Can an old-school oil company make a small town cool?

El Dorado, Arkansas’ oil titans hope to turn the town into a popular arts destination.

Can an old-school oil company make a small town cool?

El Dorado, Arkansas’ oil titans hope to turn the town into a popular arts destination.

The outskirts of El Dorado, Arkansas are strewn with tanks, pumpjacks, and long-forgotten oil derricks. But a block south of Main Street, the old and faded McWilliams furniture warehouse awaits its transformation into an art gallery featuring work from the core collection of Crystal Bridges, the Wal-Mart endowed museum in Bentonville that’s home to work from Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Yayoi Kusama. Next door, an abandoned theater is being remodeled to accommodate touring Broadway shows. Three new concert venues across the street, each only a year old, have already hosted Brad Paisley, Ludacris, Jason Isbell, Smokey Robinson, and Migos.

El Dorado, a one-time oil boomtown, until recently looked much like any other small Southern hamlet: isolated and slowly shrinking, its population down to close to 18,000, from more than 25,000 a few decades ago. But El Dorado’s twin oil titans, Murphy Oil and Murphy USA, are currently bankrolling an ambitious and expensive downtown revival in hopes of reawakening the city, which is about 120 miles south of Little Rock. It’s a $100-million project several years in the making, and it could mark an era of rebirth for a community that has watched its prosperity dwindle over the last century.

The Murphy family has been in El Dorado for as long as it could properly be called a town. In 1921, the eruption of a local oil well gave the town’s name an air of prophecy. With the discovery of black gold in south Arkansas, the town’s population ballooned from 4,000 to 25,000, where it would stay for some 60 years. But in 1980, oil prices plummeted and El Dorado saw the beginnings of a precipitous population decline. The most recent census, in 2010, counted 18,884 residents; a current estimate suggests that the population is nearing 18,000. In the 2000s alone, El Dorado lost more than 12 percent of its population.

The project is about enticing a young, educated workforce to move to the remote reaches of southern Arkansas.

The Murphy corporations’ attempt at rejuvenating El Dorado then confronts a larger American narrative: that of the small towns our parents left, where no millennial wants to live (according to a recent paper published in the journal Regional Studies, millennials are much happier in urban environments, in contrast to preceding generations).

My dad grew up in El Dorado. The youngest of four and the son of a vending-machine salesman, he was the last of his siblings to leave town for college. In May, I returned there for the first time since before my grandfather’s death in 2014 to attend the newly minted Southern Food & Wine Festival, a weekend featuring world-renowned chefs and sommeliers visiting from Michelin-starred restaurants, and found a town battling that cliched storyline: a one-industry place damned for being stubborn and static. In the middle of the south Arkansas oil fields, El Dorado is hoping to remake itself as a cosmopolitan capital.

The Griffin Restaurant is a high-end establishment that was converted from an auto-body shop.

The Griffin Restaurant is a high-end establishment that was converted from an auto-body shop.

It’s kind of a nutso idea, as its orchestrators will proudly concede, but the town has staked its future in the faith that it can work. When I asked Austin Barrow, an El Dorado expat who left his position as the drama department chair at a Georgia college to return home and spearhead the revival, whether he thinks the revamped downtown can become a destination, he said, simply, “It has to.”

El Dorado, (“rhymes with swell tornado”) sits along a stretch of two-lane highway where south Arkansas shades into north Louisiana. It’s a four-and-a-half hour drive east of Dallas, four hours northwest of Jackson, two hours south of Little Rock, and still an hour past Fordyce, the speed-trap town that remains the site of south Arkansas’ most enduring cultural event: the 1975 arrest and near-imprisonment of Keith Richards after he sped off from a drug-addled pit-stop at a local diner in a rented yellow Impala. It is in the middle of nowhere.

I have heard the stories about my father’s childhood of makeshift fortresses in the woods, bottle rockets fashioned out of wire hangers and PVC pipes, and afternoons spent cruising up and down North West Avenue, killing time. In those days, some 50 years after the south-Arkansas oil boom made downtown El Dorado its social center, the district was all but abandoned, home to a five-and-dime and a smoke-filled billiards hall.

