SITTING BEHIND HIS desk, Jack Wilson can see them all, the seven deadly sins photographed in black and white. Some are crouching, some menacing, all of them blank behind the eyes. They stare back at him, and he regards them fondly, explaining that many years before, as a young man, he was one of them, too—a member of El Dorado High School Troupe 42. In one photo nearest the wall, the actors have dropped their masks for a group photo and smile at the director of the South Arkansas Arts Center through the glass.
It seems fair to say the 13-year-old thug he readily cops to being would have likely balked at the notion that he might, one day, become the director of the organization to which his mother had dragged him, kicking and screaming. (It didn’t take but two sessions before he’d fallen for the stage.) The same could probably be said of his college-aged self who, while smitten by the freedom of walking in someone else’s skin, had left El Dorado for a life in business management in healthier markets, contributing in his own small part to the exodus of population and industry that has left the city in a decades-long tailspin.
But like so many who, as he says—repeatedly—have drunk the Kool-Aid doled out by the city, he came back. After 23 years, he came back to care for his parents but stayed for the stage.
“It just has a different feel to it. It’s hard to explain,” he says, not long before we embark on a tour of his city, beginning with a nonprofit across town whose efforts he calls “the last best hope” for El Dorado. “But El Dorado is this very unique—I want to call it a vortex. If you’re from here and you drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak, and you really love this place, there’s just this thing that keeps you here.”
“So he’s from here, born and raised,” Jack says, introducing Austin Barrow, president and COO of El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc., a nonprofit leading a charge—the charge, rather—to rock the town from its atrophy through the arts. “His family’s been here for generations, just like my family. He went through the arts center program; he took drama from Rob Bosanko just like I did. … A few years later.”
“A few,” Austin says.
“Well, I’m 53, so …” Jack says, laughing.
“Well, maybe about 20 years later.”
“So, I mean, yeah, we’re all just kind of bred from the same thing here.”
After chatting for a few minutes in the narrow hallway of the organization’s squat building just off the downtown square—about the people who’ve moved clear across the country from the south Arkansas town, and the merits of MusicFest El Dorado—we enter a sparsely appointed room Austin jokingly refers to as his executive conference room. As we sit down to the table, Austin tells me about the circuitous route his life has taken since he finished high school in 1996—a series of events that sent him leapfrogging across the country, from college in Ruston, Louisiana, to a brief stint in Chicago, several years in California, grad school in Fayetteville, a position with Andrew College down in Georgia, performing and directing theater the whole way. A return to El Dorado never figured into those plans. Or at least not until Christmas 2010, when a trip home resulted in an offer to help guide the revitalization of the city moving forward. Then, eyes moving to the window, Austin talks about the town as he sees it going forward.
From the window, you can see the road whose streets are veined with spider-web cracks, a vacant auto building whose overhanging latticework throws bruised shadows on the pavement, and above that, rising from a grunge of red brick, a flat-topped building whose advertisement, “McWilliams Hdw. & Furn. Co.,” has long since gone defunct. That these buildings clustered south of the square might one day match the vision that Austin so matter-of-factly lays out—encasing the back of the historic Rialto Theater in glass, expanding its main capacity to 850 (roughly); unfurling 10,000 feet of exhibition space on the two bottom floors of the McWilliams building which will host galleries from around the region; opening a farm-to-table restaurant in the old auto building (and, really, a whole lot more, including a 6,500 person amphitheater)—requires no small amount of imagination.
Naturally, all of this gives rise to skepticism, until you realize there’s $60 million worth of weight behind these efforts ($50 million for development and $10 million for operational reserves), coming largely from the connections and generosity of the town’s most well-to-do families and companies. And to hear him talk about the feasibility study that helped engineer a master plan, about the involvement of Terry Stewart (who headed the development of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio) and big-name architects from across the country, about what he sees out the window—you start to see it, too.1:36 p.m.
As Jack and I walk across the square, there’s an odd confluence of old and new on display all across downtown. On the western side of the square, there’s equipment from Arkansas’s first oil field, The 1921 El Dorado Field. Just down the block, there’s an English phone booth repurposed as a downtown book exchange (its twin is on the opposite corner). There’s at least one painted oil drum and one painted guitar—the sort of brightly colored sculptures you’d find in a St. Louis or a Chicago. All of which is to say, there’s tangible evidence of those previously undertaken efforts to bring life back into the town, to say nothing of those others—broader in scale and ambition, like the plan to make the square available only to pedestrians or to make the streets one-way—that have flamed out, each in its turn.
