Archive for the ‘Hot Springs’ Category

A Sunday walk in Hot Springs

Monday, March 5th, 2012

For a fourth consecutive year, I made the short trip to Hot Springs for the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament, which has been an outstanding addition to an already busy March schedule in the Spa City.

On a warm, windy Sunday afternoon, it was fun to see people from Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and other states wearing their school colors and walking slowly down Bathhouse Row.

The March schedule in Hot Springs includes a St. Patrick’s Day parade that has mushroomed into a nationally known celebration (U.S. News, the online version of the former U.S. News & World Report magazine, had it on its list of the top 10 St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country), the 14 high school state championship games that will be played this Thursday through Saturday and, of course, racing at Oaklawn Park.

I arrived early Sunday so I could walk all the way from Summit Arena to the former Majestic Hotel (what a forlorn anchor to Central Avenue) and back, taking in the scene.

On the one hand, I marvel at how far downtown Hot Springs has come since those sad days in the 1970s and 1980s when that tacky wooden canopy covered the sidewalk across from Bathhouse Row.

On the other hand, I think of how much more downtown Hot Springs could be.

A lot of people have put in a lot of time and money to attract art galleries and additional businesses downtown (though I still miss the auction galleries that captivated me as a child).

The good news:

1. Five of the eight bathhouses now show signs of life. The Quapaw has joined the Buckstaff (the one bathhouse that never closed) in offering baths and other spa services. The Museum of Contemporary Art moved into the Ozark several years ago, and the Fordyce is home to the National Park Service visitor center.

The most recent addition came in December when the Eastern National bookstore that was in the Fordyce moved to the Lamar. What’s known as the Bathhouse Row Emporium is a joint project of Eastern National and the National Park Service.

“The Park Service has been studying uses for the Lamar, particularly the lobby area, since the U.S. Forest Service decided against moving the Ouachita National Forest headquarters into that space in October 2006,” Mark Gregory wrote in The Sentinel-Record.

Josie Fernandez, the Hot Springs National Park superintendent, told the newspaper: “When it was a definite no that the Forest Service was not going to use this space and it was going to be ours, then we quickly realized that we needed to put something in the lobby or the lobby was never going to be enjoyed by the public.”

Fernandez pitched the idea to Eastern National, a nonprofit association that runs bookstores throughout the National Park Service. Last March, the Eastern National board met in Savannah, Ga., and approved the relocation and expansion of the bookstore.

Gregory wrote: “Kevin C. Kissling, director of operations support, said Eastern National serves as an extension of the Park Service’s interpretive program so that the products it sells complement the interpretive message being given to visitors, either through exhibits in visitor centers, tours or other media. … In addition to the other spa-related products, Eastern National is looking at adding custom CDs that would have spa music either from different time periods or different cultures. It would include an introduction to Hot Springs that talks about how, even though spa techniques vary today from Bathhouse Row’s heyday, the end result is the same — relaxation and good health.”

Now if only uses could be found for the Hale, the Maurice and the Superior.

“My mission since I’ve been superintendent has been to restore and reopen all of those vacant bathhouses,” Fernandez said. “And my vision has always been an American flag flying in every building as a sign that we’re open for business. We’re hopeful that we will have two very solid proposals that we can act upon and reopen more buildings.”

 2. Most of the storefronts along Central Avenue are filled, a far cry from the many vacant storefronts during the 1980s. The move by the Gangster Museum to a spot across the street from the bathhouses has helped the visibility of that attraction.

The Vienna Theatre, a 75-seat venue in the Simon Mendel building, has been another welcome addition. Mendel built the building in 1910 to house a clothing store for women. It was one of the few buildings in the 400 block of Central Avenue to survive the great fire of 1928.

Baritone Ken Goodman owns the theater and performs there several nights each week. The space also can be rented.

3. Steve Arrison and others at the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau continue to put on stellar events such as this week of basketball and the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The Summit Arena and the convention center are kept in a first-class condition.

The not-so-good news:

1. I mentioned that scar that was once the Majestic Hotel. Will anyone ever renovate it?

2. You’ve likely read about the troubles of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute and the old Malco Theatre. That institution is an important piece of the cultural puzzle in Hot Springs and needs to succeed.

The Princess Theatre was at that location from 1910-35, when it burned. Renovated as the Malco Music Hall, it was called the Showplace of the South with 1,140 seats and the finest projection and sound equipment available. The Malco was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

3. As written on the Southern Fried blog before, major capital investments still are needed to update the downtown hotels, investments that hopefully could attract a more upscale clientele and help Hot Springs regain its status as the Saratoga of the South.

4. Investors also are needed to attract residents downtown, giving the area a 24-hour vibe. The Medical Arts Building, the Howe-DeSoto Building and other structures along Central Avenue could be attractive for condominium and apartment projects if there were investors with deep pockets and a vision.

Back to the St. Patrick’s Day parade: The event is officially the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

U.S. News wrote: “While this city has the youngest St. Patrick’s Day parade on the list, Hot Springs has been routinely given the distinction as the strangest since its inception in 2003.

“Recent participants include the Irish Elvises and the San Diego Chicken, among others. It also receives the title of the shortest procession of note, with a route on Bridge Street that is only 98 feet long. Featuring bagpipers, floats and appearances from the parade king and queen, the Hot Springs parade is presided over by a celebrity grand marshal, who keeps the crowd on its toes throughout the event. Previous grand marshals include Mario Lopez and Pauly Shore. We are not making this up.”

Arrison likes the fact that the parade is honored for its strangeness. Hot Springs has a history of strange events and attractions, you see.

“From its very inception, Hot Springs’ parade has celebrated fun, zaniness and uniqueness, and this recognition fits right in with the atmosphere that will fill Hot Springs on March 17,” he said.

Because St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday this year, the festivities will last all day. Broadway between Spring Street and Convention Boulevard will be blocked off beginning at 11 a.m. Live band music will begin at 11:30 a.m.

The actual parade will start at 6:30 p.m. with actor Tim Matheson (Otter from “Animal House”) as the celebrity grand marshal. A street dance will commence at 8 p.m. and last until 11 p.m.

