Hot Springs: Up from the ashes

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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