The new, renovated downtown district in El Dorado, dubbed the Murphy Arts District, debuted last September. The Griffin, an old auto shop, has been converted into a high-end restaurant (a dry gin martini will set you back $13, the pan-seared chicken breast, $18, and the oysters, crab, and shrimp platter, $42) of the same name, and is attached to the Griffin Music Hall, an impressive 2,200-seat venue with an outdoor amphitheater that holds 8,000.

Though three new concert venues have opened in El Dorado, MAD CEO Terry Stewart says, “We don’t want to be branded as a town that’s just a place to go hear a concert.”

Though three new concert venues have opened in El Dorado, MAD CEO Terry Stewart says, “We don’t want to be branded as a town that’s just a place to go hear a concert.”

This fall, as part of El Dorado’s revamped 31-year-old music festival, these venues will host George Clinton, Toby Keith, and Gucci Mane (Cardi B, who was booked as the top headliner, recently canceled her fall tour). The district’s centerpiece will be the Rialto Theater, an old vaudeville space that is being repurposed to house the South Arkansas Symphony and touring Broadway shows.

The revitalization has enticed the involvement of several high-profile collaborators from around the country. First of these was Terry Stewart, formerly the CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Marvel Comics. He’s a Southern expat who once vowed he’d never return, and he now lives part-time in El Dorado as the CEO of the Murphy Arts District. With Stewart came Paul Westlake, an internationally acclaimed architect whose recent projects include the renovated Rock Hall in Cleveland, the renovated Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and a new Broadway-style theater in Shanghai.

For the oil companies of El Dorado, the project is about enticing a young, educated workforce to move to the remote reaches of southern Arkansas. “If we can’t recruit world-class people to live, work, play, and stay here, then we can’t stay here. Then we can’t keep our companies here,” said Madison Murphy, the patriarch of the Murphy oil dynasty. If El Dorado continues on its downward trajectory, it will one day be uninhabitable for its homegrown oil corporations. Small towns die slowly, until their steady slide is interrupted by some calamitous “event,” in Murphy’s wording: “That event could be a further closure. It could be our departure.”

Oil money has long flowed through the streets of El Dorado, but so has poverty, job loss, and a pervasive pessimism. I heard an old joke when I was in town: you move to El Dorado so you can make enough money to leave. It is impossible to live there without an acute awareness that the town, and all of the surrounding Union County, would cave in on itself without the continued presence of Murphy Oil and Murphy USA. As Josh Cole, an employee at Murphy USA who grew up in El Dorado, told me while we sat in a new downtown coffee shop, “Anybody that’s lived here knows that it’s been a rumor for as long as those buildings have been standing over there” — he nodded towards the two Murphy headquarters a few blocks north — “that Murphy is going to leave El Dorado.”

But over the last 10 years, the Murphys have made it clear that they do not want to skip town. Though the Murphy corporations have not conducted drilling in southern Arkansas since the 1990s, they have kept their headquarters rooted in El Dorado. Their market caps, $5.83 billion for Murphy Oil and $2.83 billion for Murphy USA, are small by petroleum company standards, but they employ almost 700 people in El Dorado and are the primary fount of the town’s successful philanthropic ventures.

I don’t think anyone gives a hoot where the money came from.
Terry Stewart, CEO of the Murphy Arts District

In 2007, Murphy Oil unveiled its “El Dorado Promise,” the company’s commitment to pay the college tuition up to the cost of the most expensive public university in Arkansas for every student who attends school in El Dorado from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Students who join the El Dorado school system late are eligible for funding proportional to their time in the system, with those attending El Dorado High School from 9th through 12th grade receiving the minimum available funding of 65 percent. When the Promise celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, the program had sent more than 2,000 students to college across 29 different states. In 2016, 78 percent of El Dorado High School grads went to college, compared to the 50 percent college-going rate in the state.

Education was one step in El Dorado’s ambitious revival plan. Quality of life, the Murphy Arts District orchestrators say, is the missing piece. “We want to build a reputation that this is a hip place to be,” Terry Stewart told Jezebel last fall. In an interview last summer with The New York Times, Stewart cited Marfa, Texas as a model for what El Dorado is hoping to become. But where Marfa’s emergence as a cultural capital was organic — the result of minimalist artist Donald Judd’s somewhat arbitrary settlement there in the 1970s — El Dorado’s is corporate and scientific. This is not lost on Stewart. “We don’t want to be branded as a town that’s just a place to go hear a concert,” he told me.