The downtown section of Central Avenue — Arkansas’ most famous stretch for tourists — should be hopping that Saturday.

Here’s hoping those residential and hotel investments follow in the years ahead to further enhance one of the country’s landmark locations.

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Oaklawn’s Terry Wallace: Hall of Famer

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

The most recognizable voice in Arkansas?

If you were to guess Terry Wallace of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, you might have the correct answer.

The 2012 race meet has begun, and Wallace’s voice is no longer heard in Hot Springs. Wallace, who retired from the track announcer’s booth at Oaklawn last year after 37 seasons of calling races in the Spa City, set a record for the most consecutive races at a single track — a record that might never be broken.

He hit the 20,000 mark with his call of the third race on March 25, 2010.

He ended the streak at 20,191 calls without a miss following the fourth race on Jan. 28, 2011.

“When someone says Oaklawn, the first thing that comes to mind is Terry Wallace,” said Larry Collmus, the track announcer at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth Park.

Wallace will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame as part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012 when the organization holds its annual induction banquet on Friday, Feb. 3, at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

Tickets for the induction banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

Wallace is among 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Class of 2012. The Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship basketball team.

Oaklawn’s owner, Charles J. Cella, once called Wallace’s consecutive race streak “the most incredible record in sports. This record will never be touched. I can’t imagine anyone will come close.”

Wallace came to Oaklawn in 1975 and has been a consistent presence there ever since. He regularly arrived at the track on race days by 7:30 a.m. If a radio station had a live remote broadcast from Oaklawn, he might be there as early as 5 a.m. At home each night, he would work late into the evening handicapping the next day’s races.

Arkansans loved the way Wallace would play on horses’ names with dramatic inflections, pauses and a strong emphasis on certain syllables. Ask any race fan to name a favorite horse that Wallace called, and that person is likely to come up with a name.

Perhaps it was Dragset.

Or Razorback.

Or Chop Chop Tomahawk.

And then there was Boozing.

“The crowd really got into that one when I dragged the name out,” Wallace said.

Wallace’s path to Arkansas was an unlikely one. The Cleveland native majored in modern languages at Xavier University in Cincinnati before spending a year at the Sorbonne, the commonly used name for the famed University of Paris, which was founded in the 12th century.

Wallace planned to be a teacher, and he did just that for several years following college.

“When I was in summer school at Cincinnati, I got a job with some buddies parking cars out at River Downs,” Wallace said. “That led to a job as a runner for the guys in the press box. I started to develop an interest in racing.”

Wallace taught French, first at the junior high level and later at the high school level in Cincinnati. He still would work at River Downs during the summer. Wallace was recording the call of a race there in French one day for his own amusement when the track announcer made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. If Wallace would record a few races in English, the announcer would offer a critique.

Wallace was home grading papers one night when he received a call from Latonia Race Course manager Johnny Battaglia (whose oldest son, Mike, has long set the morning line for the Kentucky Derby). Battaglia’s track in the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati needed a fill-in announcer. Wallace headed for Latonia, which is now known as Turfway Park.

In the months that followed, Wallace would get to know and occasionally fill in for the famed track announcer Chick Anderson. It was Anderson, on the CBS Sports national telecast, who made perhaps the most famous call in thoroughbred racing history — his description of Secretariat’s stretch run in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Anderson told the nation that the 3-year-old was “moving like a tremendous machine.”

Wallace replaced Anderson at Oaklawn in 1975 when Anderson took the track announcer’s job at Santa Anita.

In his first years in the racing industry, Wallace performed a number of jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. He was even a jockey’s agent for a time. For the Daily Racing Form, he moved from call taker to chart caller, handling a racing circuit that included the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

In December 1974, Wallace received a call from W.T. “Bish” Bishop, the dapper, erudite general manager at Oaklawn. Anderson had handed in his resignation and suggested that Wallace be hired as his replacement.

Bishop took Anderson’s advice, and Wallace was soon on his way to Arkansas.

Wallace continued working at other tracks during the nine months there was no racing at Oaklawn, including calling jockey Steve Cauthen’s maiden win at River Downs.

Wallace called races for 14 years at Ak-Sar-Ben (that’s Nebraska spelled backward) in Omaha, which closed in 1995. He’s a member of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame. Wallace even called races for three years at Louisiana Downs.

Wallace always has been known for his work ethic.

“The problem with those other tracks was that when I went home at night, I wasn’t in Arkansas,” he said. “I love Hot Springs.”

The people of Arkansas have loved him in return.

His long stay at Oaklawn allowed Wallace to call the races of such greats as Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Curlin, Azeri, Cigar, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Sunny’s Halo and Temperence Hill.

For this one-time French teacher, it has been quite a career.

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The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

I’ve found a book for my December reading pleasure that fits my interests perfectly.

I love New Orleans.

I love Hot Springs.

I love food.

I love thoroughbred racing.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was hanging out at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., when he came across a copy of “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak” by Randy Fertel. The book was released earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

Skip invited Randy to be a part of the Clinton School’s lecture series, and the author showed up on the final night of November to speak. I’ve been engrossed in his book ever since.

My friend John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, described the book this way: “His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.”

Randy’s mother is the Ruth in the Ruth’s Chris chain of upscale steak houses.

His father launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 on the promise that he would get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo. He received only about 300 votes.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket shows Randy’s parents during a visit to Hot Springs. The year was 1948. My father graduated from college in Arkadelphia that year. My parents were frequent visitors to Hot Springs. For all I know, they unknowingly crossed paths with the Fertels on Central Avenue.

On a visit to Hershey, Pa., this summer, I learned that Milton Hershey honeymooned in Hot Springs. It was once quite the destination for young couples.

Here’s how the first chapter of the book begins: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up.”

Ruth was 21 when that photo was taken.

Rodney was 27.

A decade later, Ruth was speeding down Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans on her way to the Fair Grounds (she was the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana) when she was pulled over by police officer Salvador J. “Joe” DeMatteo.

Soon, Ruth and Joe were an item.

