A revitalization dream team

As we toured the Murphy Arts District in downtown El Dorado several weeks ago, Madison Murphy stopped to take a call on his cell phone. I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that the subject of the phone conversation was wine. After all, the Murphy family owns a California winery named Presqu'ile in the heart of Santa Barbara County's Santa Maria Valley.

After the call, Murphy told me that the fine-dining restaurant in the arts district, known simply as The Griffin, will have one of the best wine lists around. The folks behind this initiative call the arts district MAD for short, and this is the week they launch their creation with a series of concerts by artists such as Brad Paisley, ZZ Top, Train, Smokey Robinson, Migos, and Ludacris. Everything about MAD is first class, from the wine list to the entertainment venues.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this audacious (yes, some would say they're mad) effort to turn El Dorado into a regional arts and entertainment center is the leadership team that has been put together.

There has been worldwide attention--and rightfully so--on what Alice Walton has done to transform Bentonville into an arts hub. What has been happening in the northwestern part of our state since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on Nov. 11, 2011, has made Arkansans in all 75 counties proud. Meanwhile, down in far southern Arkansas, there's a team at work whose background might surprise you.

It starts with Terry Stewart, the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. He took over that institution in 1999 (it opened in 1995) and stayed there until 2013. What on earth is he doing in the pine woods of south Arkansas? For starters, he's a south Alabama native. Stewart understands the rural South and was excited by the opportunity to help transform a city and maybe even an entire region of a state by improving the quality of life.

I first met Stewart a couple of years ago while sitting with a group in the back yard of well-known El Dorado downtown developer and writer Richard Mason. Stewart's enthusiasm was contagious from the get-go.

Prior to joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stewart was the president and chief operating officer of the comic book company Marvel Entertainment Group. Marvel became a public company in 1991, and Stewart was named that year by CNBC as the Marketing Executive of the Year.

"My career has taken many twists and turns through the years, and that's how I like it," Stewart said when he was hired at El Dorado in August 2014. "Working with El Dorado Festivals & Events will give me an opportunity to harness my passions and hopefully improve the quality of life for this region."

El Dorado Festivals & Events was formed in 2011 following the completion of a study by Roger Brooks, a nationally known destination development expert. Business leaders in El Dorado asked Brooks to go beyond the old concepts of industrial development and come up with a new way to stem the tide of population decline in El Dorado. It was Brooks who suggested an arts and entertainment district that would draw visitors from not only Arkansas but also north Louisiana, east Texas and west Mississippi.

"Many industry people think I'm mad when I tell them about the El Dorado project," Stewart told the El Dorado News-Times. "But it's going to be the most important work of my career when one considers the lives that will be changed by the economic redevelopment and cultural infusion we're working to achieve. As one of our launch headliners, Train, says in their new song, you better believe. That's what we're doing--bringing song, dance, good food and theater to a community and region that has long been under-served."

The first major hire came in 2011 when El Dorado native Austin Barrow returned home as the president and chief operating officer of El Dorado Festival & Events. Barrow received his bachelor's degree from nearby Louisiana Tech University's School of Performing Arts and a master's degree in drama from the University of Arkansas. He then began an academic career, teaching theater at Andrew College, a small Methodist institution in southwest Georgia.

When he graduated from high school in 1996, Barrow figured he would never live in El Dorado again. He came home for a Christmas visit in 2010, and the vision laid out for him was too much to resist. He said he's a part of "the renaissance of El Dorado, the rebirth of a soulful city."

"We have an opportunity to put El Dorado on the map and change its future," Barrow said. "We were Arkansas' original boom town, and we want to boom again. What few people know is that this town has a very old and impassioned history in the arts. The South Arkansas Arts Center is celebrating its 53rd year and the South Arkansas Symphony, the state's oldest, has turned 61."

Stewart used his connections to bring in an old friend, Dan Smith, as general manager. Smith oversaw the House of Blues in Orlando, New Orleans and then Cleveland from 1998-2006, booking well-known acts and managing food and beverage services in venues that averaged 50,000 square feet each. In 2007, he took over food and beverage operations for the Cleveland Indians.

The chief marketing officer is Bob Tarren, who was the director of marketing and communications for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond from 2009-15 and in 2016 joined The Frick Pittsburgh, a group of museums and historic buildings centered around industrialist Henry Clay Frick's former home.

Before all is said and done, the business and civic leaders behind this effort will have raised more than $100 million. But it's this arts and entertainment dream team that must put those dollars to work as they introduce a new level of sophistication to south Arkansas.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 09/24/2017

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