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Plan Would Renovate Downtown El Dorado

Posted on October 30, 2012

Originally published in the El Dorado News-Times on October 31, 2012.

By: Tia Lyons
Representatives of El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc., unveiled Tuesday a portion of what they called a game-changing plan that, if implemented, would forever alter the look and economic direction of El Dorado.

City officials and community leaders eagerly squeezed into the second-floor conference room of City Hall to take a look at the ambitious proposal, which targets the south end of the city?s historic downtown.

Outlined in the proposal is the purchase of property and building renovation and new construction, including a theater complex and other performance facilities, a parking deck, pocket park, a police substation, and an open air market. The plans would likely necessitate the closing of sections of at least two city streets.

To invest in the proposed plan, the El Dorado Economic Board approved a $9.02 million funding request that will be applied to the property purchases, renovations/expansions and downtown sidewalk improvements.

EFE board member Brett Williamson said the organization has to raise a whopping $50 million over the next five years to develop a vibrant arts and theater district. The private, nonprofit organization asked that the city?s one-cent economic development sales tax cover about 20 percent of the projected cost to implement the plan.

The remainder will be sought through other private and public support, EFE has said. Williamson said Tuesday that the new district would bridge the historic/business district and the education district, which is comprised of the South Arkansas Community College campus and the El Dorado Conference Center.

“Typically, business and education districts don?t blend together, but both sides can benefit from an arts district,? he told EEDB members.

EFE has been busy over the past year working up a plan to develop El Dorado?s new “Festival City? brand idea and it?s “Showtime!? tagline.

Components of the proposal presented Tuesday were modeled after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.

Williamson and Austin Barrow, president and executive director of EFE, referred to the city?s brand action plan that was put together in 2010 by the Seattle-based Destination Development Inc. and gave birth to EFE.

The plan, which focuses on branding, marketing, tourism, and economic development, draws comparisons between El Dorado and Ashland, Ore., home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

With similarities in size, population, historic industries, etc., El Dorado could also adopt theater production as a major economic driver, EFE and DDI have said.

Barrow said EFE took the Ashland model and shaped it to fit southern culture.

Thus, the Southern Theater Festival, the artistic production arm of EFE.

Barrow and Williamson said the idea is to create a new, service-oriented industry in El Dorado that could initially have an annual economic impact of $27 million, create 260 jobs, direct and indirect, and bring in 105,000 visitors per year.

Barrow said that in the late 1980s, a significant infusion of public dollars allowed the theater industry to grow in Ashland.

“Their downtown is three blocks on a long, one-way street, and in those three blocks, the stores are full, and there a lot of places to eat and shop,? Barrow said.

And, Barrow and Williamson pointed out, El Dorado has several advantages and unique items that Ashland doesn?t, such as a larger, thriving downtown, the El Dorado Promise scholarship program, and two, soon to be three, companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

“In a town of 19,000, we have a strong base to start from,? Barrow said.

The historic Rialto Theater, which is playing host to the month-long run of “The Woman in Black? stage play, will be the cornerstone of the proposed theater district.

According to Barrow and Williamson, EFE has already purchased the property and started on a massive renovation project that is estimated at $26 million.

“We?re taking the crown jewel of El Dorado and bringing her back to her old glory days,? Barrow said.

Plans call for an eastward expansion of the theater to double the seating capacity, create lobby space large enough for ticket booths, and to additional restrooms and elevators.

The back side of the theater would include an outdoor performance facility made up of a stage and a graded, green lawn.

“The original plan was for three full performance facilities. With this space, we would have two,? Barrow said.

The project also calls for the purchase of several properties, including the LeCroy-Taylor building, Oil Heritage Park/municipal parking lot, BancorpSouth? drive-in branch, the bank?s south parking lot, and the building historically known as the McWilliams Furniture building on the north east corner of South Washington and Locust.

Williamson said EFE is in negotiations to purchase the properties and has already bought the parking lot on the northeast quadrant of Jefferson and Hill.

The properties would be owned by the city to be leased, managed, operated, and maintained by EFE.

Williamson discussed the intended use of the space.

For instance, he said EFE envisions a pocket park at the BancorpSouth drive-in branch site and a parking deck, public market, and relocation of the drive-in branch onto the bank?s south parking lot.

The space across from the parking lot, just down the hill from the ECC, could be used for another performance facility, Williamson said, adding that the city already owns the property.

Barrow noted that an early architectural design concept for the conference center placed an amphitheater in the space.

“We believe the plan is very sound. Is it ambitious? Absolutely. Is it credible? Absolutely. Is it doable? We believe that it is with the city?s support,? Wilson said.

The EEDB will take the proposal to the El Dorado City Council for final approval on Nov. 8.

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