By May 1958, Ruth and Rodney were separated.

Ruth married Joe in 1964.

“Joe was dark and wiry, a man’s man, a grunt who had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, a motorcycle cop, small plane pilot and gas station owner,” Randy writes. “Like him, Mom began to smoke filterless cigarettes, Pall Malls. In Joe’s presence, I heard curse words from my mother’s mouth for the first time. Surely not her first, they bothered me and I imagined Joe was their cause.”

Randy, who has a doctorate from Harvard, has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of New Orleans. He’s a lover of food and fine wine who once was the marketing director for the Ruth’s Chris chain.

A March 2007 New York Times feature on his wedding to Bernadette Murray began this way: “The chatter among the 175 guests gathered under the live oaks of Audubon Park in New Orleans for the wedding of Bernadette Murray and Randy Fertel was upbeat but also circumspect. They gushed about the setting and marveled about the beauty of the bride. And barely a word about the tough times the couple had just been through.

“Less measured were the bride’s grade-school-age nephews: ‘Don’t tell,’ one said in a stage whisper. ‘Aunt Bernadette is wearing a wig!’

“Aunt Bernadette has been wearing a wig since shortly after she began treatment in May 2005 for acute myeloid leukemia, several months after Ms. Murray began dating Mr. Fertel.

“Early on, Ms. Murray tried to let Mr. Fertel off the hook, telling him that she didn’t expect him to endure what appeared to be a long illness. Mr. Fertel responded by returning to the hospital with a big diamond ring in a blue Tiffany box.”

Randy, who was 56 at the time of the wedding, met his wife in late 2004 when he was working at the New School in New York as an adjunct instructor who specialized in the literature of the Vietnam War. They met through a dating website. She’s eight years younger.

In an October story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Judy Walker wrote: “The eccentric streak in Rodney Fertel ran deep. In the Rampart Street community of Orthodox Jews, where the Fertels owned a pawnshop and property, the Fertels were by any measure an unusual family. Rodney Fertel’s mother, Annie, shoplifted so regularly that store detectives in D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche were detailed to follow her around; later, her accountant would quietly pay her debts. Family members also sued each other repeatedly.”

Randy told the newspaper writer: “My dad enjoyed a grudge. My family left a trail. They were litigious people; that was very helpful” in researching the book.

Randy ends the foreward of his own book this way: “The Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring. Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth’s Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved. I must confess that I was among them.”

When Ruth saw a for-sale ad for a steak house at 1100 Broad St. in New Orleans, she took it as a good sign that the restaurant had been established on her birthday — Feb. 5, 1927.

She bought Chris’ Steak House in 1965 after borrowing $22,000. Almost a dozen years later, fire destroyed the original restaurant. She reopened a few blocks away at the intersection of Broad and Orleans and called the place Ruth’s Chris. It became the top political hangout in New Orleans.

Ruth sold the chain in 1999. In 2002, she died of cancer. By then, there were more than 80 restaurants in the chain.

In her will, Ruth made Randy the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. Among its projects, the foundation is working to establish the Fertel Culinary Arts Center at Nicholls State University. Randy put his own money into the Fertel Foundation, which focuses on education and the arts.

As someone who has long been fascinated with the history of Hot Springs, I’m drawn back to the first of the book and Randy’s description of the Spa City: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and ‘the Strip’ still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents: no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its diamond jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her throughbred trainer’s license.”

In one photo from that 1948 visit, there’s a sign for a Hot Springs restaurant. Randy writes of the sign: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises One Day Out of the Ocean, meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.”

Rodney would live for a time in Hot Springs at 359 Whittington Ave.

Randy said he once asked Ruth why she married Rodney.

She replied: “He had horses. I was a country girl and a tomboy. I was at LSU. Your dad owned a stable. When I first met him, I thought he was a stable boy. We ran off and got married, honeymooned in Hot Springs, then took a trip around the world.”

Randy writes: “Which means my first sibling rivals were racehorses. Later Dad would add two gorillas to the list and Mom a restaurant.”

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A Hot Springs Fourth of July

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

For decades (eight of them to be exact) Arkansans have been drawn to Lake Hamilton each summer.

Carpenter Dam, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 1992, was the handiwork of Harvey Couch, the founder of Arkansas Power & Light Co. The site for the dam was 10 miles upstream on the Ouachita River from Remmel Dam, the first of AP&L’s two dams on the Ouachita River used for hydroelectric generation.

Construction of Remmel Dam began in May 1923 and was completed in December 1924. The result was Lake Catherine, a 1,940-acre lake named after Couch’s only daughter (he also had four sons).

Construction of Carpenter Dam began in February 1929 and was completed in December 1931. The result was Lake Hamilton, a 7,200-acre lake named after Couch’s legal counsel, C. Hamilton Moses.

Cabins soon began springing up around Lake Hamilton. At the same time, some expensive homes were built on the lake during the 1930s.

Melissa and I stayed this past weekend in one of those homes — the Hamilton House. For years, the restaurant in the Hamilton House was a favorite spot for us to dine on trips to Hot Springs. Dinner is no longer served there. It’s now a bed and breakfast inn.

Located on a peninsula with grounds covering almost three acres, it proved to be the perfect spot to enjoy the fireworks show on Saturday night. We sat on the Hamilton House dock as the fireworks exploded just above our heads. On the lake, hundreds of boats were anchored for the annual show.

The house was patterned after an Italian villa and has marble floors from Mexico, red clay tiles from Mexico and glass tiles from Italy. The chandelier in the main room originally was imported to San Francisco from Austria.

Within minutes of checking in, we had changed clothes and were headed to the dock for a swim in the lake. I then sat on the dock, which is shaded by a large mimosa tree, and watched the boats pass on a hot afternoon. There was a steady stream of watercraft.

“Nice spot,” one man yelled from his boat.

He was right — a shaded dock, a front-row view of the activity on the lake and the prime location for that night’s fireworks show.

In this summer of high gas prices and a slow economic recovery, it was good to see each of the “ducks,” the World War II-era amphibious vehicles that have for so long been a part of the Hot Springs tourism scene, packed with tourists.

