Arkansas city prepares to open new arts district

EL DORADO (AP) — With the grand opening of city's new arts and entertainment district less than five months away, a call has been issued for the city to rally together to help prepare for the event.
Downtown developer and businessman Richard Mason recently announced that a new outdoor performance venue is available in support of the Festival City of the South brand idea, the El Dorado News-Times ( ) reported.
Mason said a new, portable stage is ready for use anywhere it's needed, at no charge to the public.
The performance area is accented with new café spotlights and a new fountain in Corinne Court.
"That old fountain lasted about 25 years, but it had cracks in it. When it gets cold, and the water freezes up, it looks pretty, but it's not good for the fountain," Mason said.
Mason said the water in the new fountain was expected to back up and running over the weekend.
Mason said he is doing his part to support an $80 to $100 million development that is under way just south of Corinne Court.
El Dorado Festivals and Events, Inc. is implementing a massive plan to repurpose several properties into a variety of indoor and outdoor entertainment and art venues, a restaurant, play-scape and open-air market.
The area is now being called the Murphy Arts District.
Mason said that while he is not directly involved with Festivals and Events, he strongly believes in the Festival City brand idea, which was unveiled in 2010 by Seattle-based destination developer Roger Brooks.
Brooks and his team developed an action plan to create a new economic base in El Dorado after an intensive study of the city's demographics, challenges, strengths and opportunities.
"If he was a Baptist preacher, he would have us all convinced — if not all, most," Mason said. "We want to integrate downtown into the whole Festival city concept."
Incorporating ideas to revitalize Downtown El Dorado is what Richard and wife Vertis have been doing for more than 35 years.
The Union County natives from Norphlet and Smackover, respectively, moved back to El Dorado in the mid-1970s after having worked for Exxon in Texas.
"Downtown (El Dorado) was in bad shape then. Some blocks had 15 percent occupancy. Others had zero percent," Richard Mason said.
It was the era when shopping malls were growing in popularity, but the Masons felt downtown could once again become the central shopping district for the city, as well as a tourist destination.
The couple purchased and rehabbed several downtown properties and contributed to many of the ideas and amenities, including the red telephone booths and Corrine Court fountain and the Party Car, that have come to define the look of Downtown El Dorado over the last three decades.
"We've visited towns all around the country, and we brought what we thought were good ideas and tried to integrate them here," Mason said.
The couple have laid out just how they did it all in a new book, "From a Dead Downtown to America's Best Downtown," that is set to be released on May 15.
The title refers to El Dorado receiving a Great American Main Street Award in 2009.
The awards are doled out each year to cities around the country by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
El Dorado was one of five finalists to receive the award eight years ago.
Festivals and Events have sought counsel from the Masons in the development of the Murphy district.
The group purchased one of the key properties in the project from the Masons: the Rialto Theater.
"We were just thrilled that they were going to make the Rialto the crown jewel in all of this. That's Roger Brooks' quote. He called the Rialto 'the crown jewel of downtown,'" Richard Mason said.
"Since we had owned the Rialto for all those years, and we had put a new roof on it, we were just thrilled with the plans Festivals and Events has for it," he continued.
He said the new portable stage is the first of many that are to come with the Festival City.
Recalling a recent trip he and Vertis took to Geneva, Switzerland, Richard said the pair has more ideas in mind to complement the Murphy Arts District.
He said the couple was strolling a pedestrian shopping district in Geneva when they came across a piano along the walkway.
"There was a sign that said 'play me' in three languages," Richard Mason said.
A little boy sat down and crudely banged out, "Chopsticks," and a crowd gathered when an older man followed and began playing the classical strands of Beethoven.
The idea of sidewalk pianos has been popularized in other cities around the world, and the Masons are planning to make similar use of a piano that is upstairs in Laredo Grill.
"We're looking to move it outside, maybe into (the Main Street) plaza," Richard Mason said.
He has also called on the city of El Dorado to do more to help prepare for the opening of the Murphy District and the influx of visitors who are expected to come to town.
Richard Mason has pointed to planting and landscaping, adding bicycle racks, addressing parking issues and setting up wayfaring signs and poster boards with a schedule of shows and events downtown.
Richard Mason has offered to address some of the issues at his own cost.
Mayor Frank Hash has said several groups represent the interests of downtown, and he called on the groups to collectively work together on the issues.
A meeting was held late last month at the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce, and those in attendance — the chamber, Festivals and Events, Main Street El Dorado, the Downtown Business Association, and the city's Department of Public Works — agreed to funnel suggestions pertaining to the Union Square District through the chamber of commerce.
Projects that require approval from the city or city funding will be directed to Hash's office for further action.
The group agreed that Richard Mason should continue efforts of maintaining plants, trees and greenery downtown.
"That's all still up the air for now," Richard Mason said, noting that he did not attend the meeting at the chamber.
Reservations are not required to use the new stage, which is 92 inches long, 48 inches wide, and two feet high.