Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

To St. Francis and back

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

I’ve traveled a lot of Arkansas roads through the decades, but a recent trip into northeast Arkansas took me onto roads I’ve never traversed.

The day trip (albeit a long day) was the idea of Mark Christ, perhaps the foremost expert on the Civil War in Arkansas, and Paul Austin, who heads the Arkansas Humanities Council. Two other men with deep knowledge of our state — Center Ridge native and UCA professor Ken Barnes and community development expert Freeman McKindra — joined a trip that would take us to the most northeast spot on an Arkansas map, the Clay County community of St. Francis.

During the day, we drove the back roads of Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties with Paul, an Imboden native, at the wheel. Lunch was on the front porch of a Mennonite store at Dalton, just south of the Missouri border in Randolph County. Supper (a reward for the hundreds of miles covered) was in Bald Knob at Who Dat’s, a longtime favorite. We saw the big raven at Ravenden, walked down to the spring at Ravenden Springs and even passed the road to Success (Success being a community in Clay County).

The first stop of the day was at Jacksonport in Jackson County on the White River. By late afternoon, we were walking through the thick Crowley’s Ridge hardwoods to Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River. A town developed here in the 1820s with the name derived from a white clay bluff that’s still visible. Abraham Seitz operated a ferry crossing and general store from the 1830s until the Civil War. In May 1863, this was the site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff as Union Gen. William Vandever failed in his efforts to prevent troops commanded by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke from crossing the St. Francis River.

Marmaduke, after suffering heavy casualties, had abandoned a second expedition into the Missouri Bootheel and was trying to get back to Arkansas.

Marmaduke, accompanied by 5,000 men, headed for the Bootheel in the spring of 1863. He was defeated at Cape Girardeau and began withdrawing toward Arkansas with the crossing of the St. Francis River planned for Chalk Bluff. Fighting began there on May 1 and lasted until the next day. Marmaduke’s rear guard was able to hold off the Union forces long enough for his engineers to complete a bridge across the river.

Minor skirmishes would occur at Chalk Bluff on and off for the remainder of the war.

I noted that we began our day on the banks of the White River and found ourselves by late afternoon on the banks of the St. Francis River. So while this day was supposed to be about the Civil War, it was really about rivers — the rivers that have so shaped the eastern half of our state through the decades.

The St. Francis River originates in Missouri. It’s a mountain stream until it slows down near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before continuing its path in east Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, parts of northeast Arkansas dropped by six to eight feet, leading to a huge swampy area that slowed development for decades. That area is now known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands, and much of it is managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as a wildlife management area.

“The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts,” Jodi Morris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until well into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. This greatly affected the natural course of the river and included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water.”

The law establishing the St. Francis Levee District was Act 19 of the Arkansas General Assembly of 1893. It was the first improvement district in Arkansas. It addressed flood control in Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties. Gov. W.N. Fishback made the first appointments to the levee board with three representatives from each county.

Previous efforts at flood control through the federal Swamp Land Grant of 1850 and state organizations had been ineffective. The levee district initially was funded by an appropriation from the Mississippi River Commission and a tax levy on the increased land values that were anticipated.

The St. Francis Levee District ended up draining a large portion of east Arkansas with hardwood forests replaced by row crops.

Take the Little River of northeast Arkansas (not to be confused with the Little River of southwest Arkansas) as an example of what the levee district did. The Little River starts west of Cape Girardeau and flows into northeast Arkansas, where it enters what’s now the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area near Manila in Mississippi County. It joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree. Before the New Madrid earthquakes, the Little River was a clear, swift stream. It’s now described by the state encyclopedia as “not much more than a series of stagnant mud holes due to channeling and ditching.”

After leaving the Big Lake area, the Little River is part of a floodway that’s about a mile wide and enclosed by levees. The floodway includes Ditch No. 1, Ditch No. 9, Left Hand Chute of the Little River, Right Hand Chute of the Little River and the Little River itself.

“These waterways run together, separate and join again,” Norman Vickers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The dominant channel is the Right Hand Chute of the Little River. Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management area, the floodway enters the St. Francis River.”

The L’Anguille River, another tributary of the St. Francis River, begins west of Harrisburg and flows down the west side of Crowley’s Ridge before crossing the ridge near Marianna and flowing into the St. Francis. The L’Anguille River and the Cache River to its west were major obstacles to the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The east Arkansas gap in the line existed until 1871.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows south until emptying into the White River near Clarendon. Flood-control efforts during the 1920s and 1930s split the river into two ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was designed to dredge 140 miles of the river upstream from Clarendon while also dredging 77 miles of the Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project weren’t approved until 1969.

Congressman Bill Alexander, a Mississippi County native who owed allegiance to the big planters, was a strong supporter of the dredging but was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others entities across the state. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, but a federal appeals court sent the case back to Henley, saying the Corps had not properly prepared its environmental impact statement. That statement wasn’t approved until 1977. By then, support in Congress had waned. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established from Grubbs to Clarendon in 1986 to protect the stream.

The St. Francis, Little, Cache and L’Anguille rivers are lowland streams. A bit to the west — but still in northeast Arkansas — are the many streams of the Ozark foothills. The flat Delta quickly gives way to the rolling foothills after you cross the Black River at Black Rock. Most of these streams are fed by springs in Missouri before flowing south into Arkansas.

There’s the Eleven Point River, which flows into the Spring River.

To the west, Myatt Creek and the South Fork also empty into the Spring.

The Spring River, which flows through Arkansas for almost 75 miles, then empties into the Black River near Black Rock.

The Little Black River comes out of Missouri and flows into the Current River just northwest of Datto.

The Current River then merges with the Black River near Pocahontas.

The Fourche River (not to be confused with the Fourche La Fave River in west-central Arkansas) comes out of Missouri and flows through Randolph County for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River.

The Strawberry River flows for 90 miles to the southeast before emptying into the Black River in Independence County.

The eastern half of the state truly is a land of rivers, both swift and slow.

Three rivers come together in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. The Black crosses the Arkansas border northeast of Corning and then passes the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Pocahontas, Davidsonville Historic State Park, Black Rock and Powhatan.

From there, the river flows through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area before turning toward the southeast and entering the White River at Jacksonport. The sharp bends in the Black River have colorful names such as Deadman, Hole in the Wall, Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule. The first steamboat to go up the Black River to Pocahontas was the Laurel in 1829.

Jacksonport, Powhatan, Davidsonville and Pocahontas all prospered as steamboat ports. More than 40 steamboats were traveling the Black River in 1900. The first train had reached Pocahontas in 1896, however, and river traffic declined.

Jacksonport, where we started our day, thrived until the railroad bypassed the town in 1872, leading to the rise of Newport. For decades prior to that, boats bound for Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis had offloaded goods at Jacksonport. Confident that river traffic would reign supreme, Jacksonport officials voted against giving the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern Railroad the land grant and $25,000 that railroad officials had requested to pass through the city. It was a big mistake. Newport grew after completion of the railroad and was incorporated in 1875.

“Businesses and residents began drifting away from Jacksonport for the upstart Newport,” Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Newport marginally edged out Jacksonport in population by 1880, but the growth momentum was thereafter permanently in Newport’s favor. In 1882, construction of a narrow-gauge railway began in an effort to stem the loss of business. The railway ran from Jacksonport to Brinkley via Newport and was utilized by lumber businesses for a few decades. In February 1882, a devastating flood and fire that consumed most of the town — both within the span of a week — further accelerated the depopulation of Jacksonport. Hotly contested elections to move the county government to Newport first arose when Jacksonport was surpassed in population in the 1880s. Jacksonport rallied and won the first two elections, managing to postpone removal of the county seat until 1891, when Newport won a third election.

“By 1900, the population of Jacksonport had dwindled to 265, and the schools at Jacksonport were consolidated with Newport in 1944. Apart from a levee built in 1909, there were few infrastructure improvements at Jacksonport until the old courthouse was saved from demolition in 1962 by the Jackson County Historical Society, which purchased the derelict building and adjacent lands. The old courthouse was renovated to its former grandeur and became part of Jacksonport State Park in 1965.”

It was quiet at Jacksonport near the banks of the White River on a Thursday morning, just as it would be quiet more than eight hours later at Chalk Bluff on the banks of the St. Francis River in the northeast corner of the state. In both places, though, you could almost feel the rich history. Like so much of Arkansas, these places were shaped by rivers.

 

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The Dierks family and south Arkansas timber

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

My longtime friend Len Pitcock of Hot Springs sent me a note today about the home in which he lives, the 1955 Peter Dierks Joers house. Joers died in March 2006, and the home was purchased by Pitcock the following year.

Being a native of south Arkansas, I’ve long been fascinated with the old timber families who owned so much of the southern part of our state in the 20th century. The story of the Dierks family is especially interesting.

Peter Henry Dierks was a German immigrant who became a successful banker and farmer in Iowa. His sons Peter, Hans, Henry and Herman founded the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. in Lincoln, Neb., in 1895.

Peter Dierks Joers, by the way, was the great-grandson of Peter Henry Dierks.

Peter Henry Dierks married a Danish immigrant named Margaretha Dorothea Tauk. Herman Dierks, who became the brother most associated with Arkansas, was the couple’s seventh child.

In 1897, the Dierks family moved the company headquarters to Kansas City since that city was becoming a center of the timber industry. By the turn of the century, the brothers owned 24 lumberyards. They had made the jump in 1897 from simply selling lumber to manufacturing it following the purchase of a sawmill at Petros, Okla., for $15,000. Because of the lack of large timber reserves in the area, the sawmill closed after three years. The brothers had better luck with their purchase of the Williamson Brothers mill at De Queen. Herman moved to De Queen to manage that mill, starting the Dierks family’s involvement in the state.

Herman began purchasing timberland across southwest Arkansas, beginning with a major tract in northern Howard County.

Herman had been born in Iowa in 1863 and had joined his brother Hans in Nebraska after Hans purchased land along the newly constructed Burlington Railroad. In addition to heading up the family’s Arkansas operations, Herman Dierks served as president of the Florien Lumber Co. in northwest Louisiana, which the brothers purchased in 1906. When Hans died, Herman took over as president of the company and remained in that position until his death in 1946.

The next generation of the family joined the company and spread out to manage mills across Arkansas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, there were big lumber mills at Broken Bow and Wright City. The De Queen mill burned in 1909 and was replaced by operations in the Howard County company town of Dierks.

