Archive for February, 2014

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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Little Rock’s Lafayette Hotel

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I was driving to my favorite winter event — the Slovak Oyster Supper — on the final day of January when my cell phone rang.

It was Chad Gallagher, the head of Legacy Consulting, a company that does political, governmental affairs, business development and community development work.

I am quite a bit older than Chad, but we have several things in common.

We’re both graduates of Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.

We both worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee.

And we share a love of historic preservation and downtown renovation efforts.

Chad, a former mayor of De Queen, was calling to inform me that he had just closed on the purchase of the downtown Little Rock building that once housed the Lafayette Hotel. He wants to put a top-notch restaurant in its dining room and then aggressively market its public areas for meetings, receptions, weddings, you name it.

Partners in the venture are former state Rep. Scott Ferguson of West Memphis and his wife, Deborah, the current state representative from that district.

Chad has leased offices for his consulting firm in the building — which hasn’t been used as a hotel since 1973 — for the past five years.

Knowing his strong feelings for the Lafayette — and watching the amazing renaissance of downtown Little Rock — I think he can succeed in achieving his goal.

The goal: To once more make the lobby of the Lafayette a major gathering spot in the capital city. The restaurant will bring foot traffic into the building, introducing more Arkansans to that beautiful lobby. Chad also hopes to lease space to a retailer on the first floor in an effort to generate additional traffic.

I enjoy old hotels.

I have fond memories of going with my parents to downtown Dallas each November when I was a child, staying at the Baker Hotel (it was imploded to make way for an office building) and eating in its coffee shop (The Baker’s Dozen).

These days, I like to sit in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel at Memphis and people watch. Stay there long enough and you’ll see everybody who’s anybody in the Delta.

I wish the Lafayette were still a hotel. Instead there’s office space on several floors and 30 condominiums on the top five floors. But I’ll take a revitalized lobby with lots of people going in and out.

Little Rock was experiencing steady growth during the 1920s. An entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. saw an opportunity to capitalize on all that was going on downtown. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story Lafayette Hotel, which also has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett, who died before the hotel was built.

The Lafayette opened Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms featured private baths with running water. They rented for $2.50 per night.

“The building’s exterior features elements of the Renaissance Revival style with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice with dentils,” says Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. “The Lafayette was truly one of Arkansas’ finest. In addition to the building’s exterior beauty, the interior public spaces — including the lobby, formal dining room, mezzanine and top-floor ballroom — were designed by well-known decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.”

Heerwagen was born in Bavaria in 1866 and came with his parents to this country in 1881. He studied interior design in Detroit and then moved to Little Rock in 1891 to open a paint store. Before long, he was known as the state’s foremost interior decorator and muralist. He married a Little Rock resident in 1893, and the couple had six children.

“Heerwagen and his family moved to Fayetteville in 1911,” Silva says. “He operated the Paul M. Heerwagen Studios from a farm on the outskirts of town. Heerwagen was commissioned to design the interiors of hotels, office and government buildings, churches, Masonic temples, theaters and private residences throughout the South. Some of his notable projects in addition to the Lafayette Hotel included the Arkansas state Capitol murals, the Peabody Hotel at Memphis and the Strand Theatre at Shreveport.”

Heerwagen died in 1955 and is buried in Fayetteville’s Evergreen Cemetery.

The neighborhood was hopping during the Roaring Twenties. The Lafayette’s neighbors included the three-story Grand Central Hotel (later called the Ozark Hotel), the Kempner Theater (which was the Arkansas Theater in its final years), Pfeifer Brothers Department Store and St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

“Everything seemed to be going just fine for the Lafayette Hotel until the Great Depression,” Silva says. “The hotel closed in 1933 due to financial troubles, and the building remained vacant until 1941 when a housing shortage made reopening feasible. The U.S. Army had reclaimed control of Camp Robinson in early 1940 to use as a training post. From that point on, there was a housing shortage in Little Rock and North Little Rock due to the influx of soldiers.”

The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened at noon on Aug. 23, 1941.