Several weeks ago, I had asked Steve Arrison, the promotional genius who runs the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, how Hot Springs was faring this summer.

“We’re holding our own,” he replied.

On the weekend prior to the Fourth of July, the place seemed to be doing more than just holding its own. It was hopping.

The “ducks” are technically DUKWS. According to the website for National Park Duck Tours, the landing craft was developed “by the U.S. Army during World War II to deliver cargo from ships at sea directly to shore. The DUKWs then contained a hull pump that could pump 260 gallons of water per minute plus a hand pump that could also move 50 gallons per minute. The DUKW can climb up a 60 percent grade and also broach 18-inch high obstacles. Its range is approximately 220 miles on land and 50 miles in water, and its cargo capacity is 5,350 pounds. It was designed to transport up to 25 fully equipped troops on land or water.

“During World War II, the United States realized that an amphibious invasion of France from England was necessary to overcome the German occupation. Thousands of landing crafts and hundreds of cargo and transport ships would be needed to launch a successful invasion. DUKWs were engineered with maneuverability and great agility to help meet the challenge. They fought their way through choppy oceans, huge breakers and exited the water onto soft sand without losing traction to bring troops and supplies safely to shore.”

Prior to the fireworks show Saturday night, we dined at J&S Italian Villa, which is in a home once occupied by one of Couch’s four sons. The location is just above where the Couch Marina was located for many years.

The Couch sons were Johnson Olin Couch, Harvey Crowley (Don) Couch Jr., Kirke Couch and William Thomas (Bill) Couch. It was Bill who had the home on the lake that’s now a place for fine Italian dining. The four sons were outlived by the one daughter, Catherine Couch Remmel, who died in Little Rock in January 2006 at age 87.

In November 2002, brothers Jamal and Sham Afkhami transformed the former Bill Couch residence into a restaurant. They had owned and operated restaurants in the Dallas area for the previous three decades. The restaurant was packed Saturday night, and the food was outstanding.

I do, though, still miss ordering fried quail at Mrs. Miller’s.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was just building DeGray Lake when I was young in Arkadelphia, so Lake Hamilton was a lake of choice for Arkadelphians. I always envied those “old money” Arkadelphia families (if there’s really such a thing as old money in a town that small) who had lakehouses on Hamilton.

Childhood memories of Hot Springs revolved around special occasion dinners at Mrs. Miller’s and Coy’s (another restaurant I miss), sitting in the auction houses on Central Avenue (also gone) and (for more downscale entertainment) visits to Kmart and the Burger Chef. My hometown had neither a large discount store nor a chain burger joint at that time.

There are plenty of accommodations on Lake Hamilton if you decide to pay a visit. Those looking for upscale accommodations have their choice of the Hamilton House and Lookout Point Lakeside Inn. Ray and Kristie Rosset built Lookout Point in 2003 after becoming enchanted with Hot Springs. I’ve never stayed there but have heard nothing but good things about it.

Following a recent trip to Hot Springs, travel writer Sophia Dembling wrote a post on her blog headlined “Hot Springs Is Cool.”

She wrote: “The last time I was in Hot Springs it was kind of, um, worn down. It’s a pretty part of the country, but the fabulous old bathhouses that comprise Hot Springs National Park (there’s Hot Springs the city and Hot Springs the park) sat mostly empty and dejected. You could peer in, but you couldn’t go in, and they had nothing to offer but memories.

“That’s changing as the National Park Service is doing basic restoration on them (cleaning out the asbestos, fixing the wiring, adding heat and air conditioning) and renting them out. Maybe you’ve been dreaming about dropping out of the rat race and opening a business someplace lovely. This could be your opportunity.”

Dembling wrote a glowing article that ran June 2 in the Dallas Morning News.

“We’re, in essence, going back to our historic roots,” park superintendent Josie Fernandez told her when asked about the renovation of the bathhouses.

Of the Quapaw, which opened again in 2008 following a renovation costing almost $2 million, Don Harper told Dembling: “We knew people would come. On a Sunday, sometimes English is the third or fourth language you’ll hear in the pools.”

Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Ozark opened in 2009.

Lori Arnold of the museum told Dembling: “A lot of tourists think we’re going to be very Mod Squad, but we’re not.”

Other bathhouses are almost ready to be leased.

After some sad decades when downtown seemed to empty out and almost all retail and hotel development was south on Central Avenue toward Lake Hamilton, there has been a bit of rejuvenation in downtown Hot Springs.

In addition to the work on the bathhouses, the art gallery scene seems to be flourishing.

The Gallery Walk on the first Friday of each month attracts thousands of people downtown.

There’s also the Antique/Boutique Walk on the third Friday night of each month that features shops on the 100-200 blocks of Central Avenue such as The Villa, Tillman’s, Blue Lili and Bathhouse Soapery.

One end of Central Avenue, however, remains anchored by the closed, rotting, forlorn Majestic Hotel.

There are other empty giants — the Medical Arts Building (built in 1929 and, at 16 stories, the tallest building in the state for decades until Winthrop Rockefeller built the Tower Building in Little Rock in 1960), the 1926 DeSoto Hotel and more.

I still contend that a major economic development and historic preservation goal in Arkansas should be to attract more private investors to develop condominiums, quality apartments, additional restaurants and upscale hotel rooms in downtown Hot Springs. It’s a rare Arkansas jewel whose buildings should no longer be allowed to languish.

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Walking down Bathhouse Row

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

It was nice to see things this busy as we walked down Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs on a Saturday morning.

The sidewalks were jammed.

Some of these tourists had no doubt planned to spend their summer vacations along the Gulf Coast. Due to the oil spill, they canceled their reservations and wound up in Arkansas. Let’s hope their first impressions were good.

The key is to have them (a) tell their friends good things about Hot Springs; and (b) come back again.

In the previous post, I outlined some ideas for an even more vibrant downtown Hot Springs — improvements to the aging downtown hotels; bringing back some of Hot Springs’ most famous restaurants and relocating them downtown; and taking empty buildings and turning them into condominiums and apartments in order to build a downtown residential base.

