Revitalizing downtown Hot Springs

I barely had finished writing a blog post last week on a walk I took in downtown Hot Springs when the announcement was made: The Superior Bathhouse will be transformed into a brewery.

The Superior, which opened in 1916, is the smallest of the eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row and is the closest bathhouse to the Arlington Hotel. The Superior has been empty since 1983.

A brewer named Rose Schweikhart Cranson hopes to turn the Hot Springs mineral water into craft beers, spirits and nonalcoholic drinks such as root beer.

“That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to use the bathhouse, because I would have access to the water,” she said last week.

Built by L.C. Young and Robert Proctor, the Superior has 11,000 square feet and cost $68,000 to construct. The National Park Service recently renovated the building, including a new ramp to make the entrance handicapped accessible.

Schweikhart Cranson said she and her husband have been testing the waters since they moved to Hot Springs from Springfield, Ill., last year.

“We’ll choose beer styles that will work with the water with minimal tinkering,” she said. “It’s favorable for making beer.”

Josie Fernandez, the Hot Springs National Park superintendent, said she hopes to have negotiations completed by the end of the year.

At the same time, it was announced that a nonprofit organization known as the Muses Creative Artistry Project wants to move forward with using the back and the upstairs of the Hale Bathhouse. The Muses began operating a cafe and bookstore in the Hale lobby last year.

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 hotel’s basement. That feature is still in place. The building was renovated in 1939 in the Mission Revival style, and the red brick was covered in stucco.

Named for early bathhouse owner John Hale, it was at least the fourth bathhouse to use the Hale name. The Hale, which closed on Halloween Day 1978, is the oldest visible structure on Bathhouse Row.

The National Park Service has spent more than $1.5 million in recent years to preserve the building, including updating the heating and air conditioning system.

The Muses — which describes itself as being “dedicated to preserving classical art and music through performance, education, wellness and music therapy” — was founded five years ago by Deleen Davidson.

The organization wants to include in the Hale two performing arts spaces; studios for the study of music, art and dance; meeting spaces; an artist-in-residence apartment; and a wellness room for guests to experience the baths.

If plans for the Superior and the Hale move forward, the Maurice will be the only one of the eight bathhouses that’s empty.

That represents tremendous progress in downtown Hot Springs. I agree with the world-class Little Rock architect Reese Rowland, who has described Bathhouse Row as one of the great stretches of urban street in America.

But, as noted in last week’s post, there’s so much more that needs to be done to return downtown Hot Springs to its rightful place as one of the region’s top attractions — the Saratoga of the South, if you will.

Thanks to longtime friend Kay Brockwell, the director of business retention and recruitment for the Garland County Economic Development Corp., for forwarding the city’s strategic plan for economic development, which was completed last September.

That effort was led by TIP Strategies out of Austin, Texas. When I was with the Delta Regional Authority, I worked closely with Jon Roberts of TIP in developing a strategic plan for the Delta. I can assure you that Roberts does first-class work. I was delighted to see that he made downtown redevelopment the major part of his strategy for the Hot Springs area.

He notes the many advantages Hot Springs possessess — a national park, the lakes, Oaklawn Park, the convention center and Summit Arena.

“These advantages, however, have bred a certain complacency,” Roberts writes. “The risk is increasingly one in which ‘good is good enough.’ This viewpoint threatens to compromise the city and the region. It would perhaps be defensible if the region really were doing well.

“In fact, there are dire warning signals. Population growth has become stagnant. The tax base is fragile. Bold initiatives, from education to redevelopment, have received only tepid support. Further, many of the greatest assets of the community are increasingly in danger of decline. These extend from the business base to hotels and even retail trade.

“It is clear that a concerted effort is called for, not only because there are opportunities but because inaction carries serious consequences. It would be an overstatement to say that this is a time of crisis. But it is not overreaching to suggest that Hot Springs cannot afford to squander many more opportunities.”

The strategic plan describes the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown Hot Springs as the “greatest opportunity for enhancing economic vitality in Garland County.”

Roberts writes: “Across the country, cities both small and large have rediscovered the importance of their downtowns, and examples of revitalized city centers are abundant. America’s renewed interest in downtowns was rooted in the historic preservation movement of the 1970s.

“Economic developers eventually learned to value vibrancy in the urban core for a more practical reason: a healthy downtown makes a city more competitive in the pursuit of new businesses. This is because prospects often see the state of a downtown as a reflection of whether a community values investment and excellence. Moreover, companies realize that in the competition for talent, a community that offers a higher quality of life and stronger sense of place finds it easier to recruit and retain the workers it needs to remain successful.”

Roberts has reached the crux of the issue: Revitalizing downtown Hot Springs is about more than attracting tourists. It’s also about attracting young, highly educated, creative people to live in the city.

Now, the bad news.

Roberts continues: “Unfortunately, few recent efforts toward downtown revitalization and redevelopment in Hot Springs are apparent.”

He’s right. Rather than focusing on the welcome leases at the bathhouses and the presence of art galleries downtown, too many visitors have their memories of Hot Springs sullied by dated, musty hotel rooms and huge buildings such as the Majestic and Medical Arts that stand empty.