Older Arkansans are familiar with Southwest Hotels. In Little Rock, the company once owned the Hotel Marion (built in 1906), the Albert Pike Hotel (built in 1929) and the Hotel Ben McGehee (built in 1930 and later renamed the Grady Manning Hotel). There were hotels owned by the company in St. Louis and elsewhere.

In Hot Springs, the Arlington and the Majestic were owned by Southwest Hotels. Only the Arlington survives as a hotel.

Southwest Hotels founder H. Grady Manning died in September 1939, but family members continued to run the company.

“When the Lafayette reopened in 1941, Southwest Hotels had done a substantial remodeling of the building,” Silva says. “It had been modernized throughout to the point that it had the appearance of a new building. The number of guest rooms had been reduced from 300 to 260, and a coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street and through the hotel lobby.”

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.”

The coffee bar was described as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Civitan Club began having meetings at the hotel.

The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices there. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor at the Lafayette.

The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

“Before the hotel’s 1941 reopening, the interior was completely repainted, including the lobby,” Silva says. “The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter and chief decorator for Southwest Hotels. Oehrlie and his small crew of men redecorated the entire hotel in eight months. They spent three months on the lobby ceiling.”

Back in 1925, Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman so he was familiar with the hotel.

There was another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. There were mechanical, electrical and plumbing revisions. The interior décor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme.

The Lafayette closed on Nov. 23, 1973.

The Gazette described the hotel as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities. The closing will leave Southwest Hotels Inc., once the city’s major hotel operator, with only the Grady Manning Hotel in Little Rock.”

Soon, the Grady Manning also was gone.

In the early 1980s — the go-go era of the Little Rock bond daddy — the investment banking firm Jon R. Brittenum & Associates purchased the building and began a renovation effort. Witsell Evans & Rasco was the firm hired as renovation architects. Baldwin & Shell was the general contractor. Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits were tapped, and company officials said they were prepared to spend $6.3 million on the Lafayette.

“When the hotel closed in 1973, the building was left unheated and uncooled, causing damage to the interior materials and finishes,” Silva says. “However, the hotel has a concrete substructure, so it was in pretty good shape structurally. The rehabilitation project started in the fall of 1983 and was completed — to a degree — by December 1984.”

The black-and-white marble floors in the lobby were repaired, the red gum walls and columns were stripped and finished, the kitchen on the first floor was enlarged and new elevators were installed.

“The most interesting part of the building’s rehabilitation was the restoration of the lobby ceiling,” Silva says. “This was one of the first big restoration projects in Little Rock in which a lot of time and money were spent to re-create historic interior decoration. When the 1984 rehabilitation began, the entire lobby had been painted white. But with years of no climate control, the many layers of white paint were flaking and exposed some of what was hidden underneath. A Little Rock firm called Designed Communications, owned by Suzanne Kittrell and Becky Witsell, was hired to research and document the original lobby decoration and then re-create it.”

A team of six women — Witsell, Kittrell, Ovita Goolsby, Kathy Worthen, Susan Purvis and Susan Leir — repainted the ceiling. It took a year.

Brittenum’s rehabilitation effort focused on the exterior, the lobby, the top three floors and the mechanical systems.

A bit of background on Jon Brittenum is in order.

I had just turned 5 years old in the fall of 1964 when quarterback John Brittenum led the University of Arkansas Razorbacks to their only national championship in football. But I remember my album of songs about that team, especially “Quarterbackin’ Man.” It went like this:

When Jon Brittenum was a little bitty boy,

Sittin’ on his mammy’s knee,

Well, he said to his mother, don’t you worry now,

Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me …

Big Frank’ll make a quarterback o’ me.

“You hear it not only in Fayetteville or Little Rock or Fort Smith, but in Possum Grape … and Pea Ridge and Terrapin Neck, far along the leafy Ozark hills and then down in the river bottoms where a wild hog — a razorback — looks for acorns when he’s not listening to some barefooted fellow hollering at him ‘whoooo pig sooey’ or when he’s not beating a Texan at football again,” the great Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated that fall.