But ultimately, the MAD district aims to make El Dorado cool. Coolness is the lure that could bring young transplants to El Dorado to stock its businesses and reshape its identity, but “cool” is a slippery word, and an even more elusive thing to harness. Today’s so-called cool cities — metros like Brooklyn, Oakland, Austin, Denver, and Nashville — offer a particular, often regional permutation on a broader understanding of the word, increasingly bastardized to denote cities that have large gentrified districts friendly to wealthy millennials.

The most peculiar monument to El Dorado’s revival is a steel spire fountain — a simulacrum of an oil derrick.

The most peculiar monument to El Dorado’s revival is a steel spire fountain — a simulacrum of an oil derrick.

As much as concert halls, art galleries, and other cultural amenities, the authenticity of a place is essential to its appeal. But old oil towns are hardly the apotheosis of cool. And if El Dorado tries too hard to buck every small town stereotype on its road to relevance, it hazards becoming a cultural facsimile. Is it even possible — with all the Deep South, boondocks, Big Oil baggage — to manufacture a capital in this middle-of-nowhere, for food, theater, art, music, culture?

For El Dorado, embracing its regional identity, its isolation, and its one-industry heritage is key to an authentic revival. The arts district has not done anything to mask its corporate sponsorship — it is, afterall, named for the oil companies that have made it possible. “I don’t think anyone gives a hoot where the money came from,” Stewart told me, adding that it would be “foolish” for anyone “to take a swipe at this as being the awful energy industry... It’s just not the case here.” Most of the Murphy execs are located in Houston now, and the corporations could relocate their headquarters to the Gulf with hardly a hitch to production if they wanted to. But today, oil and art are running together in south Arkansas, and the history, the omnipresence of oil in El Dorado, is perhaps what makes its cultural bid unique. If a city needs a regional marker to define it, in El Dorado it’s done by the legacy of oil. The most peculiar monument to El Dorado’s revival is a steel spire fountain — a simulacrum of an oil derrick — that lights up at night in the middle of the new arts district like the Eiffel Tower of South Arkansas, you might say.

In his book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, The Atlantic’s James Fallows examines the trend of small-town revivals across the country. Fallows reports on the challenge of places hoping to “will themselves into destinationhood,” and notes that it’s worked in towns like Portland, Maine; Duluth, Minnesota; and Coachella, California. Places like Greenville, South Carolina, St. Mary’s, Georgia, and Ajo, Arizona are currently seeing if they can accomplish this. With this wave of revivals, the rare and little-studied phenomenon of small-town gentrification could begin to Brooklynize places in which such cultural growth and change might never have seemed possible or even desirable.

Helen Cole, a postdoctoral researcher at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban and Environmental Justice and Sustainability, has written about gentrification — or what she says may be more aptly termed “the potential for gentrification” — in her own Arkansas hometown of Springdale, the headquarters of Tyson Foods. Cole says that a precursor to big city gentrification is the “disinvestment,” or the abandonment and disrepair, of urban neighborhoods.

Talk of gentrification in El Dorado may seem premature, but it is in these sorts of vacuums that a city can change.

As Cole explained to me over email, “the process of urbanization” has caused disinvestment in small towns, leaving them “ripe for gentrification in the same way that inner city neighborhoods had been prior to this wave of urbanization and accompanying gentrification.” For decades, this shaped much of El Dorado, where buildings mere blocks outside of downtown have been abandoned.

The disinvestment of El Dorado left its minority families particularly vulnerable. Wayne Gibson, an employee at Murphy USA for nearly 40 years, the former president of the Arkansas School Boards Association, and a leader at St. John’s Baptist, an African American parish in town, said that job loss in the town forced many black families to consolidate living spaces, in some cases cramming three or four families into a single home — a phenomenon that, he said, skewed census data.