That area of Howard County had been settled by Henry Block, James Wallen and John Cesterson in 1848. A wagon trail connected a settlement known as Hardscrabble to the town of Center Point, which was 10 miles to the south. The area was covered by dense forests of hickory, oak and pine. In the early 1900s, the Dierks family established the De Queen & Eastern Railroad to move workers and supplies into the region while carrying the timber out. Hardscrabble grew rapidly and changed its name to Dierks in honor of oldest brother Hans Dierks.

The Holman Hotel opened there in 1903, a bottling company was opened by John William Pate to produce fruit-flavored sodas in 1907 and many area families gave up their attempts to grow cotton, instead choosing to move into Dierks to work in the mill.

“Hardwood was harvested first and was used largely for barrel staves,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Around 1917, the hardwood had been exhausted, and interest turned to the softer pine wood. The Dierks company built a sawmill in the city, and the population continued to grow. The racial composition of the community also began to change. At the time of the 1910 census, Dierks had been home to only one African-American resident. In 1917, with the new sawmill — and with many men joining the armed forces during World War I — the company created a segregated neighborhood for black workers and their families. The neighborhood included a hotel, two churches, a school and stores. The Dierks company also operated a large store, which they called the Big Store, for white residents of the area.”

In October 1925, the company made a huge land acquisition in the Ouachita Mountains when it bought the Yell Lumber Co. Almost 88,000 acres of timberland came with that purchase. The timber was used to supply a massive mill built at Mountain Pine in 1928.

It’s safe to say that the cities of Mountain Pine and Dierks owe their existence to the company. At one point, the family holdings grew to 1.8 million acres of timberland, making the Dierks family one of the largest landowners in the country.

The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. in 1954.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The company, always family owned, had undertaken a number of innovative projects to capitalize their investments and maintain profits, including the construction of box factories, facilities for the production of pressure-treated wood products, facilities to make fiberboard and a small paper mill. By the late 1960s, these operations were still managed by the grandsons and one great-grandson, Peter Dierks Joers. The family stockholders, now numbering in the hundreds, had diverse interests and small share holdings. When approached by Weyerhaeuser, the offer of $317 million in cash and preferred stock was too much to pass up. In September 1969, Dierks Forests Inc.’s 1.8 million acres of land, three sawmills, paper mill, treating plant, wood fiber plant, gypsum wallboard plant, two railroads and smaller facilities were sold to Weyerhaeuser.”

As for the town of Dierks, the Big Store closed in 1970. A plywood mill built by Weyerhaeuser replaced the old Afraican-American community. By the late 1980s, there were no black residents of Dierks. The Dierks population in the 2010 census was 1,133 residents, down from a high of 1,544 residents in the 1930 census.

Peter Dierks Joers continued to live in Arkansas after the company was sold. He had been born in Kansas City in 1919, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and went to work for the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. in 1946. He became the board chairman in 1965.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: “Joers was considered one of the state’s most prominent businessmen. In addition to holding a number of high-level positions in family-owned businesses, Joers also served on various boards and commissions including the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Wood Products Association, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and Keep Arkansas Green. He twice was elected president of the Associated  Industries of Arkansas and served on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s natural resources council. In 1970, Joers was appointed by President Nixon to the U.S. Government Procurement Commission.

“Joers consistently worked to improve the community, attempting at one point in the 1970s to attract a branch of the Smithsonian Institution to Hot Springs. He offered to donate 100 acres for the construction of a museum. Joers died March 23, 2006, in Hot Springs, where he is buried. The home remained vacant yet cared for by a full-time staff until it was purchased by Kathleen and Len Pitcock in June 2007.”

Joers purchased the 10 acres where the home sits from Mose Klyman in 1954 at a cost of $10,000. A Dallas builder named Hal Anderson oversaw the $138,000 home project in 1954-55. Joers spared no expense. A pool was added at a cost of $10,522. The family company supplied premium-grade wood for the interior of the home. Texas limestone was brought in by Texas Quarries Inc. of Austin. A company known as Scandinavian Art Metal of California did custom copper work. The Dunbar Furniture Co. of Indiana was hired to provide the dining room table and its matching sideboard.

Another architecturally significant structure in Hot Springs with a connection to the Dierks family is the company’s former headquarters building, which was designed in 1956 by the father-son architectural team of Irvin McDaniel Sr. and Irvin McDaniel Jr.

McDaniel Jr. had dropped out of school when he was a high school senior in 1941 to join the Canadian Air Force. His plane was shot down by the Germans over the North Sea. He floated in a raft for four days before being rescused by a Danish fisherman, who took him to Denmark and turned him over to the Germans. McDaniel was a prisoner of war for more than two years before being part of the great escape from Stalag III. He studied architecture for eight to 14 hours a day in prison because there was nothing else to do. The younger McDaniel later practiced in Hot Springs and died in 1978.

The Dierks family moved the company headquarters from Kansas City to Hot Springs when the building at 810 Whittington Ave. was completed. People’s Ice Manufacturing Co. had been at the site.

A streetcar barn was just to the west of the building. Just past that was Whittington Park, a baseball field that opened in 1894 and was used by many professional baseball teams for spring training. The field also was used for high school football games and other events. It was torn down in 1942.

Weyerhaeuser now uses the Dierks building for offices. The site of the baseball field is a parking lot these days.

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Along Park Avenue

Monday, July 21st, 2014

When former President Clinton visited Hot Springs in early April, a small group of the city’s leaders met with him to obtain his feedback on the possibility of a performing arts center, a gateway plaza and thermal pools being built at the site of the Majestic Hotel, the oldest portion of which had burned in late February.

A document presented to Clinton that day read: “On the spot where Hot Springs Creek turns toward the Ouachita River, where Hiram Abiff Whittington opened Hot Springs’ first general store in 1832, there’s a fountain, a flagpole, an abandoned hotel, a charred pile of rubble and a dream. The intersection of Central, Park and Whittington avenues is the anchor of the city of Hot Springs. At the north end of storied Bathhouse Row, the junction has literally been the visual, economic and social hub of the community.”

Clinton grew up in the Park Avenue neighborhood.

While most of the talk about downtown revitalization in the Spa City has focused on empty buildings up and down Central Avenue, the foundation is there for the possible redevelopment of Park Avenue.

Three of the city’s best restaurants — Central Park Fusion, Park Avenue Bistro (formerly The Bohemia) and Deluca’s Pizzeria — are on Park.

There are several beautiful old homes, some fading tourist courts ripe for renovation and memories of places like Smitty’s Barber Shop, Stubby’s Barbecue, the Polar Bar and the Public Drug Store, all of which were in the neighborhood in the days when the street was hopping.

The old Velda Rose Hotel and the Vapors Club are for sale, presenting fascinating opportunities for redevelopment.

The Velda Rose, built by Garland Anthony of Bearden in 1960, appears to be structurally sound and could be turned into a combination boutique hotel-condominium complex. Anthony built things to last. And the name is one you don’t forget.

Anthony named the hotel for his daughter, who would go to become Velda Rose Walters of Oklahoma following her March 1948 marriage to wildcat oilman, lumberman, strip miner and cattleman Mannon Lafayette Walters. With the support of his father-in-law, Walters became a pioneer in the lumber business in Mexico, constructing and managing sawmills in the Sierra Madre.

The Anthony family also opened the Anthony Island Motel on Lake Hamilton and the Avanelle Motor Lodge at the intersection of Central and Grand. The Avanelle took its name from two of Garland Anthony’s other daughters, Avalene and Nell. When we would travel from Arkadelphia to downtown Hot Springs when I was a child, I always thought the name of the Avanelle’s restaurant – the Sirloin Room — sounded extra fancy. I dreamed of the day when I could dine there.

After Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut down casino gambling in Hot Springs in 1967, the Velda Rose fell on hard times. Its name later changed to the Ramada Inn Tower Resort before an owner named Kenny Edmondson changed it back to the Velda Rose in 2001. The condition of the facility continued to deteriorate, however.

Garland Anthony would never have let that happen. He was a proud man and one of south Arkansas’ most interesting business leaders.

“The Anthony family first settled in southern Arkansas in the 1840s,” George Balogh writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1907, Garland Anthony started a small sawmill near Bearden. Other members of the family, along with outside partners, started similar operations in southern Arkansas, eastern Texas and northern Louisiana. Between 1910 and 1930, Garland and his brothers Frank, William and Oliver formed Anthony Brothers Lumber and built their first permanent mill at Hopeville in Calhoun County, accumulating 2,000 acres of cutover timberland in the process.

“The brothers built their mills in areas that large companies had harvested and left behind. They discovered that a cutover pine forest in southern Arkansas could renew itself in 20 to 30 years and could become self-sustaining if properly managed. The company became a leader in the techniques of selective harvesting, giving smaller trees time to mature so the forest could be harvested repeatedly over the long term.

“During the 1930s, Anthony Brothers Lumber was reputed to be the largest private lumber manufacturer in the world, operating 20 to 30 mills in partnership with others. In time, Garland Anthony’s son Edwin joined him in the operation of mills located in various small communities in southern Arkansas and eastern Texas. By the 1950s, Bearden had become the focus of family operations.”

There remains a strong Anthony family tradition in Hot Springs. In December 2003, Hot Springs residents John Ed and Isabel Anthony announced a $1 million contribution to Garvan Woodland Gardens for construction of the Anthony Chapel. In 2006, it was announced that the children of Garland Anthony had made a gift so that the Anthony Carillon — a 55-foot-tall structure with 16 copper-clad columns — could be built. The Anthony Carillon is supported by pillars of steel weighing 2,200 pounds each.

Verna Cook Garvan donated the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in 1985. The gardens are along the shores of Lake Hamilton.

An enterprising developer renovating the Velda Rose would be wise to also purchase the Vapors and transform it into a dinner theater. Dane Harris, who had a stake in the Belvedere Country Club and casino a few miles to the north, partnered with famed New York gangster Owney Madden, who spent his later years in Hot Springs, to build the Vapors where the Phillips Drive-In had been at 315 Park Ave. Construction began in 1959 and was completed the following year.

The club brought a touch of Las Vegas to Hot Springs. There was a 24-hour coffee shop, a dance floor, a dinner theater, the Monte Carlo Room for meetings and, of course, the casino. Entertainers ranging from the Smothers Brothers to Tony Bennett were booked.

Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which became his signature song, at the Vapors.

He was rehearsing it one afternoon when a bartender cried out, “If you guys record that song, I’ll buy the first copy.”

An explosion at the club in January 1963 caused 12 injuries and extensive damage. The Vapors was renovated and continued to operate as a nightclub and restaurant after Rockefeller shut down gambling. In 1977, Harris added the Cockeyed Cowboy country and western club and the Apollo Disco to the mix in an effort to attract a younger crowd. Harris died in 1981. The building was sold in October 1998 to Tower of Strength Ministries to be used as a church (some irony there) and was put up for sale last November.

Just how famous is this stretch of street?

Consider this timeline:

1830 — Hiram Whittington settles the area with the first store, post office and library.

1876 — Hot Springs is incorporated as a city with this the center of the town.

1878 — 150 buildings are destroyed in the area by a fire.

1880 — The Hotel Adams is built on Cedar Street. It will become St. Joseph’s Infirmary a few years later.

1882 — The Avenue Hotel is built on the future site of the Majestic.

1886 — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the construction of the arch over Hot Springs Creek, making Central Avenue a street rather than a creek bed.

1888 — The Avenue Hotel is renamed the Majestic Hotel after the Majestic Stove Co. of St. Louis.

1892 — The Majestic Hotel is remodeled, including the installation of elevators.

1896 — The Majestic Hotel contracts with the federal government for water and begins offering in-house thermal baths.

1899 — Sam Fordyce completes the Little Rock Hot Springs & Western Railroad from Little Rock, leading to a dramatic increase in visitor numbers.

1902 — The original Majestic is raised and a domed brick building is erected on the same site.

1905 — A fire destroys much of downtown.

1910 — Teddy Roosevelt stays at the Majestic.

1913 — Fire destroys parts of 50 city blocks.

1926 — The Majestic’s eight-story, red-brick annex is built with 140 rooms at a cost of $650,000.

1929 — Southwest Hotels Inc. purchases the Majestic.

1940 — The Majestic accounts for 56,000 of the 750,000 thermal baths given in Hot Springs.

1944 — The U.S. Army uses the Majestic to house soldiers returning from combat.

1954 — Southwest Hotels adds the Arlington Hotel and the Hot Springs Country Club to its Spa City holdings.

1955 — August Busch of St. Louis is married at the Majestic and celebrates with a team of Clydesdale horses that are housed in the Majestic garage.

1958 — The Lanai Suites are added to the Majestic complex. The three-story building has 48 suites.

1963 — A 10-story structure known as the Lanai Towers is added to the Majestic complex.

1995 — A major renovation begins at the Majestic.

2006 — It is announced that the Majestic will close.

2007 — The ARC Arkansas says it will transform the Majestic into a residential facility, but nothing ever happens as the Great Recession begins.

2009 — Garrison Hassenflu of Kansas City acquires the Majestic property. Still, nothing happens.

2014 — The 1902 portion of the Majestic is destroyed in a massive fire. Up to 75 firefighters work for 22 hours to contain the blaze.

So now what?

The Majestic property.

The Velda Rose.

The Vapors.

With a renewed interest in downtown Hot Springs, the prospects are tantalizing.

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Spa City visionaries

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

They packed the old house on Quapaw Avenue at Hot Springs on Saturday night. There was barely room to move.

They were there to provide financial support for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which has become the cornerstone of the fall arts calendar in the Spa City.

If you really want to get a feel for the days when Hot Springs was the Saratoga of the South, drive along Quapaw and Prospect and stare at the homes along those streets.

I parked about a block down the street and just happened to walk down the sidewalk with Courtney Crouch, who heads Selected Funeral and Life Insurance Co. of Hot Springs. In 1960, three leading Arkansas funeral directors met to discuss the formation of a company to market small funeral life insurance policies that would supplement burial association insurance. The group soon grew to 20 funeral directors who organized SFLIC with an investment of $40,000. SFLIC now conducts business in multiple states with almost 50 people in its home office, the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

Crouch, who long has been interested in historic preservation, is part of a group that makes an annual trip to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, the famed resort that attracts rich people from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

“You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has,” Crouch told me.

He was talking about potential. And it is that untapped potential that has driven so much of my frustration with downtown Hot Springs, which has one of the greatest concentrations of architecturally significant historic structures of any city in the country. For more than four decades, I watched as we let the jewel that is downtown Hot Springs become more and more tarnished.

Crouch is a member of the Downtown Game Plan Task Force, the group appointed following the Majestic Hotel fire in late February to come up with recommendations for downtown Hot Springs.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on July 2 during its weekly meeting at the Arlington Hotel. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is. … We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

We all should be ashamed as Arkansans for what was allowed to happen in a city that once was among the nation’s top resort destinations. Some historic downtown structures fell into the hands of men who only can be described as slumlords. Scavengers ripped out valuable inside features and sold them.

I’ve written thousands of words about downtown since the winter fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the Majestic. Five months after the fire, on a delightful July day, I can write that there’s progress being made. Indeed, there seems to be new life in the ol’ gal that is Hot Springs, sort of like an aging movie star who has been offered the role of a lifetime after years out of the limelight.

You could sense the momentum at Saturday’s film festival fundraiser, not just for the festival but for all of Hot Springs.

And, yes, there were real movie stars there.

Tess Harper, the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee who was born at Mammoth Spring in 1950, first came to Hot Springs in the late 1960s as a contestant in the Miss Arkansas Pageant. She was back last week, declaring her love for the city.

Golden Globe nominee Joey Lauren Adams, born in North Little Rock in 1968, also was there.

We toasted the city and its glorious past on Saturday. Then we raised our glasses to toast what so many of us hope is the impending rebirth of downtown Hot Springs.

For now, that rebirth is being driven by a small group of visionaries. If they experience success, even bigger investors are sure to follow.

The first domino fell in early June when Ken Wheatley announced he would sell two historic buildings across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row to a partnership composed of Hot Springs financial adviser Robert Zunick and veteran architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor.

I joined Zunick for dinner last week at Park Avenue Bistro (the former Bohemia, which is now among the best fine-dining establishments in the state) to talk about the projects. The partners are still working on financing but are quietly optimistic that things will work out.

They hope to turn the Thompson Building into a 62-room boutique hotel that will be as fine as anything in this part of the country.

They hope to transform the Dugan-Stuart Building into either apartments or condominiums.

I took a tour of the Dugan-Stuart Building with Zunick after dinner and was amazed by the amount of marble still in the building along with its tile floors. Again, that word “potential” comes to mind.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful in attracting overnight guests to the Thompson Building and residents to the Dugan-Stuart Building, I have no doubt that those outside investors with deeper pockets will follow at the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the First Federal Building, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose and the Vapors. All of those downtown buildings are largely empty and waiting on saviors.

Just three weeks after Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor announced their plans, Pat and Ellen McCabe announced that they’ve entered into lease negotiations with the National Park Service to open a boutique hotel and restaurant in the Hale Bathhouse. If the McCabes are successful, there will be activity in seven of the eight bathhouses (all except the Maurice, a large building with tremendous redevelopment potential). When Josie Fernandez, the superintendent of Hot Springs National Park, came to the city a decade ago, only two of the bathhouses were being used.

Speaking about a spacious back room in the Hale with a vaulted skylight, Ellen McCabe said: “I could see Sunday brunches in there and opening it up for fine dining.”

The McCabes hope to have nine rooms on the second level of the Hale available for overnight guests with dining on the main level.

“We’re thinking it would be good for a destination wedding,” Ellen McCabe told The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs. “They can lock up the whole thing for the bridal party and have a reception down in the big hall.”

Fernandez said the National Park Service spent almost $18 million on renovations.

Incidentally, Pat McCabe, the president of the Levi Hospital at Hot Springs, is running for mayor.

Zunick said he doesn’t see the Hale as competition for the Thompson. He welcomes the additional upscale rooms, saying they will create critical mass downtown.

Pat McCabe feels the same way.

“We cannot be a successful downtown in a vacuum,” he said. “We’re only going to be successful if we’re all bringing in tons of traffic. I really think the downtown is going to blossom again. We’re getting to a point where there’s only one bathhouse that’s empty, and the buildings across the street are now being developed.”

One of those who serves with Crouch on the Downtown Game Plan Task Force is Mark Fleischner. He noted during that July 2 Rotary Club meeting that redevelopment of downtown Hot Springs buildings not only will bring in additional tourists but also will attract young, talented residents who like living in an urban environment.

“This is a wonderful place,” he said. “The problem I see is that our children don’t want to come back here. We don’t have what we need to offer them. You have to look to the future and leave things better than you found them.”

For almost a century, Hot Springs Rotarians have been leading advocates of downtown. Club president Les Warren urged his fellow Rotarians to become involved.

“It’s not an overnight process,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us working together, keeping the focus on downtown and realizing that with one victory at a time, over a period of years, it’s going to make for a great downtown.”

Earlier that morning, city officials had held a news conference atop the Exchange Street Parking Plaza (where parking is now free in order to encourage interest in downtown) and announced that building permit fees for new dwellings in the city limits will be waived until the end of the year. They hope the waiver will stimulate interest in residential construction, especially downtown. The waiver applies to single-family dwellings across the city. Downtown, it applies to family, duplex and multiple-family dwellings.

David Watkins, the Hot Springs city manager who has been instrumental in efforts to change the status quo, told those at the news conference: “We envision downtown as an attractive, vibrant place where more residents will live, enhancing the safety and economic vitality of the area. The permit holiday is designed to stimulate reinvestment in the center of the city, including reoccupying upper floors and filling downtown storefronts, creating a more livable downtown and energizing adjacent historic neighborhoods.”

Watkins and Jim Fram, the president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, have brought new ideas to a city where the status quo ruled for too long.

“You never know what’s going to be the spark that causes a community to become the next economic development hotspot,” Fram recently wrote. “Maybe a local entrepreneur or industry catches a trend and skyrockets, attracting ancillary industries and suppliers, assisting the real estate market and increasing tax revenues. Sometimes a city will have a dramatic turnover in its elected leadership, which causes a contagious wave of excitement and activity. Maybe the spark is literally a fire, like the one in downtown Hot Springs in February that ignited city leadership and caused citizens to demand greater accountability and a coherent plan to protect, preserve and rebuild Arkansas’ favorite vacation destination.”

