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Going MAD in El Dorado: arts district breathes new life into former Arkansas oil boomtown, Lonely Planet

By Trisha Ping

With the opening of a stunning new arts district, the tiny town of El Dorado, Arkansas is hoping for gold-rush tourism levels. A former oil boomtown, El Dorado is currently not high on the travel radar. But once MAD — the Murphy Arts District — opens on 27 September, leaders are hoping that the city will become a destination on a par with Marfa, Texas or Woodstock, New York.

The $54 million launch of the renovation, which is essentially creating a new neighborhood in the city, centers on the Griffin Building, a historic 1928 factory that once made Model Ts. Today, it includes a restaurant, a cabaret lounge and a 2000-seat music hall. In the surrounding six blocks visitors will find a larger amphitheater and the biggest playground in Arkansas, which features fountains and a zip line. And this is just stage one. Phase two, which will turn the 1920s Rialto Theater into an art gallery for a cool $32 million, is expected to be complete next year.

The CEO of the project, Terry Stewart, whose resume includes leadership of Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, says that MAD is ‘bringing song, dance, good food, and theater to a community and region that has long been underserved.’  Backers of the project include the Walton family and Murphy Oil Corporation, which still has its world headquarters in El Dorado.

To celebrate the opening weekend, a lineup of special guests will perform at MAD, including Smokey Robinson, Brad Paisley, ZZ Top, X Ambassadors and Lyle Lovett.

Alongside the opening of MAD, the town of El Dorado itself has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years. Like many small towns in America, it is seeing renewed interest in its historic Main Street, which now features specialty shops and restaurants and has long been anchored by a continuously operating pool hall.

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