One tiny town's radical plan to stop a rural exodus
By Fleur Macdonald (text) & Jay Paul (images)23 January 2018
An ambitious idea from the heart of the Bible Belt to bring young workers back to El Dorado, Arkansas.
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(Credit: Jay Paul)
A decimated population
Like many small rural towns in America’s Deep South, the population of El Dorado, Arkansas, is dwindling. In 2000, the town had well over 21,000 inhabitants. Now it has nearer 18,000. Job losses and the exodus of blue-collar workers are sapping the place of life.
It's not the most obvious place to build a $100 million entertainment complex but that's exactly why it's happening.
The town has just hosted concerts by ZZ Top, Migos, Smokey Robinson, and country star Brad Paisley. It’s part of a music festival celebrating the launch of a regeneration project spearheaded by three New York Stock Exchange-listed companies still based in the town. Tiny El Dorado will soon have two concert halls, a restaurant, a theatre, museum and several bars.
If the regeneration project proves successful, it will buck trends across the Deep South. The five poorest states in America, measured by median household income, are southern and Arkansas is one of them. According to the United States Census Bureau, more than a quarter of El Dorado’s residents live below the poverty line. In the last two decades, a chicken producer, tyre manufacturer and lighting supplier have all shut up shop. If nothing is done, this former 1920s oil boom town risks turning into one populated by ghosts.
(Credit: Fleur Macdonald)
Bucking the trend
El Dorado is still home to the headquarters of three NYSE-listed companies: oil exploration and production company, Murphy Oil; a chain of petrol retailers, Murphy USA (MUSA); and logging firm Deltic Timber, which has just been bought by forestry company Potlatch Corp.
Murphy Oil chairman, Claiborne Deming, says it has become a challenge to persuade the professionals he needs, lawyers, engineers and other white-collar talent, to relocate: "As the town has got smaller, it's got more difficult to recruit talent." Despite this, he still thinks their small-town location is very positive for the Murphy brand: “It’s a differentiator.”
Madison Murphy, chairman of MUSA, says moving headquarters away from El Dorado would be expensive. For him, the decision to stay appears to be deeply personal. His father was born and raised in the town and his portrait hangs outside the boardroom.
The three companies have given more than $25 million to a regeneration programme. The city of El Dorado and the State of Arkansas have contributed a further significant amount alongside local businesses, including the Walton Family Foundation.
The newly created Murphy Arts District (MAD for short) will include an outdoor concert space for 7,500 people, an indoor hall for 2,500, a theatre, a museum as well as restaurants and bars.
The group was in part inspired by the success of projects like Marfa, a town in west Texas. Although Marfa has only around 2,000 residents and is 200 miles from the nearest city, the town’s arts programming and its patronage by the artist Donald Judd attracted over 38,000 visitors in 2015.
(Credit: Jay Paul)
The ageing rural population
"There's a growing malaise and it's not unique to El Dorado," says Murphy. "It's writ large across the country."
US Department of Agriculture 2017 data has revealed that for the first time, the population of rural America as a whole is declining. Nearly 70% of non-metro counties in the US (those with fewer than 50,00 residents and not economically tied to metropolitan areas) have decreasing populations. The data suggested people are leaving rural communities because of “rising unemployment, housing-market challenges [and] energy-sector developments.”
In the 1950s, 60s and 80s, versus today, the gap between the number of people leaving rural communities and the number arriving was actually wider. It is not migration but the decreasing birthrate which has upset the balance. Deaths are now more common than births in hundreds of rural communities. It also means the population of rural America is getting older.
The rural unemployment rate is only 0.5% lower than in cities. It is the workforce which has shrunk: if people think opportunities are better elsewhere, they leave. Nearly six in 10 rural residents say “they would encourage young people in their community to leave for more opportunity elsewhere.”
The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in June 2017 revealed the divide between rural and urban areas could also be cultural rather than economic. As many as four in 10 rural residents see their values as "very different" from those in urban areas. The presidential election was characterised by this divide; while urban voters sided with Hillary Clinton by 32 percentage points, rural counties backed Trump by a margin of 26 percentage points. Union County, of which El Dorado is the county seat, voted for Trump by over 60%.
(Credit: Jay Paul)
Declining industries, new jobs
The number of businesses creating jobs in the town has fluctuated depending on trends in international oil prices, trade deals and of course technology. "We could have spent $100 million [on] attracting a Toyota plant," says the mayor, Frank Hash, sitting in his office in front of his particularly impressive collection of baseball caps. But he knows automation means that more and more manual jobs are disappearing: "Deltic Timber used to employ scores of men to harvest timber."
Mayor Hash is weighing up other options. A conference hall has already been built in El Dorado using proceeds from a local business tax, implemented in 2007. He is even considering bids from local businesses to turn a disused industrial plant into a medical marijuana farm. It would create 100 jobs.
(Credit: Jay Paul)
Putting El Dorado back on the map
The Murphy Arts District (MAD) opened with a bang with a successful music festival in September.
The line-up was improbable, designed to cater for the town's varied residents and their eclectic taste in music, says Terry Stewart, Chief Executive Officer of El Dorado Festivals & Events and former president of Marvel Comics.
Bearded rockers ZZ Top were followed by Atlanta rapper Ludacris and the grand finale came courtesy of Motown legend Smokey Robinson. "It’s put us on the map," says Georgia Howard, an elderly member of the First St James Baptist Church.
(Credit: Jay Paul)
The entertainment scene has never been part of El Dorado's heritage, says Murphy Oil chairman, Claiborne Deming. And it’s been a difficult sell. Deep in the Bible Belt, even putting on the play ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's, is fraught with difficulties, says Emily, a 29-year-old drama graduate, who's just moved back from the state capital Little Rock, for a job at MAD. "You have to take out the goddamns and other profanities," she says. "When someone slipped up once, the church folk stomped out. We got letters delivered to the front desk the next day."
Selling alcohol is also a challenge. The head of the local chamber of commerce, Mike Dumas, explains that although Union County is not a “dry state”, you still could not serve spirits in bars in 2017. The local authorities went to the legislature to change the liquor laws. "Times are a changing," says Dumas, "and the church don't fight as hard as it used to."
It is hoped that the new entertainment complex will also reinvent the town as a tourist destination. "I've had six states in the shop since yesterday morning!" says Rexayn Tribble, owner of the florist on the main square for 22 years. She is delighted that she’s now serving customers from across the country.
Many small towns across America have focused on pulling in money by boosting their local tourism industry. In Marfa, this has helped the median household income double since 2000.
But not everyone is sold on the idea of significant investment in tourism. Local businessman, Andre Rucks, for instance, is not convinced that tourist dollars will trickle down to all the residents and thinks investing money into small businesses and training would make a bigger difference to the town.
In 2007 Murphy Oil started ‘The El Dorado Promise’, a $50m education fund to help pay university tuition for all local high-school students. Former US president, Bill Clinton, who grew up in Hope, a small town less than 65 miles from El Dorado, and was the first of his family to attend college, has spoken at the scholarship awards day. The scheme was designed to encourage more families to move in to the town. But, once they left, the “ambitious” kids did not return, says Claiborne Deming.