Arts District was underway. The first phase brought El Dorado the Griffin Restaurant, a farm-to-table fine dining establishment, the First Financial Music Hall, a 2,500 seat concert hall that has since hosted artists like Jason Isbell and 2 Chainz, and the MAD Amphitheater, 1,200 person-occupancy outdoor venue that is one of the largest of its kind in the state. All were built in El Dorado’s Historic District, bridging the city’s historic past with its progressive future.

MAD and MSE began teaming up to present El Dorado’s premiere annual festival, MusicFest. MusicFest has been named Festival of the Year seven times by the Arkansas Festivals and Events Association, and has hosted everyone from Vanilla Ice to this year’s headliner Snoop Dogg.

“That’s unheard of for such a small town,” Brumley said. “I could go on and on about events, tradition and Main Street El Dorado.”

“I speak on behalf of our Board of Directors in saying we are super proud of this distinction from USA Today and we want the community to vote daily, so everyone will know what we already know: El Dorado is the best small town,” she went on. “We have southern charm, hospitality and culture right here in El Dorado.”

MAD isn’t the only cultural hub in El Dorado, either. The South Arkansas Arts Center, established in 1964, has provided cultural resources for the youth of the community for generations, from ballet classes to arts and music lessons to theatrical training. That’s in addition to their production of live community theatre, art exhibitions and other arts-based events held there.

“Arts and culture are truly ingrained in the fabric of El Dorado, and we are a community that enjoys coming together around arts opportunities,” SAAC Executive Director Laura Allen said. “I think that multi-generational appreciation and participation in the arts is essential to our identity as a community from where people from all walks of life feel seen and heard.”

SASO also has a long history of providing cultural enrichment to the community. First founded in 1956, it is the oldest and longest-standing orchestra in the state. Their 2020/2021 season, “Season of Harmony”, begins in September.

“Our nomination makes me proud to call El Dorado home,” SASO Executive Director Sara Coffman said. “The South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra was such a surprise to me when I moved here in 2009. Small town, giant symphony! … I have learned so much about how our community looks to the Symphony for entertainment and culture.”

El Dorado is also home to the Newton House Museum, the African-American Sports Hall of Fame, Oil Heritage Park, the Arkansas 9/11 Memorial and the Barton Public Library. Local festivals have also become incredibly prominent; from the Mayhaw Festival to MusicFest to Soul Fest to the El Dorado Film Festival, they are varied and a staple of the local culture.

Voting in the USA Today/10Best Readers Choice Awards will continue through June 29, and the top 10 cities will be announced on July 10. A person may vote once per day.

To vote, visit .At 5 p.m. on Monday, El Dorado ranked number four out of 20.

“It’s an amazing honor for our unique city,” El Dorado Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer said. “I’m thrilled!”

Caitlan Butler, managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times, can be reached a or 870-862-6611.