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Wed Sep 13, 2017, 09:29 PM

The Murphy Arts District aims to make Arkansas's original boomtown boom again

In the last dying days of September, Brad Paisley, Ludacris, Train, Robert Randolph, Smokey Robinson, Migos, Natasha Bedingfield and ZZ Top will all be making a beeline for Union County, bypassing cultural and culinary hubs like Bentonville and Little Rock for South Arkansas, where a former oil boom town is undergoing a $100 million makeover.

MAD, as it's called, short for Murphy Arts District, is a two-phase creation of an entertainment district aimed at revitalizing downtown El Dorado. It involves turning the 1928 Griffin Auto Co. Building, once a fuel station and showroom for Model T Fords, into The Griffin, a farm-to-table restaurant flanked by a cabaret lounge and a 2,000-seat music hall with a stageside elevator, multiple bars, a VIP loft, a concession area, dressing rooms and a patio adorned with a 110-foot statue of an oil derrick, a bombastic homage to the black gold from which El Dorado sprang. The lawn outside The Griffin has been carved into an outdoor amphitheater that can accomodate 8,000 people, with an adjacent farmer's market and 2-acre, free-admission "destination playscape" for kids.


Stewart was "born in LA," he told me: "Lower Alabama." As a kid, he collected comics. Later, he collected degrees two from Rutgers University in education and engineering and two graduate degrees from Cornell University in business and law. He steered Marvel Comics through a financially turbulent decade in the '90s as the company's executive-turned-COO and was named CNBC's "Marketing Executive of The Year" in 1991, the year the company went public. In 1999, he signed on as CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as its fifth director since the hall opened four years earlier. Stewart stayed on for 14 years. In that time, he oversaw a complete museum redesign, shepherded the company's checkbook safely away from chaos and negotiated to get the induction ceremony moved from Manhattan to Cleveland every few years.

So how'd the guy who ran Marvel and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame end up in El Dorado? "You have three publicly traded companies here Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and Deltic Timber," Stewart said. "You have a number of chemical companies. You have a refinery here. And they have a bad time recruiting people to come work in their companies." Stewart first visited for the town's annual Musicfest El Dorado "six or seven years ago." He says that despite assets like a $50 million high school, the longest-running symphony in the state and Murphy Oil Foundation's ambitious college scholarship program the "El Dorado Promise" it turns out that people graduating from large colleges in major metropolitan areas, "the people they're trying to recruit," Stewart said, don't especially want to uproot their lives and set up shop south of someplace called Smackover for a job offer. When recruitment gets tough, big companies often jump ship and relocate their headquarters. "If they do," Stewart said, "it's going to undermine this town, which is a very bucolic, lovely town."


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