Arkansas might have won another national championship in 1965 had Brittenum not been injured in an upset loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1966. I was at that game.

Coach Frank Broyles would later call Brittenum “the best passer on the move that I’ve ever seen. He could throw it like a frozen rope on the sprint-out series. He was the perfect passer-runner for the system that we played at the time.”

Brittenum lasted just one season in the NFL and later entered the securities business.

In January 1986, Brittenum & Associates filed for bankruptcy a day after Jon Brittenum had filed a personal petition for protection from creditors. State securities regulators earlier had alleged in a complaint that the firm misappropriated $3.3 million in customer funds. Brittenum’s personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition showed that he and his wife owed more than $17 million. The firm, which had been founded in 1973, had earned a reputation of being an aggressive company that dealt heavily in speculative investments such as futures contracts.

An executive at another Little Rock investment firm said at the time that Brittenum & Associates “tried to play a big boy’s game with a little boy’s money.”

The firm had a long record of run-ins with regulators. It was fined and censured several times by the National Association of Securities Dealers for violations. Arkansas regulators charged it with executing unauthorized trades for customers and engaging in other unethical practices.

In 1989, Brittenum pleaded no contest to theft by deception.

A company known as American Diversified Capital Corp. of Costa Mesa, Calif., had announced plans in late 1984 to do work on the eight floors that Brittenum wasn’t using, but little was done. Tower Investments began its efforts in 2005 to create condos and office space. Tower completed renovations in 2008. The Great Recession had hit by then, and condo sells were slow.

Now, Chad Gallagher and his wife Jessica, along with Scott and Deborah Ferguson, hope not only to sell the remaining 10 condos and rent the remaining office space. They also want to make the Lafayette the gathering spot it was in its hotel days with the restaurant, retail establishments and additional private functions.

With nearby Main Street now filled with ongoing developments that promise an increased number of people on the sidewalks at all hours, they might just pull it off.

If so, I will come by and sit in the lobby, hoping to see everybody who’s anybody in Little Rock.

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Building Pine Bluff — Ramsay, May, Makris

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

I was delighted to open the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette early Sunday morning and see George Makris Jr. of Pine Bluff gracing the front of the newspaper’s High Profile section.

My weekly newspaper column just four days earlier had been devoted to Pine Bluff. I had noted how Makris fell in line with his predecessors as CEO of Simmons First National Corp. — Arkansas business legends Louis Ramsay and Tommy May.

Many people in the financial sector had speculated in recent years that Simmons would move its senior management team to Little Rock once May retired. The selection of Makris by the Simmons board — he’s a Pine Bluff native with deep roots in the community — as May’s successor sent a signal that Simmons will remain headquartered in Jefferson County.

Yes, the Simmons name will be on the state’s tallest building — the 40-story Metropolitan Tower in downtown Little Rock — by late March. Simmons, which has operations in Missouri and Kansas in addition to its Arkansas operations, bought Metropolitan National Bank out of bankruptcy in November.  The two banking systems are to be integrated by March 21. But despite the fact that the big “S” will shine down on the capital city, Simmons will still be a Pine Bluff-based business.

Imagine what downtown Pine Bluff — already desolate along several blocks of Main Street — would be without the Simmons headquarters there?

The continued presence of the Simmons executive suite also is important psychologically in a city that has seen its population decline from 57,140 in the 1990 census to 55,085 in the 2000 census to 49,083 in the 2010 census.

Simmons National Bank opened its doors at the corner of Main and Barraque streets on March 23, 1903, with four employees. Total deposits were $3,338.22.

The trust department opened in June 1922. Simmons’ historians will tell you with pride that it was among the first Arkansas banks to reopen without restrictions following the federally imposed bank holiday in 1933 as Franklin Roosevelt set out to fight the Great Depression. The word “First” was added to the bank’s name in 1960. The move into Missouri and Kansas occurred in 2010.

Pine Bluff long was known for its strong business leadership. Ramsay was Mr. Pine Bluff, if not Mr. Arkansas.