The other needed step is leasing out the four bathhouses that remain empty.

The eight bathhouses in Hot Springs are near the top of the list of Arkansas’ greatest cultural assets. It’s good that four of them are now in use. But I see that as being just halfway toward the goal.

“Bathhouse Row has become the architectural core for downtown Hot Springs,” Earl Adams and Bill Norman wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “The first structures in the area to take advantage of the thermal springs were likely the sweat lodges of local Native Americans, which were followed by an unplanned conglomeration of buildings subject to fires, floods and rot. At one time, the area was subject to numerous claims that eventually had to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. For 80 years, the government improved the spring area by containing the creek, filling and widening the narrow valley and constructing the spa landscape. Ornate and numerous wooden bathhouses gave way to large and impressive masonry structures that represent the spa’s highest architectural attainment.

“The peak of bathing came in 1946 when more than 1 million baths were taken; however, a steady decline soon began. City redevelopment eliminated much of the moderate- to low-cost accommodations. The loss of other downtown businesses and the imposition of short-term bathhouse leases that reduced rather than encouraged maintenance also had an adverse effect. The placement of Bathhouse Row on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 saved them but not the use of them. The Fordyce had already closed in 1962 after the decision to have only traditional bathing on the row. …

“Plans for the most recent bathhouses envisioned a uniform architectural style, whereas business owners sought the business advantage of distinctive appearance. Little Rock architects George Mann and Eugene Stern designed several buildings, each unique. A common thread came from capitalizing on the legendary visit of the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to the spring (most historians now discredit the legend). Mostly built in the the 1910s and 1920s era, design consideration had to take into account all perspectives adjacent to the formal entrance and the Maurice historic spring. In addition, the elevation of first floors for flood resistance called for basements, ramps and steps while fireproofing the structures called for using brick (often veneered with stucco), sawed stone, concrete, marble and tile. Long sunrooms and lobbies and great numbers of windows allowed ingenious manipulations to produce varied appearances and tasteful and artful qualities inside and out.”

Let’s take the bathhouses one by one, starting with the four that are in use:

1. The Fordyce — If you want proof that the federal government can do some things right, this is it. As the bathing business declined during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Fordyce became the first of the eight current bathhouses to go out of business when it closed on June 30, 1962. In 1989, after having been padlocked for 27 years, it was extensively renovated by the National Park Service. The Park Service did a beautiful job of restoration. Serving now as the park’s visitors’ center, it was teeming with people on the Saturday we were there. Designed by Mann and Stern, the Fordyce had opened on March 1, 1915, under the supervision of Sam Fordyce’s son. It’s the largest bathhouse on the row and, certainly in the 21 years since the restoration, one of the most beautiful buildings in Arkansas inside and out.

2. The Buckstaff — It’s the only bathhouse along the row to have been in continuous operation since it opened. All Arkansans owe it to themselves to take the baths here, if for nothing else than to say they’ve done so. Designed by Frank W. Gibb & Co., the Buckstaff replaced the Rammelsberg Bathhouse and opened on Feb. 1, 1912. The men are on the first floor. The women are on the second floor. No reservations or appointments are accepted. Just walk in.

3. The Quapaw — The Quapaw has the distinction of being the longest bathhouse on the row. Because of its mosaic-tiled dome, many people also consider it the most beautiful bathhouse on the row. It was reopened two years ago, giving Bathhouse Row two operating bathhouses. Now marketed as Quapaw Baths & Spa, it also features a cafe, reception facilities and a retail shop. In addition to a private bath area, there are four large soaking pools. The bathhouse is closed on Tuesdays. It opens at 10 a.m. on the other six days of the week. The building opened in 1922 and closed in 1984, only to be gloriously brought back to life two years ago.

4. The Ozark — Mann and Stern designed the Ozark, and it opened just a few months after the Quapaw in 1922. It’s beautiful on the outside with its Spanish Colonial Revival style, but it was considered a no-frills bathhouse on the inside. It closed in 1977 and was brought back to life last year as the home of the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the day we were there, a steady stream of people were going in to see an Ansel Adams exhibit (that exhibit closes Saturday). The cost of admission is only $5, and the museum is open for 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. An art museum is a nice adaptive reuse for this bathhouse.

Now, let’s move on to the four bathhouses that remain closed and are in need of tenants:

1. The Lamar — It’s named for a former Supreme Court Justice who has one of my favorite names in American history — Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. He was the secretary of the interior when the first bathhouse was built in 1888. The Lamar, which opened in 1923 and closed in late 1985, was considered unique because it offered a range of tub lengths for people of various heights.

2. The Maurice — The building opened on Jan. 1, 1912. Designed by architect George Gleim Jr., it was built by Billy Maurice to replace an existing Victorian-style bathhouse. It had a gymnasium, a roof garden, twin elevators and even a therapeutic pool in the basement. It closed in 1974.

3. The Hale — The oldest structure on bathhouse row, most of the Hale was completed in 1892. Mann and Stern remodeled the building in 1914 and modified its style. It was redesigned again in 1939 by the firm Sanders Thompson & Ginocchio, and its red bricks were covered in stucco. The Hale closed on Halloween Day in 1978.

4. The Superior — This is the smallest bathhouse on the row. It was built by L.C. Young and Robert Proctor. It opened in 1916 and closed in late 1983.

The National Park Service administration building was constructed in 1936. Adams and Norman wrote: “Its predecessor fronted on the row and was sometimes mistaken for a bathhouse. The remedy for this confusion was to face the new edifice on the adjacent street. The Spanish style, by this time, had become thoroughly ingrained, hence the large brown double oak doors, iron grills, iron balcony rails and red-tiled hip roof with an exposed beam overhang. …

“The ultimate landscape emerged when the second Arlington Hotel burned on April 5, 1923, and its site became a lawn. A park maintenance shop, cooling towers, the Government Free Bathhouse and the Imperial Bathhouse were razed, and a service road closed, making the Grand Promenade a reality and giving rise to present-day downtown Hot Springs.”