Suzanne Davidson, the city director whose district includes downtown, talked at the news conference about the importance of revitalizing the city’s historic core.

“I want to see it like it was when I was a little girl and came here to shop,” she said. “We’ve already seen a positive start. … It’s a moral issue to save these magnificent buildings and showcase their beauty. It will be the legacy of the leaders of this community.”

Crouch said that in his more than four decades in Hot Springs, he has watched “downtown take steps frontward and backward. Hopefully we’re at a point where we’ll see major efforts toward the restoration of downtown. These buildings possess architectural features that you’ll never see again if they are left to be destroyed. … It’s exciting to see the transformation taking place to revive the downtown culture. As a member of the task force, it’s our hope that we’re seeing the return of the great American spa to its original grandeur.”

Ellen McCabe. Pat McCabe. Robert Zunick. Bob Kempkes. Anthony Taylor. David Watkins. Jim Fram. Courtney Crouch.

Visionaries all.

Let’s hope that their vision for downtown Hot Springs is at last being transformed from a mere dream into a beautiful reality.

 

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The Fragile Five (and the shame of Hot Springs)

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Each year, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas releases its list of the most endangered places in the state.

The alliance began compiling the list in 1999. An announcement is made in May, which is Arkansas Heritage Month and National Preservation Month.

The 2014 list was released during a Thursday morning news conference at the historic White-Baucum House in downtown Little Rock, which is being renovated.

This year’s list is called the Fragile Five. And it probably will come as no surprise to you that the list is dominated by Hot Springs.

Since the massive fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the Majestic Hotel in late February, Hot Springs has been in the news. Finally, Arkansans are paying attention to the plight of that city’s downtown.

As I’ve written more than once on this blog in recent months, one of the most iconic stretches of street in the South is the portion of Central Avenue from Grand Avenue north to Park Avenue. For decades, that stretch of street has been in decline.

Because Hot Springs is the leading tourist destination in Arkansas, this is far more than a local issue. The revitalization of downtown Hot Springs must be among this state’s economic development priorities. Those property owners who have refused to develop the upper floors of historic buildings they own should begin to develop them now or put them on the market at a reasonable price to see if there are investors willing to take on the task.

Here are the three listings from Hot Springs and what the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas wrote about each one:

1. Downtown Hot Springs — The Central Avenue Historic District encompasses a wealth of historic buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until recently, city ordinances allowed and even provided incentive for upper stories above Central Avenue storefronts to be left undeveloped by exempting the upper floors from meeting building codes as long as they remain unoccupied.

The fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel in February dramatized the issues facing legacy structures that define one of the most recognizable commercial districts in the state. Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.

The recent designation of the Thermal Basin Fire District allows for installation of fire suppression systems per the International Existing Building Code to preserve historic features while meeting modern safety expectations. We hope that the loss of the Majestic Hotel will encourage property owners, developers, city officials, community and state leaders to work together to address the issues of large-scale vacancy and find solutions for reuse and rehabilitation of these important assets for the benefit of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.

2. The Thompson Building in Hot Springs — This building is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Central Avenue Historic District. The building, which features an ornate glazed terra cotta façade, was designed in the neoclassical style by architect George R. Mann, the principal architect of the Arkansas Capitol. Like many other structures in the district, the first floor is occupied but the upper stories are vacant.

The Thompson Building is particularly vulnerable to fire due to a vertical shaft that runs through the top four floors, which would inevitably spread fire quickly through the building. Though it is eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, the Thompson Building’s owner has to date not invested in improving or updating the property beyond the first floor.

This architecturally and historically significant building needs to be retrofitted in order to meet recently adopted International Existing Building Codes to protect it from fire and further deterioration.

3. The John Lee Webb house in Hot Springs — The house is a centerpiece of the Pleasant Street Historic District. The house at 403 Pleasant St. was home for three decades to one of the most influential leaders of the African-American community in Hot Springs. Webb served as supreme custodian of the fraternal organization Woodmen of the Union and as president of the National Baptist Laymen’s Convention.

The house was a wood-clad structure, but the red-brick veneer and green tile roof were added in the 1920s by Webb. The dark red brick is characteristic of buildings Webb developed, including the Woodmen of the Union Building on Malvern Avenue, which also is known as the National Baptist Hotel.

The house has been vacant for many years. It’s vulnerable to vandalism and fire in its current state. Limited resources for rehabilitation and its deteriorated condition make the building’s future uncertain. We hope to bring attention to this little-known but important resource and to encourage efforts to preserve this place.

Here are the other two entries on this year’s list and what the alliance had to say about them:

1. The Central High School Neighborhood Historic District in Little Rock — The district is named for the Art Deco school that was called the “most beautiful high school in America” when it was built in 1927. Its historic buildings tell the story of Little Rock’s growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They bore witness to nationally significant events during the desegregation of Central High School.

While private investment has been made in pockets of the district, decades of disinvestment have led to vacancy, neglect, alterations of character-defining features and demolitions at the hands of the city of Little Rock and private owners. The alterations and demolitions particularly jeopardize the historic district’s designation and property owners’ access to state and federal historic tax credits. Residents hope to bring attention to the historically rich and important area, encourage sensitive rehabilitations and build support for protection of the historic structures and character of this neighborhood.

2. Arkansas mound sites — These sites serve as an important representation of the native people of Arkansas through many different cultures and time periods. They represent the largest material symbols of cultural heritage for native peoples who identify themselves as descendants of those ancient people.

Mounds in Arkansas have been destroyed by looters looking for items to sell, by erosion caused by digging and stream cutting, by the creation of lakes and reservoirs, by residential and industrial development and by people using the soil as a source of fill dirt. The greatest threats are the landscape modifications that go along with irrigation agriculture and associated land leveling. Large-scale industrial development poses another immediate threat in both the Delta and on the periphery of metropolitan areas.

Land owners, developers, native peoples, archaeologists and historic preservation professionals need to work together to preserve those sites that can be saved and to document those targeted for destruction.

___

There you have it. That’s the 2014 list of the most endangered places in Arkansas.

And I believe the most important sentence of all is this: “Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy.”

The status quo no longer is acceptable in downtown Hot Springs.

Every tool available to government must now be used to force those property owners to act. What they’ve allowed to occur downtown borders on being a crime. All 3 million Arkansans should be insulted by their continued inaction.

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Examples for the Spa City

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

They held the third in a series of town meetings at Hot Springs on Monday night.

For three consecutive Mondays, the room was packed as the Downtown Game Plan Task Force heard from various entities.

This week’s meeting had a far different tone than the meeting the previous week.

On April 7, the crowd included some of the downtown property owners who are the very source of the sad state of affairs that afflicts what once was one of the most famous stretches of street in the South — the part of Central Avenue from Grand to Park. As I’ve written on this blog more than once, that stretch of street (which includes Bathhouse Row) is iconic.

It is to us what Beale Street and Music Row are to Tennessee.

It is to us what Bourbon Street and St. Charles Avenue are to Louisiana.

It is to us what the San Antonio River Walk is to Texas.

The River Walk is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Lone Star State.

Hot Springs is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Arkansas.

Imagine how Texans would react if someone were to dump raw sewage day after day into that stretch of the San Antonio River.

Yet having thousands upon thousands of square feet of unused space in historic buildings that continue to deteriorate is the Arkansas equivalent of just that.

It is the shame of this entire state.

On April 7, we heard property owners whine about why they couldn’t do certain things. Some of them most likely will weigh in again in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

I’ve heard by telephone and email from many of those property owners and even the mayor. Because of my interest in downtown Hot Springs, I’ve read everything they’ve sent me. I’ve tried to keep an open mind. If the city has not communicated properly with them in the past, then shame on city government. Communication is vital.

You might have noticed that I haven’t written anything in several weeks in order to hear from as many people as possible. I’ve come to this conclusion: Despite the complaints of a few property owners, city manager David Watkins and Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce executive director Jim Fram are two of the best things to happen to the city. They come from elsewhere. They have good track records. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. They’re not beholden to the old power structure. They’re forcing change.

Change is never easy.

The message on April 7 from certain property owners was this: “We need to slow down.”

My message on April 14 was this: “We’ve been moving slowly in downtown Hot Springs for more than 40 years. If anything, it’s time to speed up.”

Yes, property owners’ voices must be heard. Government actions must be transparent. There must be a better job done promoting those businesses that are downtown. Ultimately, though, the property owners who want to blame their own inaction on the city have been unable to win my sympathy.

Here’s the bottom line: Either develop your properties or put them on the market at a reasonable price so we can see if there are people out there with the will and capital to do so. To have empty upper floors in so many downtown buildings is no longer acceptable. We as Arkansans are holding you directly accountable for the deterioration of the national treasure that is downtown Hot Springs.

As I said, the meeting’s tone on April 14 was different. It was optimistic. That’s because there were can-do people from three cities — one in the north third of the state, one in the central third of the state and one in the south third of the state. Those cities have become examples not just for other cities in Arkansas but also for communities across the country on how you accomplish downtown revitalization.

There was Mayor Bob McCaslin of Bentonville.

There was private developer Richard Mason of El Dorado.

And there was Brad Lacy, the president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce.

“If you wait for everybody to agree, it will never happen,” Lacy said.

Sound advice.

Some people won’t be happy. That’s no reason for the business, government and civic leadership of Hot Springs to slow down now.

In the 1970 census, Hot Springs had a population of 35,631 people. The city had grown steadily in every census since 1860.

Conway had a population of 15,510 in that 1970 census.

So Hot Springs was more than twice as large as Conway. Look at the two cities now.

In the 2010 census, Conway was at 58,908. The city’s population is estimated to be more than 63,000 now.

Hot Springs had 35,193 residents in the 2010 census, fewer than it had four decades earlier.

What happened?

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it’s a huge asset for Conway to be the home of three four-year institutions of higher education — Central Baptist College, Hendrix College (I represent both Central Baptist and Hendrix in my job as president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities) and the University of Central Arkansas.

What Conway did was build an environment that would attract young, talented people who wanted to call the city home after college.

Hot Springs — with its many arts and entertainment venues — could also become a “hot spot” for the young and talented if it would create downtown residential opportunities.

In this century, economic development is all about attracting talent.

