Murphy Arts District organizers seek to be a top tourist draw for south Arkansas

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,846 views 

Artist rendering of the Griffin Building within the Murphy Arts District.

El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. has waged a big bet that the Murphy Arts District, or MAD, will make the southern Arkansas town a tourist hotspot for visitors statewide and from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

The group has drawn upon some city and state funding, but creation of the downtown entertainment district has largely been driven by private investors and the town’s three publicly traded companies, Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and Deltic Timber Corp., said Bob Tarren, chief marketing officer.

With $54 million invested and after six years of planning, the first phase will open soon, and then the team plans to start raising tens of millions of dollars for Phase II.

All at once on Sept. 28, an outdoor amphitheater that seats about 8,000, a 2-acre children’s playground and splash pad, a 2,000-seat music hall, farm-to-table-concept restaurant and 200-seat cabaret theater will open to the public. Members will have access to the properties Sept. 27, according to the MAD website.

The Griffin restaurant is in a restored 1920s-era building that once housed a Ford Model T assembly plant. The development also includes a four-story stage house that MAD leadership says serves as top-of-the-line facilities for traveling artists. Tarren believes the quality of the amenities, paired with the El Dorado’s location, means the district can fill a niche on artists’ tour routes.

“We’ve heard from bands that they are looking for a good stopover spot between Atlanta and Dallas, and there is nothing like this in this part of southern Arkansas or northern Louisiana,” Tarren said.

The lineup for the grand opening includes Train with Natasha Bedingfield on Sept. 28, ZZ Top and Ludacris on Sept. 29, Brad Paisley and Migos on Sept. 30 and Smokey Robinson on Oct. 1. Tickets go on sale online on Thursday (Aug. 10). Later this year, Christian artist Jason Crabb will perform at the music hall Oct. 5, The Beach Boys are coming in November, Tarren said, and Phil Vassar and Kellie Pickler – A Christmas Tour will stop at MAD on Dec. 19.

MAD also plans to bring in performance from non-musical entertainers, including Off Broadway productions, comedians, fashion shows and wrestling, Tarren said.

“We’re trying to hit every genre.”

A farmer’s market is planned for the outdoor amphitheater, and there are plans to host the South Arkansas Symphony and bring in regional music artists on a regular basis.

“We are programming for 12 months of the year,” Tarren said. “Our intent is to have one significant, tent-pole event per month and to have four festivals a year, and also music every week inside the cabaret and inside the restaurant.”

Special events at MAD present an opportunity for downtown merchants to attract new customers, said Mark Miller, small business consultant for Main Street Arkansas. He will host a presentation on the subject in El Dorado on Aug. 24.

“Everyone who attends a special event downtown will not be shopping,” Miller said. “However, they will all be looking at the stores, restaurants and services available in the downtown. Taking the time and effort to make your business stand out during a special event means that people will be more likely to return at a later date and make purchases.”

The addition of MAD “will be fantastic,” Miller said. “You’ll be getting a different demographic downtown than what they possibly had in the past.”

Economic development is a key motivating factor for the MAD team.

“We are an economic amplifier. If we do our job right, we will attract people who don’t live in El Dorado to come and enjoy themselves and take part in our programming, then you have a party of two, three or four, and maybe they’ll buy gas, sunglasses, maybe they’ll have dinner somewhere or lunch somewhere. Maybe they buy a pair of shoes,” Tarren said. “All of those dollars help, and the result is in creating jobs, sustaining jobs, increasing that tax base, so small businesses can survive and hire more people. And that tax money goes to infrastructure spending, education spending.

“That cascading effect doesn’t happen at the snap of the finger” he said, speaking on the multiplier effect of a one-night stay and adding, “We see ourselves as part of the ecosystem. We are viewing ourselves as a trigger for visits.”

Several Arkansas cities have used the arts as an anchor for revived downtown districts.
North Little Rock’s Argenta Arts District features art galleries, artist studios and a community theater. The Joint Theater & Coffeehouse often hosts standup comedy, said Chris Kent, marketing and development director.

In terms of the growth the district has seen in the past decade, “I’d say it’s been huge,” Kent said. However, the district was in development before that for several years, since the mid-1990s.

“I think the main thing is you have to stick with it,” Kent said. “There’s so many ups and downs having to with redeveloping downtown. Just keep your head up and just keep pushing forward. It takes good partnerships with nonprofits and the city and everybody working together.”

Downtown Fort Smith has for three years seen an explosion in downtown art courtesy of “The Unexpected Project.” Since launching in September 2015, the art and murals festival has put downtown Fort Smith on the global map, welcoming thousands of local and tourist visitors and racking up more than 5 million views on social media channels. Arkansas Parks & Tourism Department Director Kane Webb, who attended the 2017 opening event, is impressed with the project.

“I think it’s another great thing that Fort Smith is doing. And they continue to, you know, mine the arts and culture and quality of life, and they get it. They really get it, and I love the direction the city is going,” Webb said.

The Walton Arts Center has been a fixture on Dickson Street in Fayetteville for about 25 years, and the 2011 construction of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art near downtown Bentonville served as a catalyst for development and the establishment of an arts district downtown.

In 2015, nonprofit arts and cultural events generated an estimated $131.2 million in economic activity in Benton and Washington counties, according to the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 report from Americans for the Arts of Washington, D.C. The report attributes $67.5 million in direct spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Benton and Washington counties and the remaining $63.7 million to event-related expenses made by their audiences, an estimated 1.8 million people that year.

Nationwide data show arts and culture economic activity accounted for 4.2% of the U.S. gross domestic product, or $730 billion, in 2014, according to a report released in April by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The BEA measured total spending on all arts and cultural goods and services to be $1 trillion in 2014.

Arts and cultural activity rose in 24 states, including Arkansas, between 2013 and 2014, and Arkansas saw a 2% bump in employment for arts and culture industries, compared to 1.3% growth nationwide, according to the BEA. The bureau tied 34,186 jobs in Arkansas to the category, accounting for 3% of statewide employment and 2.7% ($1.5 billion) of compensation.

Tarren, brought on by MAD in February, is the latest executive added to project. President Austin Barrow, an El Dorado native, has been involved since its formal inception in 2011. He was formerly a faculty member in the theater department at Andrew College in Georgia.

MAD Chairman and CEO Terry Stewart, former CEO and president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and former president of Marvel Comics, became involved with the project in 2014, and Dan Smith, vice president and general manager, was hired in 2015. His work history includes serving as general manager of several House of Blues venues and vice president of food and beverage for The Cleveland Indians.

MAD has put together a staff of 60 and, all told, the new development will bring in about 200 full- and part-time employees when it opens next month, Tarren. Many of the additions will be in restaurant and special events staff. The chef for The Griffin restaurant has already been hired. It is John Peters, who has worked under some noted chefs, including the winner of Zagat and James Beard Foundation awards, Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.

Phase II of MAD will include an estimated $30 million renovation of the 1920s-era, 850-seat Rialto movie theater and the opening of a 10,000-square-foot art gallery. MAD does not yet have a target date to begin construction. It will depend on fundraising, which will commence soon, Tarren said.

“The group will hit the ground running starting to raise funds for part two,” he said. “We have been mono-focused on Phase I. This is the first time this has been done in El Dorado and the first time it’s been done by this team. It’s taking all of our focus to pull it over the finish line.”