Leaving the site of the administration building, we took the Grand Promenade all the way to the Park Hotel. Downtown Hot Springs seemed more alive than ever on this Saturday, leading to thoughts of what needs to occur to take things to the next level and bring on a new golden age for this important part of our state.

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Summer in Saratoga and Hot Springs

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Walking into The Pancake Shop on Central Avenue in Hot Springs is a bit like stepping back in time.

That’s especially true in the winter and spring months when the live meet is in progress at Oaklawn Park. It’s not the daily newspaper the breakfast patrons are reading during those weeks. As Southern Traveler put it in a 2006 article, “It’s sometimes hard to get in, but if you keep your ears peeled, you’ll likely hear educated opinions from locals who study the Daily Racing Form like a valedictorian studies textbooks.”

Earlier this month, I took a visitor from Washington, D.C., to Hot Springs for the day. We left Little Rock early with our first stop being The Pancake Shop for breakfast. As usual, there was a wait. We were happy to take two stools at the counter. I likely would stand if necessary for those buckwheat blueberry pancakes and that great sausage. Owners Keeley Ardman DeSalvo and Steve DeSalvo have done a tremendous job maintaining this Arkansas institution.

Steve, a well-known financial adviser during the week who mans the cash register on busy weekends, came over to where we were sitting, and the subject immediately turned to racing.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love thoroughbred racing. They also know that I love Hot Springs.

We talked about Steve’s planned August trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (I’m jealous), and I began thinking about Hot Springs’ old moniker as the Saratoga of the South. The column I’ve written for this Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will focus on that topic.

There are indeed many similarities between Hot Springs and Saratoga Springs.

You can start with the tracks. Saratoga Race Course is the oldest continually operating thoroughbred track in the country and home to the Travers Stakes, America’s mid-summer derby that occurs late each August. In this era of the sport’s decline, I can think of few places where going to the races remains an event — something you circle on the calendar and dress up for. Saratoga, Oaklawn and Keeneland come to mind.

The 142nd season at Saratoga Race Course opened July 23 and runs through Labor Day. Travers day is Aug. 28. Despite heavy rain, the daily average attendance for the first four days of the Saratoga season was 18,113. The largest opening-day crowd ever was 32,913 in 2002.

Racing is an important part of the economy in both cities.

Ken Ivins, the city finance commissioner for Saratoga Springs, puts it this way: “It’s not just the track season but also the people who are up here for several months training the horses, the people who are buying the hay, the veterinarians and many others.”

Famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas has noted the similarities between the two towns. Lukas has spent the entire meet in Hot Springs each of the past two seasons, saying how much he likes a smaller place where life revolves around racing whenever the horses are running.

There are many other similarities between the two towns.

Both tracks have added hundreds of video gaming machines in recent years.

Both have parks that grew up around natural springs — Saratoga Spa State Park and Hot Springs National Park.

Both have spas where visitors can still enjoy natural mineral baths.

Both have historic downtown hotels. In Hot Springs, it’s the Arlington. In Saratoga Springs, it’s the Adelphi.

Unlike the Arlington, which has never closed though it could stand some serious capital investments, the Adelphi at Saratoga Springs had to be brought back from the dead.

The hotel’s website notes: “The first time Sheila Parkert saw the Adelphi Hotel, it was an abandoned building about to be torn down. That was a long way from what it was a century earlier, and it was a long way from where Parkert and her late husband, Gregg Riefker, thought they could take it. Built in 1877, the hotel had been considered a Saratoga Springs jewel from the moment it opened, an occasion that owner William McCaffery celebrated by hiring the 77th Regiment Band of Saratoga to play from the second-floor piazza, which ran the length of the hotel’s facade.

“But a century later, when Parkert and her husband — a pair of Nebraskans in their 20s — took their first good look at the property, the Adelphi was enough of a blight that it had been slated for demolition.

”’At the time, it was painted red,’ Parkert said. ‘It had been closed up from the time we had lived here. The people who had it had compeltely pulled up stakes, and vandals had taken everything out of it.”’

The couple from Nebraska had passed through Saratoga Springs in the early 1970s while on a road trip and fallen in love with the place. They were able to buy the Adelphi in 1979 for just $100,000.

“We were really kids,” Parkert said. “Urban renewal was a big thing here, and this town was up for grabs in the ’70s. My God, they were tearing down everything. If you could stop the wrecking ball, you could buy something for $10,000. All the mansions on Union Avenue, you could buy anything you wanted. It was a big ol’ land grab. It had gotten to be big news that they were going to tear this place down. We had gone to France a lot, and we had seen what people had done with old hotels. We were just young enough and dumb enough to think this could work.”

Parkert was 27 at the time.

A similar story can be told about the Saratoga Arms on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. Built in 1870, it had been The Putnam, The Windsor and The Walton. It wound up being a transient hotel before it closed. In 1998, Saratoga native Kathleen Smith and her husband Noel began bringing that structure back to life.

Hot Springs is fortunate that many of its most historic buildings remain intact. Unfortunately, a number of them sit empty. There’s the Medical Arts Building, long known as Arkansas’ first skyscraper. The 16-story art deco structure was constructed in 1929 and was the tallest building in Arkansas until Winthrop Rockefeller built the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock in 1960. An investor with deep pockets, a love of history and a strong business sense is needed to turn it into a condominium project.

There’s the Howe Hotel (later the DeSoto Hotel), constructed in 1926 by William Howe. It has received a fresh coat of paint and is looking for a buyer.

There’s the National Baptist Hotel on Malvern Avenue and the Riviera Hotel on Central Avenue, also in need of investors with vision.

The linchpin of downtown development, however, might just be the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel, which anchors one end of Central Avenue. It’s a bleeding sore at this point. Arc of Arkansas had promised to renovate it into apartments, but nothing has happened.

It’s a landmark that needs to be saved. The oldest part of the hotel was built in 1902 on the site of the 1882 Avenue Hotel. An eight-story addition was constructed in 1926 on the site of the 1830s Whittington House. The Lanai Tower was added in 1960. While Al Capone liked the Arlington, Bugs Moran normally called the Majestic his home away from home when he came down for rest and relaxation.