“We’ve been very deliberate in recruiting more white-collar employees to town,” Lacy said. “You have to get the coolness factor right. Young professionals want things that are different from what Conway traditionally offered.”

He said Conway experienced a crisis of confidence in the 1990s when high-tech Acxiom decided to move its corporate headquarters to Little Rock. Though Acxiom still employs far more people in Conway than in Little Rock, the fact that the company’s top executives would now be working in the capital city caused Conway’s leaders to examine their priorities.

Lacy went to work in 2000 and discovered that downtown Conway was dead at night.

“You could shoot a gun down the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anyone,” he said. “We were standing downtown one night and a car filled with people from out of state came by. One of the people in the car rolled down his window and screamed out, ‘Hey, nice downtown.’ He was being sarcastic. We got the message. It was another wake-up call for us.”

Hopefully, the fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel in late February has provided a similar wake-up call for Hot Springs.

The Conway Downtown Partnership was formed in 2001, and the trajectory has been straight up since that time.

“We have more multifamily projects coming online,” Lacy said. “We want to extend that downtown feeling farther toward Interstate 40.”

Near downtown, the Village at Hendrix is among the best of the so-called New Urbanism projects in the country. Smart, talented people who could live in much larger cities are moving to Conway. And more and more of them are choosing to live in or near downtown.

McCaslin, the Bentonville mayor, is a native of Hot Springs. Like most Hot Springs natives, he loves the town and wants to see it prosper.

He was transferred by the food company for which he worked to Bentonville in 1996 to service the Walmart account — part of that “vendor revolution” that helped propel the explosive growth of Benton County and Washington County. McCaslin retired from the company in 2002 and ran for a city council position. Four years later, he was elected mayor. In 2007, voters in Bentonville overwhelmingly approved a massive bond issue (to be paid off by one cent of the city’s sales tax) for improvements in five areas. The bond issue included $85 million for street improvements and $15 million for park improvements. In identifying where to spend the money, the Bentonville city fathers pointed to downtown as one of the city’s strengths. There’s a charming town square, which was the home of Sam Walton’s five-and-dime store.

Streets were improved downtown. There was extensive landscaping done.

“Renovating downtown was the greatest investment we could have made with those taxpayer dollars,” McCaslin said. “There has to be a community and political will to make these kinds of things happen. I can tell you that Hot Springs has a lot better bones to work with than we did at the start. Hot Springs has more history. Your downtown footprint is bigger. You have a bigger palette to work on than we did.”

By the way, Bentonville had a population of 5,508 in that 1970 census. The population was 35,301 in the 2010 census.

Of course it helps to have the Walmart headquarters.

It helps to have Alice Walton create one of the world’s top art museums, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and place it near downtown.

I can hear the whiners in Hot Springs now: “If only we had an Alice Walton.”

Consider what you DO have: The first “national reservation” (later to become a national park) in America; the hot springs; Bathhouse Row; the city’s rich history.

These are things no billionaire could buy. Build on those assets.

The story in El Dorado is different from the ones at Conway and Bentonville. If anything, it’s even more impressive given the years of population loss in far south Arkansas.

In the 1920 census, El Dorado had a population of 3,887 people. In January 1921, oil was discovered. By 1923, there were an estimated 40,000 people living in El Dorado. That had leveled off to a population of 16,421 by the 1940 census. In 1960, there were 25,292 El Dorado residents. The city has lost population in each census since then, falling to 18,884 by the 2010 census.

“We started a long decline in the 1960s,” said Mason, who has been involved for years in the oil and gas business. “Cities need a vision, and we didn’t have one.”

He talked of old families who made no improvements to the buildings they owned (does that sound familiar, Hot Springs?). Eventually, Mason purchased 17 buildings, renovating all of them along the way.

“To attract a quality tenant, you have to have a quality piece of property,” Mason said. “I think you should look seriously at Central Avenue and encourage business owners to begin buying these properties up. You want downtown to be your key destination. It should be special because there’s only one downtown in each city. We now have one of the best retail districts in the state. We’ve recently raised $45 million to make El Dorado what we’re calling the Festival City of the South.”

More than 1,000 trees have been planted along the downtown streets in El Dorado, and there are planters filled with seasonal flowers. Mason talked of women who come from much larger cities such as Shreveport to do their Christmas shopping in El Dorado due to the festive atmosphere. He said he sees no reason why downtown Hot Springs couldn’t become a regional retail destination.

“Sooner or later, everybody in Arkansas is going to come to Hot Springs,” Mason said.

Here are words from Mason that everyone in Hot Springs must hear: “If the downtown is perceived to be dead and dying, the whole town is perceived as dead and dying. The downtown is more important than most people realize.”

Yes, for more than 40 years, Hot Springs has neglected its historic downtown in favor of development in other parts of the city. Now, a rare window of opportunity is open. Sometimes it just takes that first domino to fall and start other things happening in a neighborhood.

Perhaps that domino was the announcement Wednesday that Henderson State University will place an education center in the Landmark Building at the downtown intersection of Central Avenue, Market Street, Ouachita Avenue and Olive Street. The center will be ready in time for fall semester courses and bring new life to that part of downtown.

Bringing life back to a dying downtown.

Conway did it.

Bentonville did it.

El Dorado did it.

Hot Springs starts with so much more than those cities had at the start of their downtown revitalization efforts. Due to the historic nature of the buildings in downtown Hot Springs, I would contend that the owners of those properties have certain stewardship responsibilities that go beyond their bottom lines. They are called on to be something more than mere monthly rent collectors. If they cannot live up to those responsibilities, it’s time to give someone else a chance.

Who will be the Richard Mason of the Spa City?

It’s time to act. Hot Springs business, civic and political leaders: You’ve neglected the state’s most noted stretch of street for far too long.

People across the state are watching to see if you take advantage of this window of opportunity or squander it. History will not judge kindly those who were on the wrong side at this critical juncture in the history of Hot Springs.

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Little Rock’s downtown renaissance

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

It’s finally happening.

The pace of redevelopment in downtown Little Rock has reached critical mass.

It’s now safe to say that downtown is back.

The announcement came earlier this week that the Chi family of Little Rock — which already owns five restaurants and two motels in the capital city — has purchased the Boyle Building at the intersection of Capitol and Main and will transform it into a hotel.

In the nearby River Market District, construction will begin soon on a Hilton Garden Inn and a Hilton Homewood Suites. Add to the mix the millions of dollars in renovations being done at the Marriott Little Rock and upgrades made in recent years at the Doubletree Hotel. Also add in the addition of the Courtyard by Marriott in 2004, the Hampton Inn and Suites in 2008 and the Residence Inn by Marriott last year. A few blocks away, the Capital Hotel remains, quite simply, one of the finest hotels in the country.

The restaurant scene downtown is as busy as the hotel scene. In the River Market District, high-dollar Cache and down-home Gus’s are packing them in during their first months of business. On one end of Main Street, the reincarnation of Bruno’s Little Italy is doing a brisk business. On the other end of Main Street, South on Main is receiving rave reviews from foodies across the country.

Developer Scott Reed and his partners continue work on the Main Street Lofts and the K Lofts, which will bring hundreds of new residents to the street. The Mann on Main, the building that houses Bruno’s, has already brought more office workers during the day and residents at night.

Over on Capitol Avenue, Reed and his partners are about to transform the Hall-Davidson Building into more loft apartments. The ground floor of that complex reportedly will house a fancy restaurant known as The Still with Chef Donnie Ferneau at the helm. The new owners of the Lafayette Building, meanwhile, are promising to bring a restaurant to that historic facility and increase its role as a place for meetings, wedding receptions and the like.

Back on Main Street, expansions and relocations for organizations such as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory Theater are making the idea of a creative corridor a reality. That corridor also will be the home of Kent Walker Artisan Cheese. An underground space will include rooms for manufacturing and aging along with a tasting room that will serve cheese, wine and beer.

“It’s basically the opposite of a wine bar, where you have all of these awesome wines and five cheeses that they just grab,” Walker told Sync earlier this year. “Here you’ll have a whole bunch of awesome cheese, not just our own stuff. We’ll rotate out a few wines and beers, both local and from elsewhere. It’s a unique space and should provide a pretty neat look into the science of cheese aging.”

As the downtown lofts fill up with residents, expect even more upscale businesses — art galleries, wine bars, gourmet food stores and the like — to join Walker. As I said at the outset, critical mass is being reached. Success will begat success.

A bit further north on Main Street, the advertising and public relations firm Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods will move into the Fulk Building, where Bennett’s Military Supply long was located. Across the street, the building that housed Mr. Cool’s Clothing will be the home of Jones Film Video, a CJRW subsidiary. In other words, even more creative folks are coming to Main Street. Just down the street, the well-known bicycle manufacturer Orbea has opened a facility. There’s already a fancy cigar bar on Main Street.

Artisanal cheese, expensive bicycles, boutique hotels, ballet studios, hip restaurants, cigar bars.

Is this downtown Little Rock or is this Portland?

“Our agency has always been located in the heart of downtown, and we’ve been looking at several options for the better part of a year now,” says Wayne Woods of CJRW. “When we considered what we’ll need moving forward, the Third and Main location made all the sense in the world. To the extent that our move will advance all that is going on in the Main Street corridor, we’re very pleased.”

There’s something else you can factor into all of this development downtown. At some point soon, more than $20 million of city sales tax revenues will be invested downtown for a technology park. Yet more creative people. Yet more customers to eat cheese, smoke cigars and sip wine.

Doug Meyer of Terraforma, the development company renovating the two Main Street buildings for CJRW, told KATV-TV, Channel 7, this week: “It’s like $60 million under contract right now on Main Street. … With all the momentum on Main Street, this thing is snowballing. It’s wonderful.”

I’ll say.

Private investors and government aren’t the only ones getting in on the act, either. The nonprofit sector is also active.

Last month, the Junior League of Little Rock announced a $1.1 million capital campaign for the old Woman’s City Club, its headquarters at Fourth and Scott. The Junior League plans to transform the building’s third floor into a center for small and startup nonprofits. The center will have the capacity for six organizations and 17 employees. Also planned are landscape improvements, parking lot enhancements, iron fencing, new lights and structural upgrades to the 1910 building.

“This is a transformational project for our community,” says Mary-Margaret Marks, the Junior League president. “The nonprofit center will enhance job creation and economic development.”