Like many Southern towns, El Dorado is deeply segregated, and, historically, the downtown district has been its most striking emblem of division. “The people here in El Dorado feel like downtown is just for rich white people,” said Veronica Creer, a black candidate for El Dorado mayor who has also served on the new district’s advisory panel. Barry Dobson, the reverend at St. John’s Baptist, estimated that 80 to 90 percent of customers at El Dorado’s downtown shops and restaurants are white, which appeared anecdotally accurate during my few days in town. “It’s not a hostile situation,” said Dobson. “It’s just who they’re catering to.”

Stewart told me that the Murphy Arts District is mission-driven, not profit-driven, and for it to succeed, it will need support from all demographics of the town. El Dorado is nearly 50 percent black and has a significant Hispanic population as well. The district’s new venues abutt El Dorado’s black neighborhoods, in a part of downtown that was alive with black businesses decades ago, Creer said. But the area’s demographics have shifted, and Stewart says that “getting African Americans to come there — just physically feeling comfortable — is a challenge.”

The black residents that I spoke to were more skeptical of the revitalization project than any of the white ones I encountered. Creer told me that there is a misconception in the black community that the new district is funded by El Dorado’s government, and, “when you think of the underserved communities in the city, well I’m sure they could think of some ways that the money could have been better spent.” Reverend Dobson expressed a similar sentiment, questioning the priorities of the town’s revival. “Yes, we need the upgrade. We need to upgrade our uptown,” he said, “But I still believe that they are putting just a little too much money into it.”

Michael Dobbins, a professor of urban design at Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning told me that in hedging against gentrification “the level of hype” is crucial: “If you overhype your assets then you run the risk of artificially inflating value and creating speculative pressure,” he said, leading to rapid displacement and gentrification. Talk of gentrification in El Dorado may seem premature, but it is in these sorts of vacuums that a city can change.

Ultimately, the MAD district aims to make El Dorado cool.

With measured hype, however, El Dorado could find sustainable growth with minimal displacement. For now, the shadow of the past may help manage hype. Years of decline have put a cloud over the possibility of new life in El Dorado, and, while no one’s saying it’s impossible, few are rushing to say they’ve found it either. Still, there are feelings of optimism about the downtown developments that bridge social and racial lines. Josh Cole said that he and his wife, both white, used to leave El Dorado on most weekends; now they want to stay. Greg Williams, a black Murphy USA employee, told me he can’t wait to take his son to the downtown playground that was recently unveiled. Ashley Nash, a white Murphy USA employee who was among the first class of recipients of the El Dorado Promise, said that the refresh “has brought an already close-knit community even closer.” And Wayne Gibson told me that while downtown El Dorado has not traditionally been a welcoming space to the town’s black residents, with the creation of the arts district, “it is opening up.”

On the Friday night of the Southern Food & Wine Festival, after a lavish five-course banquet in the Griffin Auditorium, we all migrated to a dive bar called The Minkeye, located in a basement grotto accessed through a pair of side doors beneath a Main Street restaurant. Buzzed locals, mostly in their twenties, joined with a few representatives from the town’s older set and a handful of visiting chefs and sommeliers. Arts District staffers and young Murphy USA employees shared cigarettes on the bar’s stoop. The former wine director at Eleven Madison Park, dressed in a sharp maroon dinner jacket, cleared out a space for himself on the dance floor. It was a scene my dad could never have imagined in El Dorado.

Small American towns could once survive, even thrive, in self-sustaining obscurity. This was the story in Arkansas, and other old southern towns, but it’s a less likely one today. As El Dorado wrestles with its old identity on its way to building a new one, it’s lurching, haltingly, toward finding that relevance, sustainability, and community are standards fought for all, and all at once. These were not the battles being waged in El Dorado when my dad was a kid. Then it was a more stagnant place. But for its life, El Dorado is learning to be nimble and spry, reinventing itself, paradoxically, to remain itself.

On my last night in town, Jason Isbell, the Grammy-winning Americana performer, closed out the Southern Food & Wine Festival. His song “Last of My Kind,” itself an elegy to small-town America, and the rare song to shout out Arkansas, drew hollers from the crowd. Between songs, Isbell paused to pay a few compliments to his audience. “What a lovely town y’all have here,” he said, plucking his strings before stepping back from the mic, “Just when you thought you’d been everywhere.”