If the people behind the Majestic renovation can get financing approved and do a quality job of renovation, it could signal a new day for downtown Hot Springs. Full-time residents downtown will add to the urban fiber, supporting more restaurants and other businesses in the process. I will suggest at the end of Saturday’s newspaper column that three of Hot Springs’ most famous restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — be resurrected in the Majestic complex.

Success could begat success.

If residents were to fill up the Arlington, developers could move forward to renovate the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the National Baptist Hotel and the Riviera Hotel for residential use. The National Park Service could lease out the four bathhouses that currently sit empty. Capital investments could be made to improve the rooms at the Arlington Hotel, the Velda Rose, the Park Hotel, The Springs Hotel & Spa (formerly The Downtowner) and the Austin Hotel. In a post back on Feb. 18, I discussed the shortcomings of some of those facilities.

I’m told there may soon be movement on the Majestic project.

And after I wrote that Feb. 18 post, the new manager of the Arlington called, said there were some improvements planned and said he would have me down for lunch one day once those improvements are in place. I look forward to the invitation.

Add it up — eight bathhouses humming with activity, hundreds of new downtown residents living in historic structures that have been carefully renovated, classic restaurants brought back to life, better downtown hotels — and you have the Saratoga of the South shining as never before.

I can dream, can’t I?

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Spring training

Monday, March 15th, 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about a large envelope that arrived at my home last Monday afternoon. That envelope had been mailed Saturday from Arkadelphia by Mac Sisson.

It arrived at my home several hours after I had learned of Mac’s death from a heart attack.

What did the envelope contain?

It contained a copy of the Friday, March 5, edition of The Sentinel-Record. Mac wanted to be sure I saw the front-page article by Mark Gregory on a new photo exhibit at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

What Mac didn’t know was that I had joined Mike Dugan of Hot Springs for dinner that Sunday night at the Brau Haus, one of the few German restaurants in the state, followed by a tour of the photo exhibit. The exhibit celebrates the fact that Hot Springs was the home of baseball spring training.

I don’t like winter. That means I like March in Arkansas since this is the month that marks the end of winter. As I look out the window of my downtown office, I can see the grass beginning to turn green around the Richard Arnold Federal Courthouse. To put myself even further in the mood for spring, I tune the satellite radio in my vehicle to exhibition baseball games each March if I happen to be in the car during the afternoon.

In 1886, future Baseball Hall of Fame member Cap Anson was the manager and first baseman for the Chicago White Stockings. He brought his team south to Hot Springs to prepare for the season.

“Anson had learned about our mineral waters and spas, and the reason he brought the team to Hot Springs was so they could ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ in their hard-living players,” says Dugan, a noted amateur baseball historian.

Spring training was born as the players took the baths, hiked up mountains and played exhibition games.

During the early 1900s, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds all came to Hot Springs for spring training. Even though teams began going to Florida in the 1920s, individual players would continue to visit the Spa City until the start of World War II in order to “boil out.”

Players who trained in Hot Springs included Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson and many others. When teams shifted their training to Florida, National Colored League teams began training in Hot Springs. For example, the Pittsburgh Crawfords team that included Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson came to Arkansas in 1932 and 1935.

The exhibit features 24 photos and is titled “Hot Springs: Baseball’s First Spring Training Town.” It’s sponsored by Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Garland County Historical Society.

Steve Arrison of the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau says the players were “accessible to the public. Though some, like Babe Ruth, were larger than life, they enjoyed their celebrity status and didn’t shy away from the fans.”

Dugan said he has debated the issue of where spring training started with baseball historian John Thorn, who notes that the Philadelphia Phillies traveled 30 miles south of town into New Jersey in 1871.

“Thirty miles south of Philadelphia is just an afternoon trip,” Dugan told the newspaper. That’s not spring training — heading south for the winter.”

Gregg Patterson, who edits the Farm Bureau’s Front Porch magazine, became intrigued with the history of spring training in Hot Springs when he did a cover story on the subject last spring. He began looking for photos. He found a wealth of material in the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington.

“Bain News Services, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, did a bunch of photography throughout the United States,” Patterson told Gregory.

The photos were on glass plates. Some of them had ‘Hot Springs’ written on the front. Dugan worked with Patterson to identify other photos. Dugan could make out the location of a ballpark that was on the upper end of Whittington Avenue in some of the photos.

“The hillside hasn’t changed much,” he said. “The rocks are still in the same place and such.”

In 1918, the Red Sox built Majestic Field at the corner of Carson and Belding streets. The trolleys would turn around in front of the ballpark.

“The Red Sox could ride from the Majestic Hotel down there every day,” Dugan told the newspaper. He said the Red Sox built the park after getting “into a squabble with some of the National League teams over the use of the ballfields up on Whittington.”

One of my favorite characters in the photographs is Red Sox super fan Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, who owned the Third Base Saloon in Boston. “Nuf Ced” would come to Hot Springs with the Red Sox each spring. Some of the photos came from the Boston Public Library’s McGreevey Collection.

Gregory writes: “Another favorite is the misidentified photo in the book ‘Baseball Americana’ that Dugan spotted. The book identifies a photograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers posing for their annual team photo on the trolley tracks ‘running through the heart of Brooklyn.’ The photo was supposedly a nod to their nickname, inspired by ‘trolley dodging locals’ on Brooklyn’s busy streets ‘running through the heart of the burrough.’ Dugan called up Patterson, who grew up in the New York area, and asked: ‘Are there any mountains in Brooklyn?’ … The photograph was actually taken in front of the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs.”

If you like baseball, this collection of photographs is well worth the trip to Hot Springs.

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The Spa City

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The anticipation continues to build for the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

A special website containing information about the April 9 race can now be found at www.appleblossominvitational.com. Let’s just hope that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra stay well — thoroughbreds are fragile creatures  after all — and the race comes off as planned.

Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there’s international interest in the race with hotel reservations and inquiries pouring in by the thousands each day. Hotel and motels are expected to fill up in Hot Springs with people also staying in Little Rock, Benton, Bryant, Malvern and Arkadelphia.