Compare this revolution to where we were just a few years ago in downtown Little Rock.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program described the downfall of downtown: “Starting in the late 1960s, downtown Little Rock experienced a marked decline that it has yet to recover from. This decline was caused by a number of factors. Starting with the post-World War II economic boom, the availability and affordability of automobiles allowed for a dramatic increase in ownership. With more cars on the road, downtown began to develop a traffic problem. These new cars allowed for the continued growth of suburban areas. Interstates 30 and 40 were constructed around Little Rock, making it even easier to live outside the city and still access the amenities of city life. This triggered westward growth and the development of suburbs like Maumelle in the 1970s.

“In addition to normal suburban growth, the 1980s was an era of white flight. This was due to the many desegregation issues that the area schools faced. The area desegregation program assigned students to neighborhood schools and allowed majority students to transfer into minority schools. However, this program led to de facto segregation as the racial makeup of most of the neighborhoods was homogenous.

“In 1982, the mostly African-American Little Rock School District sued the mostly white North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts to create a singe district with a countywide busing program to end segregation. During the next three years, the districts were ordered to consolidate, and then that order was overturned. The instability of the districts and desegregation issues caused many parents to move their children to suburban districts.

“Between 1960 and 1980, Little Rock’s population grew by about 10 percent while the combined population of the suburban cities of Benton, Bryant, Cabot, Conway, Jacksonville, North Little Rock and Sherwood grew by almost 120 percent. Because of the suburbanization, strip malls and other types of retail centers developed, such as the 1959 construction of Park Plaza off University Avenue and the 1973 construction of McCain Mall in North Little Rock.

“The modern malls drew crowds of shoppers who wanted less complicated traffic, more convenient locations and more parking. These new shopping centers undermined the Capitol Avenue and Main Street commercial district, especially because many of the businesses in the district opened profitable branches in the new shopping centers, removing the customers’ need to travel to Main Street.”

As it turned out, the salvation of downtown Little Rock would not be the return of large retailers.

Instead, the comeback is based on small entrepreneurs, restaurants, bars, apartments, condominiums, hotels and the arts.

Downtown’s demise took decades.

Even the sunniest optimist could not have predicted that the renaissance would occur with such force.

 

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Hot Springs: Up from the ashes

Friday, February 28th, 2014

One of the benefits of living in Little Rock is the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service. Interesting speakers make their way here from around the world, and the events are free to the public.

Few cities of this size have anything like it.

I had driven to the Clinton School early Thursday evening to hear a constitutional scholar speak. As usual, I made sure to put my cell phones (I carry two) on vibrate. Just before the lecture began at 6 p.m., both phones began to vibrate. For the next hour, they never stopped.

People were calling, texting and emailing to let me know that the Majestic Hotel in downtown Hot Springs was on fire.

A week ago, I had written an essay on this blog after plywood went up on the Majestic’s windows. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, a trip to downtown Hot Springs was a trip to the “big city.” It’s where we went to eat out and attend movies. It was an exotic place with visitors from across the country, shoeshine men, the Chicago Tribune for sale in the Arlington lobby and all the other things we didn’t have next door in Clark County.

I love Hot Springs, and I had grown weary of watching its downtown decay. I also was tired of this being the elephant in the room with nobody speaking the truth.

In other words, I was mad.

So I wrote what I thought.

The majority of downtown hotel rooms are bad.

The city’s past glory has faded.

Some of its largest buildings are empty.

All the while, we kid ourselves into thinking this is still one of the great American resorts.

Who were we fooling?

I wrote what I thought, and a record number of people came to this blog on Saturday of last week.

It showed me that people in all parts of the state truly care about downtown Hot Springs. It showed me that they agree that the stretch of Central Avenue from Grand to Park is the most iconic stretch of street in Arkansas. It showed me that they shared my shame that we as Arkansans have allowed downtown to lose its luster.

Frankly, I’m tired of excuses. I’ve heard them all. I’m tired of hearing about the guy who won’t fix up his property and the guy who won’t update his hotel. If they’re standing in the way of progress, find a way to run over them. Better yet, bring in competition and put them out of business. It’s the American way.

I followed up later in the week with a second blog post that contained suggestions for downtown Hot Springs; a little brainstorming, if you will.

At least we had people talking. Then, after a week of hearing from people across the country who care about downtown Hot Springs, the Majestic burned.

Those who know me will tell you that I’m an optimist by nature. Downtown Hot Springs has survived fires and floods throughout its long history. I have to believe that Thursday’s massive fire might just be the impetus that was needed to finally stop the infighting and finger pointing that have so long been the trademark of politics in Hot Springs. It might just be the thing to open people’s eyes so they can see that we have a historic treasure that we’re on the verge of losing.

It might just, as my late father would have said, get us off our butts when it comes to downtown Hot Springs.

I watched my hometown of Arkadelphia bounce back from one of the most devastating tornadoes in the history of this state. It struck 17 years ago on March 1, 1997.

I have no doubt that Hot Springs’ business and political leadership can find a way to work together to bring about a new golden era, just as the folks in that smaller city down the road did. Hot Springs is filled with decent, dedicated people who want the best for the Spa City. It’s just that all of the attention and investment for four decades occurred to the south along Central Avenue toward Lake Hamilton. Now those economic development efforts can be refocused on the Grand-to-Park stretch.

Nothing against the stretch of Central Avenue to the south, but it could be “anywhere suburban USA” with its chain restaurants, its mall and its chain motels. Look, a Red Lobster. Look, a Buffalo Wild Wings. Look, a Holiday Inn Express. You might as well be in Mesquite.

The Grand-to-Park stretch is unique. Where else does a national park (and the country’s first national reservation) share space with an actual city?

There are still eight beautiful bathhouses.

There are historic buildings ripe for investment.

There’s a nice convention center and the spacious Summit Arena.

There are a few quality restaurants.

There are the mountains, the hot springs and the other natural gifts that God bestowed on this part of our state.

Less than a five-hour drive away, there’s one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, a prosperous market bursting with people needing a reason to come to Hot Springs and spend money.

The potential is there.

Even if none of the Majestic complex can be saved, the north end of Central Avenue remains among the most important pieces of real estate in the South.

Dream big, Hot Springs.

Dream big, Arkansas.

How about a performing arts center and outdoor thermal pools there?

The success of downtown Hot Springs is so important to the state as a whole that this must be treated as a statewide issue, not just a Garland County issue. My wish is to have Gov. Mike Beebe appoint a task force to coordinate the efforts to revitalize that northern stretch of Central Avenue.

What a wonderful legacy that would be for this good governor during his last year in office: The man who jump-started the rebirth of the old American spa, the Saratoga of the South.

We’re Arkansans. We’re used to bouncing back. We’re used to hard work. We’re used to people underestimating us and then looking on as we prove them wrong.

On the night the Majestic burned, a group of basketball players from the University of Arkansas went into famed Rupp Arena in Lexington and shocked what’s perhaps the most storied program in the history of college basketball.

Maybe we can use that as an omen that positive things are on the horizon for the hardy band of dreamers and preservationists who have long wanted downtown Hot Springs to rise again.

It won’t be cheap.

It won’t be without its headaches.

It won’t happen as quickly as some of us would like.

Yet out of the ashes of the Majestic, a better downtown Hot Springs can rise.

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The three Rs for downtown Hot Springs

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

The Southern Fried blog was born almost five years ago.

On Saturday, we had the biggest day in the history of the blog. About 6,000 people read a post on the future of downtown Hot Springs.

As I write this, I see from the stats that more than 10,000 people have now read it.

What it shows is that there is a deep love across this state for downtown Hot Springs.

The stretch of Central Avenue from its intersection with Grand Avenue to the decaying Majestic Hotel is the most iconic stretch of street in Arkansas and among the most famous urban landscapes in the South.

All Arkansans have a vested interest in seeing that downtown Hot Springs is renewed, refreshed and revived.

I’ve never been one to point out problems without offering solutions.

So let’s discuss what I see as the three Rs for downtown Hot Springs — residents, restaurants and rooms.

Then let’s discuss three ideas for the trio of bathhouses that aren’t being used.

First, the three Rs:

1. Residents — Anyone involved in downtown development projects will tell you that a residential base is a key component of successful downtowns. Hot Springs has done an admirable job of attracting art galleries and retailers to the ground floors of some historic buildings downtown. What has not happened is the development of the upper floors of those buildings into loft apartments.

In addition to the smaller buildings along the street, several large, empty buildings offer potential for condominium or apartment development. These include the Majestic Hotel, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Howe Hotel, the Medical Arts Building and the Citizens Building. Granted, these projects would need investors with deep pockets. But the potential — with the right kind of development – is there. In addition to retirees, developers would target talented young people who like to live in neighborhoods where they can walk to restaurants, bars, galleries and entertainment venues. Think about it: Downtown Hot Springs as a hipster enclave.

Also, there are now high-dollar retirees across the country who are far more attracted to a walkable urban setting than they are to retirement communities such as Hot Springs Village. The Baby Boomers, as they reach retirement age, appear to want something different than suburban-looking houses on golf courses. The downtown Hot Springs mix of spas and art could be what these retirees are searching for if (and this is a big “if”) there are quality places for them to live.

2. Restaurants — Hot Springs already has some good downtown restaurants, but there’s room for more. The addition of a microbrewery in the Superior Bathhouse is the kind of touch that can draw more people downtown. The neighborhood seems ripe for additional microbreweries (the craft beer and classic cocktail scene is exploding nationwide with the momentum now reaching Arkansas) along with wine bars that would complement existing art galleries. And there’s room for more fine dining, especially if existing buildings are renovated for condos, apartments and boutique hotels, giving these restaurants a built-in clientele.

Here’s an idea: Why not bring back a few of the popular restaurant concepts of Hot Springs’ past and place them downtown.

Coy’s?

Mrs. Miller’s?

Mollie’s?

Hot Springs could become a city for foodies along the lines of Asheville and Santa Fe. Perhaps an annual food and wine festival could be established. What young chef wouldn’t want to live and work in a reinvigorated downtown Hot Springs?

3. Rooms — High-quality hotel rooms in downtown Hot Springs are now pretty much limited to the Embassy Suites. While perfect for conventions, that’s not exactly a “hip brand” for heritage tourists. A developer looking to bring more quality rooms downtown could buy an existing hotel such as The Springs, Austin or Park (I’m assuming the Arlington is not in play, though everything has its price).

