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.