EL DORADO – It takes a lot of work and money to keep a small town healthy.
In 2002, a couple of brick buildings on El Dorado’s main drag, West Central, burned down, leaving a gap among the worn storefronts for a decade.
Today, a three-story office building, 220 Central, is going up in their place. From its spacious third floor balcony, big enough for a party, you can see a rejuvenating downtown.
“It’s a great leap of faith, quite frankly,” said one of the owners, Vince Haines, partner in architecture firm PKHLS.
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It’s a calculated gamble, he said. The first floor is already leased, and there are plenty of professionals searching for high-quality space in a town with a lot of aging buildings.
It’s another bit of reinvestment in a town that has seen quite a lot recently.
Linda Jolly, executive director of the city’s economic development organization, El Dorado Inc., said that public and private sources have spent $38 million in the city’s core since 1998. It has gone into big projects such as building the three-county judicial center, and small, such as renovating second-floor space in downtown building and turning them into apartments.
And it’s not just downtown, she ticks off more than $100 million in projects around town in 2011 and 2012, from a new manufacturing plant for BG Products to a sports stadium.
The renewal efforts are starting to change some thinking about El Dorado.
Jason Bell is one of the owners of Specs, an eyeglass frame shop that was located until recently in an unremarkable building on the strip leading out of town. The store in El Dorado had never done that well compared to sister stores in Wichita, so when the lease was up last year, the company had to decide whether to pull out of town.
Instead, the owners spent more than $50,000 renovating a corner spot downtown, a place that had been a hair salon, and turned it into some pretty upscale space. They knew it was a gamble.
“We have ties here; we know a lot of people,” Bell said. “We also know that their downtown district was starting to come back a bit. It wasn’t this nice a few years ago. We just felt like the downtown is gaining some energy.”
They’ve been open in the new space about two months, and the response from customers so far has been great, he said. People in El Dorado appreciate it when businesses show loyalty, he said, and they believe in shopping local.
“We had a little bit of a bad attitude in our old location,” he said, “but we’re feeling renewed excitement. Part of it is having a nice new store, but part of it is feeling community support.”
Earlier this week, Jolly was tooling around the city showing a visitor the many projects either under way or recently completed.
The tour included downtown, but also numerous larger public, private and public/private projects in the rest of the city.
Probably the most significant for the city is the BG Product plant, a $68 million total investment, and the associated $9 million Barton Solvents plant in the industrial park visible from the Turnpike.
Bringing BG Products to town started in 2004 when the company was looking for a distribution warehouse. El Dorado had an empty nearly new 50,000 square foot warehouse in its industrial park just waiting. The company later bought another warehouse for its parts operation.
Today, the company is 30 days away from starting production at its 168,000-square-foot plant. It’s larger than needed, so it can accommodate the next 20 years of growth, said company chairman Galen Myers.
The company still has offices, research and some production in Wichita, but the long-term goal is to move it all to El Dorado, Myers said.
The company had assembled 25 acres in Wichita, south of Kellogg, along the river. But El Dorado offers rail service and a location away from houses, as well as great highway access and plenty of room. It also allowed it to combine with its supplier, Barton Solvents, in ways that improve the operation’s efficiency.
Those are all good reasons for the move, Myers said. Plus there were industrial revenue bonds, some subsidized city-owned land and some federal grant money.
“El Dorado has been wonderful to work with,” he said. “It’s just been a good mix,.”
The project allowed the city officials to ready another 23 acres in the industrial park for development. The city also owns another roughly 200 acres of land around the turnpike exit with an eye for a commercial and industrial development.
There’s also a new elementary school and two newly completed student apartment buildings by Oxbow Development across from the community college. There’s also a completed fire station/fire science college classroom building, a new Commerce Bank local headquarters and the 32-unit LakePoint El Dorado assisted living facility. And still under way are a new middle school and the renovation of Intrust Bank’s local headquarters downtown.
One of the more notable community projects is the new football stadium on South Haverhill Road across from the Butler County Community College campus and adjacent to new privately built student housing. It seats 6,000, has 10 luxury suites, a state-of-the-art press box and a 24-foot-tall video board. But what makes it such an innovative small-town operation is that it’s owned equally by the college, El Dorado schools and the city of El Dorado, and teams from all three play there.
“Can you image what it’s like if you’re a peewee football player playing on this,” Jolly said, looking over the field.
There haven’t been any recent economic booms in El Dorado, but there has been decent growth. The city added about 1,000 people, or 8 percent, over the past decade and now has just over 13,000 residents.
El Dorado has some economic advantages over many other towns. The HollyFrontier oil refinery brings in large numbers of contractors annually to maintain and upgrade the plant. The local oil industry is also doing well. Pipeline company NuStar recently took out a building permit for a $2.3 million office project in El Dorado.
It has rail access and a lake nearby. The community college pulls in students from Butler and Sedgwick counties.
But Jolly said the X factor is the local government, which has been innovative in pushing development. She pointed to the local movie theater, now the six-screen Central Cinema 6, which the city recruited to downtown in 2005 by offering nearly free land and access to a city-owned parking lot.
City Manager Herb Llewellyn described the governmental culture as pro-business.
“We really look at economic development and industry as a partnership,” he said. “Our goal is to look at a project and, if there is some kind of shortfall, see what we can bring to the table.”
When a business owner comes to the city with a project, the city appoints a single person to shepherd it through the approval and financing process.
But officials said they also take care not to compete with existing local business. The city took over a golf course and restaurant several years ago, he said, but it scaled back the restaurant so it wouldn’t compete with other full-service restaurants in town.
The city has yet to turn down a project because of community opposition or business opposition, Llewelleyn said.
Jolly said that’s because El Dorado doesn’t see the amount of interest from the private sector that a bigger city does; it doesn’t see the same philosophical disputes that rage in Wichita over the role of government in economic development.
“The potential for the return on investment is long term, where in Wichita the perception of return is much more short term,” she said. “So there isn’t as much competition with developers.”