When I first joined the board of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame almost two decades ago as the youngest board member, there were giants such as Ramsay who were part of the organization. I would sit quietly at board meetings and listen to those wise men.

Louis Ramsay was the only person to serve as president of both the Arkansas Bar Association and the Arkansas Bankers Association. At the time of his death in 2004 at age 85, he had been associated with Simmons for 52 years — as a director and later as president, chief executive officer and chairman. His former law partner, Bill Bridgforth, said of Ramsay: “He had a way of making the right result happen. In everything that he did, he exemplified the way people should conduct their personal and professional lives with integrity.”

May, who had known Ramsay for almost three decades, said at the time of Ramsay’s death: “He loved his church, his family, Arkansas, Pine Bluff and his beloved Razorbacks. He certainly will be remembered for his leadership in the legal profession, banking industry and higher education. Likewise, to many, he will be remembered for his compassion for others. He never met a stranger, and he always would spend time listening to anyone about their challenges or accomplishments. Mr. Ramsay always found a way to help others come up with the right decision when their challenges were greatest, and he found a way to share the enthusiasm when others found success.”

Those quotes reminded me of the quotes in that High Profile story about Makris. Everyone talked about Makris’ love for Pine Bluff and his ability to make things happen.

I have to believe that if Louis Ramsay were around today, he would be pleased by the choice of George Makris Jr. at Simmons.

May said it was Ramsay who coined the Simmons motto: “We don’t do extraordinary things; we simply do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

“Mr. Ramsay was an ordinary man who spent a lifetime doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, and we are the beneficiaries of his work,” May said. “If I could take one person and say this is who I would like my children to be like, it would be Mr. Ramsay.”

Ramsay was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2003.

Like Makris, Ramsay was a son of south Arkansas whose early career choice wasn’t banking. Ramsay grew up at Fordyce and often would go to the Dallas County Courthouse to watch criminal trials. Following his high school graduation in 1937, he headed east on an athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama. But he missed Arkansas and came back to the state to play football at the University of Arkansas. Ramsay served during World War II and he wound up as a major in the Army Air Corps. He returned to Fayetteville after the war and received a law degree in 1947.

A friend from Pine Bluff, Harvey McGeorge, suggested that Ramsay consider joining the Pine Bluff law firm that had been founded by William Franklin Coleman and Nicholas J. Gantt Jr. in 1911. Ramsay did indeed join the firm and stayed there. He was a board member at Simmons in 1970 when other board members asked him to take over the bank.

“I told them that I wasn’t sure I was the right person,” Ramsay told Arkansas Business in 2003. “I always wanted to be a lawyer.”

A deal was made that allowed him to remain with the law firm while also running the bank “so I would have a job to come back to if the bank job didn’t work out.”

Things worked out in banking. Ramsay was the Simmons CEO by 1974 and the company’s chairman by 1978.

In that interview with Arkansas Business, Ramsay talked about his passion for advancing Arkansas: “I love this state. I believe it’s poised to overcome some of its past. I’m always disappointed when I see things that set us back. I remember back to Bob Burns and Lum and Abner. But it’s now poised — if we take advantage of the opportunities — to get a better reputation. I look at the growth in northwest Arkansas. I see the expansion at Wal-Mart and the trucking industry in the state, at businesses like Stephens and Dillard’s, and I see the state doing much better.”

Ramsay talked about the importance of unity in a state of fewer than 3 million people: “We need to unify in an all-out effort and support efforts to gain new business anywhere in the state. We need to stop the competition among ourselves. If Pine Bluff can help Marion get a Toyota assembly plant, do it. If we can help west Arkansas get Interstate 49, we should do it. Unity is important for the state. We can overcome a lot, but we need to work together.”

Ramsay was a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1971-81 and also served as the board chairman of the Arkansas Science  and Technology Authority, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and the University of Arkansas Foundation. When then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Ramsay to chair the state’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1986, he said that Ramsay “represented everything good about the state of Arkansas.”

