Chamber of Commerce meeting focuses on the future


Local business leaders, representatives of nonprofit organizations, government officials and other stakeholders gathered at First Financial Music Hall this week for the El County Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting. Dorado-Union.

House Speaker and CEO Bill Luther provided an update on economic development efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic while keynote speaker Rex Nelson, editor of the Arkansas Democrat- Gazette, painted a picture of what the future of southern Arkansas could be if it can reverse downward demographic trends.

Additionally, several nonprofits have been recognized for their contributions to the community, and Janice Hicks became emotional when she was named the Chamber’s Ambassador of the Year.

Economic development

Luther began his report with an announcement: El Dorado will soon be home to a Whataburger fast food restaurant. The Texas-based burger chain recently opened in Magnolia, and at a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Golden Triangle Economic Development Council, director Britta Clark said the Magnolia location averaged 35,000 orders per day.

Information provided by the Chamber shows that during the first quarter of 2022, the Chamber worked on six commercial development projects, two housing development projects, five new restaurant projects, three forest products industry projects and a manufacturing project, in addition to helping two local businesses, existing businesses are working to develop.

Additionally, in partnership with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Chamber had 15 projects underway at the end of the first quarter, including three forest products industry projects, three chemical industry projects, one food and beverage industry project, six undisclosed projects and two existing industry expansions.

The Chamber, alone and with AEDC, has continued its economic development efforts throughout 2020 and 2021, Luther noted, but things have accelerated dramatically this year, as COVID-19 cases have dropped dramatically. spectacular.

Luther also noted several changes in the House, including the departure of former project manager Brandon Barnette and the elevation of former communications manager Kaitlyn Rigdon to a post he left vacant. Faye Brown joined the team to provide communications services. Jaren Books remains the House membership coordinator, Luther said, noting that membership has grown steadily since 2019, even during the pandemic.

“I want to publicly thank the team for their dedication,” Luther said.


Nelson, who last visited El Dorado for the grand opening of the Haywood Hotel in 2019, envisioned a future for the community, which he noted has been steadily losing population – like much of Arkansas, especially the southern and eastern parts of the state — a trend he believes the community needs to reverse to move forward.

“We really need you to be successful…You really are the key to overcoming a broad demographic trend here,” Nelson said. “El Dorado is what I consider a ‘critical mass community’ – you have to survive; the key is not just to get by.”

Several factors are critical to maintaining a community’s prosperity, Nelson said: high-quality public schools, moderate and attentive public servants, and a willingness to identify and pass the reins to leaders of younger generations.

“I know how hard it is to run a business, but what I feel has happened…is that a lot of us have been so busy focusing on our business that we’ve given up on utilities. and that allows people on the fringes – left and right – to come in,” Nelson said. “We need to identify the leaders of tomorrow and do everything we can to bring them.”

He said he also thinks economic development efforts look very different in 2022 than they did two decades ago.

“Before, it was all about industrial development; it’s not the end of economic development now,” he said. “Young people move to where they think it’s cool, then find a job or start a business. It’s all about quality of life.”

Examples of such efforts that El Dorado has already undertaken, Nelson said, include the Murphy Arts District, the El Dorado Promise and even small businesses like Three Birds Brewing Co.

“If we do these things, Arkansas’ best days are yet to come. El Dorado…you’ve come a long way, but guess what. It never stops. It’s hard work,” said Nelson. “I will keep saying to people, ‘Have you been to El Dorado? Have you seen their downtown? Have you seen MAD?’ El Dorado does it well.”

Nonprofit Excellence

Three finalists for this year’s Nonprofit Excellence Award were introduced at the luncheon: El Dorado Connections; the Single Parent Scholarship Fund; and the Historic Preservation Society of Southern Arkansas.

Presented annually by First Financial Bank, the Nonprofit Excellence Award offers $10,000 in prize money to one winning organization and two other finalist organizations and helps the three finalists produce a video for use in marketing.

This year’s winner was El Dorado Connections, which works to recruit and match volunteers with needed services throughout southern Arkansas. Director Julie Amis and Manager of Volunteers Cheryl Splawn accepted the $5,000 award for the organization.

El Dorado Connections’ Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) was highlighted in their video. The program helps match retirees with volunteer projects that are relevant to them; for example, pairing retired teachers with Literacy Council programs.

The Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund was the first runner up. Program Manager Sandra Warren and Board Member Ray Winiecki accepted the $2,500 prize.

Steve Biernacki, executive director of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, and Vince Dawson, chairman of the board, accepted the $2,500 prize from second runner-up.

Participants in the House’s annual Union County Leadership Program were also recognized at the luncheon. ULead Class X graduated in February, and ULead Class XI members began the program on April 19.

Janice Hicks was named Chamber Ambassador of the Year.

“I appreciate everyone,” she said, wiping away tears of gratitude.

The annual meeting was held on Wednesday, April 20 and was sponsored by Murphy USA.

Cheryl Splawn talks about the El Dorado Connections RSVP program in a promotional video created by First Financial Bank. El Dorado Connections received the Nonprofit Achievement Award at the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting on Wednesday, April 20 at First Financial Music Hall. (Caitlan Butler/News-Times)


Attendees mingle at the annual meeting of the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, April 20 at First Financial Music Hall. (Caitlan Butler/News-Times)


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