We make our way to the back of the Olde Towne Store—a place exuding that sweet herbal bouquet common to Whole Foods and local health-food stores—as Jack lists off a handful of those bygone efforts, and I can’t help but think back to what he’d said about this most recent effort at revitalization being the “last best hope” for his city. Did he really mean that?
Standing against a backdrop of coffee and granola, he says, “I just don’t see what else El Dorado can do. I really don’t. Manufacturing isn’t what we’re going to be known for. Timber and oil—they affect so few people, that’s not going to be the …”Breaking off, he turns to a younger couple approaching from the front of the store.
“Hey Alex, how’re you doing, man? Good to see you, sir,” Jack says. “Hey, girl, love the hair—I saw the pictures the other day.” He turns to introduce them. “This is a filmmaker who left and came back to El Dorado, and is now living here. And Emily is a wonderful artist, actress, singer, songwriter, all that type of stuff. They were both leads in Les Mis that we just finished producing.”
As we get to talking, it comes to light that Alex Jeffery had been working in Sweden when he got the call that there was going to be a professional production of Les Miserables put on by the arts center, the largest show the town had ever seen, coinciding, it bears mentioning, with the arts center’s 50th anniversary. Emily Cole, an El Dorado native who’d spent the past seven years working and performing in Fayetteville, had found herself similarly hooked. And when they met? Well, they stayed, and are now in the arts center’s production of Twelfth Night. Although they both left for the reasons that so many young people left, the things that drew them back—the opportunities to be creative—are now in ample supply, and are what keep them here.
“I was constantly hanging out with my parents whenever I was home, and they’re like, ‘Ah, we never get to see you; this is great,’” Emily says. “And then whenever I got really involved with El Dorado at the arts center and everything, they’re like, ‘Are you alive? We never see you anymore.’”
After chatting a little while longer—mostly on the merits of the Olde Towne Store cookies on the merits of Olde Towne Cookies and Spudnuts, a local doughnut shop that since 1959 has churned out potato-flour doughnuts—Alex and Emily make their way out of the store. It’s Saturday, so Austin doesn’t have to worry about going back to work (at El Dorado Festival and Events, of course), but Emily does. She works at the Spa on Main. As we walk by, Jack mentions that it’s in the same storefront, the old El Dorado House, that his family ran for 99 years.
Although Spudnuts has closed by the time we arrive, given its history in town—how it was once a nationwide chain that numbered more than 300 in the ’60s, which has since dwindled to three dozenish—and the reaction it elicits from both Alex and Jack, a description still seems worth including. To wit:
“A Spudnut is a steaming, gooey, delectable treat,” Alex says. “It’s a doughnut, but it’s so much more than a doughnut.”
“Wow,” Emily says.
“It melts in your mouth,” he continues. “And it doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever tasted before.”
“It’s a sugary, pillow-y pocket of goodness,” Jack says.
After spending the rest of the afternoon driving around El Dorado—by the arboretum, by the new high school (built with plenty of room to accommodate the anticipated influx of students), through the historic district—we get back to the arts center, and Jack says there’s just one last place he’d like to swing by. Just across a four-lane road, there’s a hardware store by the name of Timmins, its name spelled with red letters set in white boxes. Based on appearances alone—the rust dribbling from the slightly pitched awning, the broad windows filled with a magpie’s collection of miscellany—the store seems to be content living its life in the past. But of course, what becomes evident upon walking through the place is there’s something special here for Jack and the people who’ve been frequenting Timmins since the business was first established downtown at Locust and Washington in 1922.
As we’re waiting for the owner, Mike Kerr, to finish with a customer, a woman who works there approaches and, rather abruptly, tells Jack that she’d put his dad, Joe Wilson, down as a reference the day she started working there.
“And when was that?” Jack says.
“That was back in 1979, or 1986 …”
“You find in a town like this, everyone either worked for Timmins or for The El Dorado House,” Jack says to me.
“Or the slaughterhouse, too!”
“Or the slaughterhouse—that’s another one, too. My wife, she’ll constantly meet someone, and they’ll find out she’s my wife, [and they’ll say], ‘Oh, I used to work for his dad.’ You can’t go anywhere in this town.”
“Again, it’s the people,” he says as the woman is called away. “It’s the fact that I can come in here and deal with someone I’ve known my entire life and know that I used to deal with his dad, and he used to deal with my dad, and my granddad dealt with his granddad. … There’s a certain level of trust that’s built into a relationship like that.”
He says this, and Mike comes up, one of the three generations Jack has traded with. We chat for a while longer before Mike has to attend to another customer.