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.
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.