Tommy May is also a son of south Arkansas. He was born at Prescott in December 1946 and raised at El Dorado.

May went to college at the University of Arkansas. His hard-nosed father, a lawyer named Buck May, pulled him out of school after two years because he was unhappy with his son’s grades. Tommy May worked on a pipeline project in the pine woods of south Arkansas before joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967. He served in Vietnam and then returned to Fayetteville after his discharge from military duty. A much more mature Tommy May had better grades this time around. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 and his master’s of business administration degree in 1972. The CEO of First National Bank of Commerce in New Orleans came to the Fayetteville campus for interviews and offered May a job in New Orleans.

May returned to El Dorado from the Crescent City in 1976 to work for Exchange Bank. He became the bank’s president and CEO in 1981. In 1987, Ramsay convinced May to make the move to Simmons. Like Ramsay before him, May spent a decade as a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. In 2007, he received the University of Arkansas Chancellor’s Medal and the Walton College of Business’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

May was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in February 2010.

During Simmons’ annual shareholders’ meeting last April, Makris announced that May would be the inaugural chairman of the Simmons First Foundation. The foundation is funded with an initial endowment of $1 million. Because of his weakened voice due to ALS, May addressed the crowd in a video and noted that Makris is “the right person at the right time to lead what I think is an exceptional management team.”

Makris, 57, has spent his career building his family’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship, M.K. Distributors Inc. He served 12 years as a director at Pine Bluff’s National Bank of Commerce and has been a Simmons director since 1997.

In a feature on Makris in Arkansas Business last May, Gwen Moritz wrote: “If there’s anything all that experience has taught George Makris, it’s that he is not a banker. … But he is a marketer — M.K. received regional and national awards from Anheuser-Busch in March — and marketing may be what Simmons First National Corp. needs now more than ever as it looks to untapped — if you’ll pardon the beer pun — markets in Missouri and Kansas for the growth that simply isn’t available back home.”

Makris’ father started the beer distributorship in 1964. The younger Makris attended the public schools in Pine Bluff, where he excelled in football and baseball. He began college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia — which has long had a connection to a number of notable Arkansas families — before transferring to what’s now Rhodes College (then Southwestern) at Memphis. He went on to earn an MBA at the University of Arkansas and was considering entering law school when his father told him: “You’ve been in school long enough.”

George Jr. returned home to Pine Bluff and joined the family business. He married Debbie Kirkpatrick, the daughter of Quality Foods founder Don Kirkpatrick, in 1980 and the couple had three sons.

Makris told Talk Business Arkansas last year: “What’s important to me is the relationship that Simmons has to Pine Bluff. It means so much to this community and, quite honestly, this community means quite a bit to Simmons.”

Roby Brock wrote in the story: “Makris acknowledges that the southeast Arkansas town has been hit hard by a decline in population and a loss of business leadership. In the past two decades, financial sector changes wiped out a swath of Pine Bluff banking executives. Some moved to central Arkansas endeavors, some passed away, others phased out as banks merged, and the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s led to the exiting of others.”

“That’s a lot of lost leadership,” Makris said.

There’s a bit of gallows humor among the business leadership in Pine Bluff when it’s said: “What’s the nicest neighborhood in Pine Bluff? Lake Hamilton.”

Indeed, in the formerly ritzy neighborhoods near the Pine Bluff Country Club, “for sale” signs are common, and homes are a bargain.

Makris, though, sees a number of positive developments — new political leadership, a dynamic new chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a half-cent economic development sales tax that’s generating about $3.5 million annually.

“New is good when you need a change,” Makris said. “When you get all of that leadership together, we ought to be able to design a strategy for Jefferson County that puts us on a path to growth. I’m from Pine Bluff, and I’ve chosen to stay in Pine Bluff.”

Simmons’ growth — with the purchase of Metropolitan and rumors of the impending purchase of another Arkansas bank — and its decision to place a Pine Bluff native at the top of the company can only help as the city tries to reverse the population decline of recent decades.

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