Or a developer could take one of the aforementioned empty properties — Medical Arts, Citizens, Howe, Majestic or Velda Rose. Though the Aristocrat now has apartments in it, it always has had an art deco feel along the lines of the old hotels at Miami Beach, which have become gold mines for the investors who renovated them.

The Citizens Building in particular would make an attractive boutique hotel with its white brick veneer. The building was constructed in 1911-12 for Citizens National Bank, which occupied part of the Spencer Building across the street during construction. Citizens National Bank was absorbed by Arkansas National Bank in 1926. An insurance and investment firm later moved into the bank space. The Tri-State Union Bus Depot then occupied the first floor until 1946, when the bus station moved to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot. First Federal Savings & Loan Association next moved into the first-floor space.

In 1957, First Federal bought the entire building in what The Sentinel-Record called the “largest real estate transaction involving business property here in several years.” The upstairs office suites were renovated at that time. They were occupied by accountants, chiropractors, lawyers, government agencies, the Christian Science Association and even the Hot Springs Memorial Park Cemetery Co. Federal agencies that had offices in the building at one time or another included the FBI, Social Security Administration, Selective Service and Forest Service.

First Federal moved in 1978 to a new building on the site that once had been home to the Como Hotel.

As far as potential hotel developers for downtown Hot Springs, my first suggestion would be to head to Kentucky and make a strong pitch to Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. They are the founders of 21c Museum Hotels. Their passions are urban revival and cutting-edge art. Readers of Conde Nast Traveler named the original 21c at Louisville as the nation’s top hotel in 2009 and 2010. The 90-room Louisville hotel covers five historic buildings. More than 150,000 people walk through each year just to enjoy the art exhibits.

Brown and Wilson probably are feeling good about Arkansas right now due to the success of the 21c at Bentonville. The Bentonville project, which was done at the urging of the Walton family, is the only 21c project in a new building. There are 104 rooms at Bentonville.

The third 21c that has already opened is a 156-room historic property at Cincinnati.

Consider the 21c plans for Durham, Lexington, Kansas City and Oklahoma City, and then see if you agree with me that the historic character of Hot Springs seems like a fit for the type of projects Brown and Wilson take on.

In Kansas City, the 21c developers are planning to spend $47.5 million to renovate the Savoy Hotel and its famous Savoy Grill. The red-brick hotel opened in 1888. An addition was constructed in 1903. There are plans for a 120-room hotel. The developers are hoping to use about $16 million in state and federal historic tax credits. The restaurant at the Savoy, known for its paintings of the Old West by artist Edward Holslag, can seat 600 people.

In Durham, 21c is renovating the former SunTrust Building, a 17-story tower. The hotel will have 125 rooms at the completion of the $48 million project. The renovation will preserve building features such as terrazzo flooring, wood paneling and a silver leaf ceiling in the lobby.

In Oklahoma City, 21c is transforming a 168,000-square-foot downtown building that was constructed in 1916 by Henry Ford as a Model T production plant. The Oklahoma City hotel will have 135 rooms. The building is in a fairly desolate part of downtown. The company president, Craig Greenberg, told the Oklahoma City newspaper: “We are comfortable being pioneers. Our Louisville property is in a similar situation, on the west edge of the central business district. In the early 2000s, it was a very different place than it is today. We’re very proud to have played some role in the redevelopment of that part of the city.”

These folks sound perfect for downtown Hot Springs, don’t they?

In Lexington, 21c plans to redevelop the First National Building and adjoining downtown properties while keeping the original facades intact. There will be 90 rooms in the Lexington hotel with a project cost of $40 million.

In addition to 21c, the leadership of Hot Springs and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission should approach investors who might want to renovate a downtown building and then affiliate the hotel with a hip national brand such as Aloft (part of the Starwood family of hotels) or Hotel Indigo (part of the Intercontinental family of hotels).

And don’t forget that last month Belz Enterprises of Memphis announced that it wants to expand its Peabody brand. Yes, I know the company sold its Peabody hotels in Little Rock and Orlando.

The company wants out of the business (except for the downtown Memphis flagship) of owning large hotels that cater to convention attendees. Belz just wants to manage smaller luxury hotels owned by others, which would be rebranded under the Peabody name.

Peabody Hot Springs anyone?

Douglas Browne, the president of Peabody Hotels & Resorts, said: “We’ll be looking for independently owned properties in the full-service, luxury sector that are looking to gain a unique presence within their market.”

Now, let’s move from the three Rs to the bathhouses.

Hot Springs National Park superintendent Josie Fernandez and her staff at the National Park Service have done an outstanding job of restoring the bathhouses and finding uses for them.

The Buckstaff is the one bathhouse that never stopped serving bathers. Following an extensive renovation, the Quapaw joined the mix. Thus there are now two spa choices among the eight bathhouses.

The Fordyce serves as the main visitors’ center for Hot Springs National Park and has recently undergone another renovation.

The Lamar is now being used as a bookstore and gift shop.

The Superior is now a microbrewery. The Superior, which opened in 1916, is the smallest of the eight bathhouses and the closest to the Arlington Hotel. It had been empty since 1983, but a brewer named Rose Schweikhart Cranson changed all of that.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Contemporary Art has ceased operations in the Ozark.

Meanwhile, the Muses Creative Artistry Project, which had operated a café and bookstore in the lobby of the Hale for a time, gave up on its dream of using the rest of the Hale for performing arts spaces, studios, meeting spaces and an artist-in-residence apartment. The Park Service has spent more than $1.5 million to preserve the Hale, including an update of the heating and air conditioning systems. Built in 1892, the Hale has 12,000 square feet on two main floors. In 1917, one of the hot springs was captured in a tiled enclosure in the basement. That feature is still in place. The Hale closed on Halloween Day 1978.

So uses are needed for the Ozark, the Hale and a large bathhouse known as the Maurice.

Here are three suggestions that would add to the mix for visitors to downtown Hot Springs and complement each other:

1. Approach Alice Walton and convince her to put a small branch of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in one of the bathhouses. Not much renovation would be necessary for this. Mainly, it would be a place where pieces of the Crystal Bridges permanent collection could be shown for several months at a time along with traveling exhibits. There would be no permanent collection in Hot Springs. It would be a way to entice visitors to spend a few additional days up in northwest Arkansas. A whole new group of tourists would learn about Crystal Bridges. It’s a win-win proposition.

2. Open a baseball museum to further build on Hot Springs’ niche as the birthplace of spring training. The 2012 creation of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail by Visit Hot Springs has been a boon to tourism. There are more than 25 markers across the city that are linked to digital technology, allowing visitors to hear about each site. More than 45 percent of the inductees into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., trained or played in Hot Springs at one time or another. Now, it’s time to take the next step with a museum and perhaps even an affiliation with the Baseball Hall of Fame so traveling sports exhibits can come through.

3. Create the Arkansas Political Hall of Fame and place a political museum in a bathhouse. The city of Hope has a national historic site to mark President Clinton’s birthplace. Fayetteville has the home where Bill and Hillary Clinton once lived open for tours. Little Rock has the presidential library. There’s very little that’s Clinton related for visitors to see in Hot Springs, the town where he spent his formative years and graduated from high school. This museum would change that. It also would tell the story of other colorful Arkansas politicians. Note that there’s a Louisiana Political Museum in tiny Winnfield, the home of Huey P. and younger brother Uncle Earl Long. The Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame was created by an act of the Louisiana Legislature in 1987. The museum is housed in the old Winnfield railroad depot. One of the bathhouses at Hot Springs would be a perfect spot for an Arkansas version of what Louisiana has done. There are a heck of a lot more visitors to Hot Springs than there are to Winnfield.

So there you have it. Some brainstorming for downtown Hot Springs.

As those historic buildings along Central Avenue continue to deteriorate, we must understand that the clock is ticking.

The time for action to revive downtown is now.

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The shame of Hot Springs

Friday, February 21st, 2014

They nailed plywood over the windows of the old Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs this week.

Yes, the Majestic has been closed since 2006 so the decay of that complex isn’t exactly news.

Yes, the three buildings that make up the complex have been deteriorating for years.

But symbolism is a powerful thing, and that plywood is symbolic.

It sends the wrong message about our state and its business leadership. It sends the wrong message about our priorities.

This is a city that once fancied itself as the Saratoga of the South. Is it becoming the Detroit of the South, at least downtown?

It’s not just the Majestic.

It’s the adjacent Velda Rose Hotel.

It’s the Medical Arts Building, which for many years was Arkansas’ tallest structure.

It’s the Howe Hotel.

It’s the other historic buildings that have been empty for years. Rather than being charming relics, they’ve become eyesores. And they send the message that this once-great American resort is in a tailspin that can’t be reversed.

Oh, I know all about the landlords who won’t take on major renovation projects.

I’ve heard about the antiquated, often confusing city codes.

I know there has been progress in recent decades when it comes to adding art galleries and an antique store or two to the downtown mix.

I know of Josie Fernandez’ heroic efforts on behalf of the National Park Service to renovate long-shuttered bathhouses and lease them out for other uses.

I know there’s yet another expansion beginning a few miles to the south at Oaklawn Park. The quality of racing there is as good as it has ever been.

I know of the tremendous growth down Arkansas Highway 7 South toward Lake Hamilton, which has occurred the past three decades.

I know that Steve Arrison of Visit Hot Springs is one of the best in the country at what he does.

I know the convention center, the Summit Arena and the adjacent Embassy Suites are nice facilities.

I also know this: I grew up in the area and I’ve watched large parts of downtown Hot Springs wilt for more than 40 years now as most investment occurred south of downtown. I’ve watched the quality of hotel rooms decline, the quirky auction houses depart and the demographic of downtown visitors change. This is not to be elitist. I’m simply stating a fact: Downtown Hot Springs no longer has the critical mass of nice hotel rooms, spas, fine dining establishments and live entertainment needed to attract the type of high-dollar, out-of-state visitors one can now find in downtown Bentonville. The Bentonville visitors are staying at the 21c Museum Hotel, eating at The Hive and visiting the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. They’re spending big bucks while they’re in our state.

“Yeah, but not many places have an Alice Walton who can use personal funds to create a world-class art museum,” the Hot Springs loyalist counters.