In his column for Stephens Media, Harry King wrote: “The caller from Saudi Arabia wanted to know how big an aircraft is too big for Memorial Field in Hot Springs. We handled Vice President Cheney’s 757 and loaded up a couple of 727s with about 370 people for a Promise Keepers march in Washington, airport manager George Downey responded. Not big enough.”

So now, it seems, the sheiks are coming.

What a great spring this is shaping up to be for the Spa City.

I was asked earlier today if this race will be the biggest sports event ever held within the borders of Arkansas. In a word, no. The Big Shootout between Arkansas and Texas in December 1969 was bigger. That’s because college football is bigger than thoroughbred racing in this country. But this event will bring signficant media attention to Hot Springs, which some of us like to refer to as the Saratoga of the South.

Consider that:

— The Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament March 6-9 will be the biggest NCAA Division I basketball tournament in the country as far as the number of teams competing. The Sun Belt is bringing 26 college basketball teams — 13 men’s teams and 13 women’s teams — to one location for games that will be played on two courts in one building over four days.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Wright Waters, the Sun Belt Conference commissioner, told Arkansas Sports 360. “The eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams last year had so much fun that I think they rubbed it in the 10 teams that weren’t here. And the 10 teams that weren’t here went to the spring meeting and kind of lobbied the presidents and the athletic directors.”

In other words, people had such a good time in Hot Springs last year that the conference decided to let everyone in on the fun. So 24 college games will be played over four days. Some of the games will be played in the Summit Arena. In another part of the Hot Springs Convention Center, they will bring in a court and temporary bleachers for additional games.

“This is not only a tremendous community, but the leadership of the city and the management of the building are just super,” Waters told Arkansas Sports 360. “So we’re able to produce this kind of different format this year of bringing all 26 teams to one site, and we’ll play 10 games the first day, eight the second day, four and then two, and there just aren’t many buildings where you can do that. We’re excited about it.”

— The state high school championship games will again be played at the Summit Arena from March 11-13. There will be 14 championship games over three days — seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games. So that makes a total of 38 basketball games in the building in an eight-day period.

— Bo Derek will be the grand marshal of the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 on Bridge Street downtown. Derek gained fame in 1979 as the perfect fantasy woman in the Blake Edwards’ film “10.” I was in college then. How well we remember the sight of Derek, with her air in beaded cornrows, running in slow motion on the beach.

There also will be green fireworks, Irish belly dancers (you read that correctly), floats, the Irish Order of Elvi and more. Bridge Street became famous in the 1940s when “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” designated it as the shortest street in the world. Arrison came up with the idea for the parade, and it’s now recognized as one of the top St. Patrick’s Day events in the country.

— The Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 will be followed by the Arkansas Derby on April 10. The Arkansas Derby will be telecast by NBC this year.

— A huge FLW Tour bass tournament will be held May 27-29 on Lake Ouachita with weigh-ins at the Summit Arena.

Like I said, what a spring. Visitors from across the country and around the world will get to know Hot Springs. I love downtown Hot Springs. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs is where you went to “eat out.” Attending the city’s annual Christmas parade is a cherished childhood memory.

Here’s my major concern: With the exception of the Embassy Suites, the hotels downtown are in dire need of renovations. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Arlington. It’s indeed an Arkansas icon. Sitting in the Arlington lobby or on the porch is still special.

I remember my late uncle would say: “I want to be rich enough one day to sit on the porch at the Arlington all afternoon like those rich guys from Chicago.”

It could stand an update, though. The same goes for many of the other hotels and motels in the city. There have been newer and nicer motels built through the years south on Highway 7 toward Lake Hamilton. But downtown is the historic and cultural heart of Hot Springs. And, apart from the beautiful Embassy Suites next to Summit Arena, a major cash infusion is needed for downtown hotel rooms.

Would Charles Cella consider also getting into the hotel business to have a place to house his patrons? How about Warren Stephens, fresh off the beautiful renovation of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel? Or how about the Belz family of Memphis and Peabody fame?

I enjoy reading the reviews people write on the website www.tripadvisor.com. If you look at the reviews for the downtown facilities in Hot Springs, you will not be encouraged.

The most recent review for the Arlington is headlined “Next to Motel 6, this is the worst hotel experience I’ve had.”

“It’s old, musty and overpriced,” the reviewer wrote. “The whole atmosphere is off. Either the staff is working under very harsh  conditions or they know this place is going to be closed. I can’t see the Arlington continuing like this. … I wouldn’t stay here again unless under extreme circumstances.”

The most recent review for the Velda Rose said: “The pool looked like a crime scene, the toilet kept flushing for 10 minutes after you flushed it, the ice machine didn’t work. I hope I never have to stay there again.”

A reviewer who stayed at the Velda Rose last fall wrote: “I had the pleasure of experiencing the worst hotel in the country. The ceiling leaked, ants everywhere.”

The most recent review for The Springs Hotel & Spa (formerly The Downtowner) is headlined “The Springs would have to pay me to stay there again.”

“The Springs is a sewer trap waiting to flush good people away,” the reviewer said. “I would sleep outside on a vent before I would stay there again.”

The most recent review of the Austin Hotel (which is connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center) said: “The place is on the edge of the ghetto. Even the desk clerk said she would not walk to the historic district from there. Vagrants were living on the steps out back. The restaurant and lounge were closed.”

The most recent review of the Park Hotel on Fountain Street is headlined “Stay far away from the Park Hotel.”

“It was horrible,” the reviewer wrote. “The carpet, bedding and furniture were old. There is a difference between antique and plain old.”

I want the visitors to Arkansas to have a great time. A stay in a bad hotel, though, can sully an entire trip.

The Oaklawn expansion is marvelous. Magic Springs also has expanded in recent years. An additional bathhouse — the Quapaw — is now operating. Arrison is one of the best in the country at what he does.

Here’s my hope: When this recession is over and the economy is seriously improving, someone will invest some significant capital in one or more of the downtown Hot Springs hotels. With proper promotion, I believe that investment would pay off.

Goodness knows, improving those downtown hotels is now the most crying need in Arkansas’ Spa City.

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