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El Dorado’s Christmas lighting

by Richard Mason | December 4, 2022 at 2:14 a.m.

As a young boy, when I looked out at the Galleria Mall in Houston during the holidays, my first word was wow! And last weekend, when I looked at the downtown El Dorado Courthouse and all the red and green lighted buildings around the square, it was almost a wow! moment.

What do we need to do in order to get a legitimate wow?

Let's look back to the mid-1960s. Downtown El Dorado was losing retail businesses, which began moving to the gateway street North West Avenue, then accelerated when Mellor Park Mall opened.

It was a time of downtown retail contraction, and as downtown businesses closed, a committee was formed to return downtown to the prosperous 1950s. The recommendations that came from a national research firm followed a trend set in Little Rock and Memphis along with other cities to create a downtown shopping experience similar to the European pedestrian-only shopping streets.

Courthouse Square, circled by archways, was made pedestrian only, and a parking lot was added behind First Baptist Church. A fountain was constructed in the middle of Washington Avenue, and with great fanfare Union Square opened.

However, after a few years, the store occupancy steadily dropped; n the early 1970s it was less than 25 percent. It was obvious the concept was a failure, and in the mid-1970s the archways were removed and one-way streets were eliminated.

In the mid-1970s Christmas decorations in downtown El Dorado could be described in one word: pitiful. Main Street El Dorado was formed, the Downtown Business Association became active, and there was a push to add Christmas decorations to the area.

The Chamber of Commerce initially declined to support the drive for decorations, but when Vertis Mason raised over $25,000 in one day, the chamber, city, county, and all of the downtown associations got together and hired a design firm from Oklahoma City to build and oversee a commitment to light the courthouse and other prominent buildings in the downtown area.

Because the courthouse is such a large building, they recommended big C-9 red and green bulbs, and to make a greater impact, that all of the downtown buildings follow suit.

The resulting lighting display, especially the courthouse centerpiece, is spectacular.

As more and more businesses in the downtown area added red and green lighting displays, it steadily moved up in the wow! category. Some of the major downtown whose owners deserve extra credit include the Murphy Oil Building, the Murphy USA Building, the Union Building, Alice Sidney Oil Corp., and the First Financial Bank Building.

We have also seen more and more property owners add red and green lights to awnings and on the tops of their buildings.

Another special mention goes to Off The Rails Cafe, which added a Santa and reindeer display on the top of its caboose. The City of El Dorado's lighting of the Courthouse Street planters, and the red and green poinsettias on light poles on the viaduct along with El Dorado's city hall and the main fire department station add to the charm. Every light pole around the square is wrapped with garlands and red and green bulbs, with a couple of speakers on each block playing Christmas music.

A special mention goes to Teresa Gates, known as the Bulb Lady, who does the ordering of red and green bulbs and encourages property owners to edge their awnings and roof lines with them.

This year we have some great additions, with bulbs extending east down Main Street and new lighting on Elm Street and Cedar Street buildings. Property owner Buddy McAdams gets a gold star for lighting his buildings with over 1,000 red and green bulbs.

As we look back to where we started, it's amazing we have come this far. Do you think we would have had a Christmas lighting ceremony in the 1970s? Of course not. We haven't reached our potential yet, but are closing in by adding lights to several nearby buildings.

The Downtown Lighting Group will be working with Murphy Arts District and the new Haywood Hotel to help them be part of the downtown Christmas lighting. The more visitors we have, the more benefits the downtown and the MAD complex will have. What benefits one benefits them all.

Next year can be better. Let's dream a bit, and think of what our downtown would look like if every awning and every building is outlined with red and green lights.

Christmas lighting is not all the season is about, but it is a part of a very special time of year. Since that is the case, shouldn't everything we do be focused on making the Christmas celebration the best it can be? This is a time for families to come together in an integrated celebration.

As Santa pushes the button to light the courthouse and a choir sings Christmas carols, we and our visitors can say wow!

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