Fair enough.

Just hear me out.

That stretch of Central Avenue — from its intersection with Grand Avenue north to where Central runs into the decaying Majestic Hotel — is the most important stretch of urban street in Arkansas and one of the most iconic stretches in the South.

It’s our Bourbon Street, our Beale Street, our Canal Street, our San Antonio Riverwalk. It’s the place a lot of people from surrounding states associate with Arkansas. It’s iconic. It’s important.

That’s why the plywood that went up this week on the windows of the Majestic sent such a horrible message to the rest of the world.

For too long, downtown Hot Springs has been the elephant in the room (or the alcoholic uncle or the crazy aunt in the attic, if you prefer) that Arkansans chose not to talk about.

We knew some of our state’s most historic buildings were empty and deteriorating. We knew the overall quality of the hotel experience was declining. But we headed out to Lake Hamilton, got on a party barge, waved at the tourists riding the Ducks and pretended that the out-of-state visitors wouldn’t notice once they got downtown.

Well, they’ve noticed.

Go to TripAdvisor, the top travel website, and read the reviews of the visitor experiences at various locations in downtown Hot Springs. Some of them will embarrass you as an Arkansan.

That stretch of Central Avenue is so important to who we are as Arkansans — to our sense of place, our sense of history — that it should now become a statewide priority to attract investors who will buy the empty buildings and bring them back to life.

Do such people exist? Let’s hope so. Let’s at least make an all-out effort to find them.

This is not just a Hot Springs problem, you see. It’s an Arkansas problem. The Majestic, along with the other empty buildings on Central Avenue, send a message to others about how much we care about our state’s landmark locations. I frankly can think of few economic development opportunities in the state that are bigger.

The governor should be involved. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission should be involved. The Arkansas Development Finance Authority should be involved.

We read a great deal about efforts to attract a steel mill to Mississippi County. That’s a good thing. Yet the revitalization of downtown Hot Springs could be so much bigger. Why aren’t we reading about efforts along those lines?

Unfortunately, Arkansas investors haven’t stepped up.

Here’s the potential silver lining: Hot Springs is less than a five-hour drive from one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. The time has come to mine the Dallas-Fort Worth area not only for visitors but also for investors who can take those rotting buildings downtown and transform them into mixed-used developments with boutique hotel rooms, spas, fine dining, upscale retail and live music.

Build it, promote it and they will come. There are literally thousands of well-heeled travelers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (that doesn’t even begin to mention the Houston market) who are looking for that which is real rather than another amusement park.

They’ve already visited New Orleans, which has its own culture. They’ve already visited San Antonio, which has its own culture. These are unique cities that have capitalized on their history.

Now, what if Hot Springs were to capitalize on its colorful history and singular culture while offering these visitors the kinds of hotel rooms and restaurants they’ve come to expect? There’s nothing wrong with Hot Springs attracting those ol’ boys from Sardis who drive down for the day to drink beer and tube out on Lake Hamilton. But what if we were also to add the free-spending Texans to the mix, people ready and willing to buy art and antiques to take home to the Lone Star State?

Dead buildings can be brought back to life. Take what’s happening in Mineral Wells, Texas, a city of fewer than 17,000 residents that’s about 50 miles west of Fort Worth in Palo Pinto County. There are plans to reopen the Baker Hotel, which has languished longer than the Majestic and the Velda Rose.

“The 14-story hotel, long the dominant feature in the Mineral Wells skyline, has been stripped of just about everything valuable,” Bill Hanna wrote in last Sunday’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Rooms are trashed and windows broken. Entrances are covered with sheets of plywood, forcing city officials to constantly seal new entryways pried open by trespassers — the Baker’s most frequent guests.”

Sound familiar?

A group of developers led by Laird Fairchild of Hunter Chase Capital Partners in Southlake, Texas, is trying to put together a renovation package that utilizes federal tax credits, state tax credits and an Environmental Protection Agency grant for lead and asbestos abatement. The developers also hope to use the federal EB-5 visa program, which allows international investors to gain U.S. residency by putting at least $500,000 in a U.S. business that creates or preserves 10 or more full-time jobs.

Such packages — while difficult to put together — hold promise for downtown Hot Springs. Investors must combine state tax credits, federal tax credits, EPA grants, incentives for foreign investors and more. It takes tenacity.

Though Hot Springs is larger and more famous than Mineral Wells, the two towns have much in common.

“The town began as a health resort when officials claimed that mineral water cured a variety of disorders,” Hanna wrote. “By 1909, Mineral Wells had 46 hotels or boarding houses, and published reports said that by 1910, some 150,000 people a year were visiting the wells, according to the Texas Almanac. By 1920, the town had 400 mineral wells, and it was billed as the South’s greatest health resort, according to the Handbook of Texas.

“The 200-room Crazy Water Hotel would open in 1927, and hotel magnate T.B. Baker would open the Baker in 1929, the same year as the stock market crash. When the Baker opened, it included mineral baths, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a rooftop nightclub known as the Cloud Room, where old-timers could recall hearing music stream out across town at night. Among the celebrities who stayed at the Baker were Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Roy Rogers and the Three Stooges.”

Former Baker Hotel assistant manager Roy Walker told the Star-Telegram in 1993 that the hotel also attracted “big-name stars like Lawrence Welk, Sophie Tucker, the Dorsey Brothers. You couldn’t find a parking place for blocks.”

The Baker Hotel at Mineral Wells closed in 1963. It reopened in 1965 and closed again in 1972. Last December, another abandoned Mineral Wells hotel, the Crazy Water, was purchased by a group of Las Vegas investors who plan to renovate it.

If you need another example of what’s possible in downtown Hot Springs, look to Big Spring, Texas, and its Hotel Settles. Big Spring is in west Texas, about 40 miles from Midland. The Settles, built in 1930, closed in 1980. It reopened in December 2012 thanks to Dallas businessman Brint Ryan, who is also a partner in the Baker Hotel project. Also involved in both projects is an Austin-based development company known as the La Corsha Hospitality Group.

The Settles can be seen briefly in the opening scenes of the 1969 movie “Midnight Cowboy.”

During the oil boom of the late 1920s, W.R. Settles bought land at the corner of Third Street and Runnels in downtown Big Spring. He spent $500,000 on the hotel, which would go on to host guests ranging from Elvis Presley to Herbert Hoover. It was the finest hotel in west Texas.

“There’s a lot of emotion around the Baker, and there was a lot of emotion around the Settles,” Jeff Trigger of La Corsha told the Star-Telegram. “There’s just no reason why it can’t be the same thing in Mineral Wells as it is in Big Spring. But the Baker is just on a much larger scale, with about twice as many rooms and 18,000 square feet of public-function and meeting space. I think we would have weddings every weekend of the year once this opens.”

Trigger has been involved in the renovation of historic hotels such as the Mansion, Adolphus and Stoneleigh in Dallas along with the Driskill in Austin and the St. Anthony in San Antonio.

Has the state tried to get Trigger and his partners interested in downtown Hot Springs?

Has the state approached those Las Vegas investors involved in the Crazy Water?

If not, why not?

Economic development in the 21st century is about so much more than steel mills. It’s about attracting talented people. A place with (for lack of a better term) a funky vibe such as downtown Hot Springs could no doubt attract young, smart entrepreneurs who would live in downtown condos and loft apartments, eat in downtown restaurants and frequent downtown entertainment venues. Downtown Hot Springs could be our mini-Austin, complete with food trucks and resident hipsters.

Palm Springs suddenly became hip again after a long decline. Miami Beach became hip again after a long decline.

Let’s dream big. Let’s have a vision. Let’s stop turning our heads and ignoring the very real problems.

There’s so much history there. There’s so much that’s real.

For instance, spring is approaching, and I’m reminded that baseball spring training began in Hot Springs. The Hot Springs Historic Baseball Tail has been a fine addition to the city’s attractions. Every baseball geek in America should want to take a pilgrimage to Hot Springs.

It’s also racing season, and I’m reminded of a time when the Oaklawn race meet meant big-time entertainment at the Vapors. Tony Bennett, Edgar Bergen, the Smothers Brothers. They were all at the Vapors.

Dane Harris, who died in 1981, joined forces with noted gangster “Owney” Madden, who had once owned the Cotton Club in New York, to build the Vapors in the summer of 1959 at 315 Park Ave. The facility opened in 1960 with a spacious lobby, the Vapors Coffee Shop, the Monte Carlo Room for meetings, a dinner theater and a casino. There were two live shows every night during the race meet.

Tony Bennett wrote in his autobiography that he first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at the Vapors. As he rehearsed the song, a Vapors bartender cried out: “If you guys record that song, I’ll buy the first copy.”

Michael Hodge wrote in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In the late morning of Jan. 4, 1963, an explosion rocked the Vapors, causing extensive damage. Twelve injuries were reported, and three people required hospitalization. Speculation about who was responsible ranged from outside crime syndicates attempting a takeover to local small club owners lashing out in response to raids against their own facilities. Such raids were intended to take the public pressure off authorities while leaving more prominent clubs like the Vapors alone.

“As a result of the bombing, a wall separating the casino from the lobby was demolished, exposing the club’s gaming tables and slot machines to the street. Reporters covering the bombing for the Arkansas Gazette managed to snap a photograph of the slot machines and craps tables against the orders of police officers securing the area. The photo appeared on the front page of the next day’s edition, providing clear poof of illegal gambling in Hot Springs. But illegal gambling would not be completely curtailed in the city until 1967, six months into the first term of reformist Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.

“Unlike many former casinos in Hot Springs, the Vapors continued to operate as a nightclub and restaurant after its casino was closed. In 1977, responding to changing tastes in entertainment, Dane Harris began renovations to the club, which would see the addition of the Cockeyed Cowboy and Apollo Disco, as well as an additional showroom completed in 1980. The Vapors continued to operate as a nightclub into the 1990s but only as a lackluster shadow of its former self. The building was sold in October 1998 to Tower of Strength Ministries for use as a church.”

Major league baseball’s spring training isn’t coming back to Hot Springs.

Downtown casino gambling isn’t coming back to Hot Springs.

But these historic buildings cry out for redevelopment. The potential is enormous.

That plywood that went up at the Majestic this week should serve as a wake-up call for all Arkansans. It’s time to address the situation in downtown Hot Springs before it’s too late.

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