“Through most of its history, downtown was a major destination for tourism and economic activity within Hot Springs,” the strategic plan states. “Its proximity to Hot Springs National Park and the presence of Bathhouse Row drew visitors to the region for more than a century.

“But downtown Hot Springs has lost much of its luster. Historic structures are in need of investment, ground-floor retail space is underutilized and the upper stories of most buildings remain vacant. The lack of new investment should be a great concern to Hot Springs’ leaders and citizens. One serious risk is that these buildings could fall into disrepair and no longer be salvageable. If this were to occur, Hot Springs would undoubtedly see its competitive position as a tourism destination erode. It is extremely important that the community no longer allow the status quo to continue. Supporting revitalization of downtown Hot Springs — as both a tourism destination and a catalyst for economic activity — will require a committed, sustained and bold approach.”

Does the leadership of Hot Springs have the stomach for such a committed, sustained and bold approach?

That’s a question I can’t answer.

With the economy on the mend, can the city now attract outside investors to sink capital into projects downtown?

The risks are there, but given Hot Springs’ long history as a magnet for visitors, I think the upside is tremendous for those willing to invest in hotels, condominiums, apartments and upscale retail establishments.

Heritage tourism is hot, and Hot Springs is positioned to attract well-heeled visitors if the model is Saratoga rather than Branson.

One thing Roberts calls for is improving the now tacky Central Avenue corridor from Oaklawn to downtown.

“While much of Hot Springs’ history and image is inextricably linked to Bathhouse Row, other destinations appear to have surpassed the urban core as tourism draws,” he writes. “For example, Oaklawn now brings approximately 1.6 million tourists to Hot Springs annually, and Lake Hamilton and Lake Ouachita are also major attractions.

“Few benefits of tourism spending, however, can be seen in downtown Hot Springs. At the same time, few amenities (such as retail, restaurants and hotels) that serve visitors are apparent within the area surrounding Oaklawn. This strategy proposes linking the area’s various attractions to create a mutually supportive network and complete visitor experience. … This corridor should be viewed as the primary linkage between Hot Springs’ two premier urban attractions: Bathhouse Row and Oaklawn. It should serve as the focal point for robust economic activity, creating a dynamic environment for small businesses and visitors alike.”

At least part of the business leadership now realizes that downtown is the key to moving Hot Springs forward. I consider this a statewide economic development priority, not just a Hot Springs priority.

I’ll be back there Saturday, thinking about what once was and dreaming about what someday might be.

Post to Twitter

6 Responses to “Revitalizing downtown Hot Springs”

  1. Mark Carter says:

    Rex,
    Thanks for sharing this. Hot Springs is one of the coolest places, and yet could be so much more. Your last two sentences said it all.

  2. Jon Roberts says:

    Rex –
    This is heartfelt and moving. It is also spot-on. Speaking personally, I want to say that Hot Springs could be one of America’s truly great cities. There are people who realize this (Dave and Kay, certainly), but it remains an uphill struggle.

  3. Mr. Nelson,
    I am contiually entralled by the insight you show through your writings. Please accept a third generation jeweler’s thanks for all that you continually say. My hope is that we are able to leave this downtown in better shape than we found it in 1984 and return it to the glory that it so deserves for all of the times it has seen throught her life. I look forward to our paths crossing so that I may shake your hand in person. Thank you from the bottom of my heart located in the heart of downtown.
    Be well,
    Mark

  4. Mr. Nelson -

    Like Mark, our future neighbor across the street, I appreciate your hope for downtown Hot Springs. I was just made aware of your blog today and I will be a regular follower in the future. I have had the pleasure of working closely with Kay on my project and meeting Mr. Roberts when his team was in town. Their report is inspirational and dead on the mark. How can we inspire widespread development downtown? The status quo will not continue “working” forever. I too look forward to meeting you in person and I would love to give you a tour of the Superior as soon as we have keys, please get in touch through my website. Rose S Cranson

  5. Pygface says:

    Spot on column, as usual. You’re too kind to highlight what’s at the heart of the challenge – one majority property owner that’s allowed sub-par tenants/businesses who has largely allowed the glorious properties not owned by the NPS to slowly deteriorate. Add to that the “musty hotels” with glorious facades (have they spent any money on the Arlington in the last 40 years?) that surely have provided false impressions to brochure reading tourists for decades. Compare that with El Dorado where you have a forward thinking majority property owner and you see world’s of difference. Hot Springs has everything going for it. They’ve rested on their laurels for years because of the luxury of their history & architecture. I’m glad to see that they’ve figured out that can’t last much longer.

  6. Rex — Thanks for this. What we have in downtown Hot Springs, is something that is unique in all of America, and we owe it to the people who built it and to all of our region — truly, all of Arkansas — to preserve it and take it to the next level. I’m personally thrilled to be a part of the process, and I can’t wait to be able to walk down Central Avenue from Hill-Wheatley Plaza all the way to the Majestic and see a vibrant downtown teeming with all sorts of activities, shops, restaurants, lodging, entertainment, condominiums and a dozen other things and think, “Wow….I had a tiny part in helping that happen!”

Leave a Reply