The shame of Hot Springs

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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