"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Claiborne Deming’s love of smart people just may save the town of El Dorado.
It’s not that straightforward, of course. But the Murphy Oil CEO’s desire to be surrounded by people capable of carrying on an interesting conversation — “It enhances your life,” he said — is at the root of his long-standing involvement in public education. And the most recent manifestation of that — his company’s decision to bankroll the $50 million El Dorado Promise scholarship program — could spark an economic upswing the town has needed for a long time.
“They’re not building any more oil refineries,” said Don Wales, president and CEO of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce. “So we’ve got to do something else. … We’ve got to create more opportunities so these kids will come back home.”
The Promise, if you’ve somehow managed not to see any of the extensive local or national coverage about it, will pay all or part of college tuition costs for every El Dorado High School graduate who’s attended school in the district for at least four years. School officials and Deming announced it in January at an assembly at the school.
It’s modeled after a program in Kalamazoo, Mich., which sent its first paid-for grads to public colleges and universities in Michigan last fall and is already reaping benefits in the form of a huge influx of new students, rising property values and increased interest from new industries.
“What they experienced up there — property values went up, home construction increased and they got 3,000 new residents the first year — we full expect the same thing to happen here,” Wales said.
The web site for the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce is www.boomtown.org, but it’s been a long time since that description applied. The town was founded on agriculture and timber, but hit the big time in 1921 when the first oil well was drilled. The population exploded from under 4,000 in 1920 to 30,000 in 1925, and dozens of oil-related businesses sprang up.
The population dropped back to 16,000 by 1930, but rose steadily through 1960 and held at about 25,000 until it began to decline in the 1980s. The 2005 Census population was 20,437, down about 1,000 people from just five years before.
Oil has remained an important part of the town’s economy, along with agriculture, timber and other manufacturing industries — today, 29 percent of local jobs are in manufacturing, Wales said, more than twice the national average. But none of those are growing industries — Murphy Oil is a very profitable company, for instance, but only a small fraction of its 7,000-plus employees, all white-collar, are in El Dorado.
“We’ve moved away from oil as a big employer,” El Dorado schools Superintendent Bob Watson said. “As a result of that, the population dropped. It has impacted us economically. The loss of job opportunities — Cooper Tire is shutting down in the next few months, and another plant closed down recently. There goes your population.”
El Dorado’s main draw these days is its painstakingly restored downtown, which is filled with shops and restaurants and presents the illusion of a thriving, bustling community. But drive just a couple of blocks away and the scenery quickly deteriorates. Run-down buildings, many of them empty. Houses in bad need of maintenance. An abundance of sagging strip malls.