Examples for the Spa City

They held the third in a series of town meetings at Hot Springs on Monday night.

For three consecutive Mondays, the room was packed as the Downtown Game Plan Task Force heard from various entities.

This week’s meeting had a far different tone than the meeting the previous week.

On April 7, the crowd included some of the downtown property owners who are the very source of the sad state of affairs that afflicts what once was one of the most famous stretches of street in the South — the part of Central Avenue from Grand to Park. As I’ve written on this blog more than once, that stretch of street (which includes Bathhouse Row) is iconic.

It is to us what Beale Street and Music Row are to Tennessee.

It is to us what Bourbon Street and St. Charles Avenue are to Louisiana.

It is to us what the San Antonio River Walk is to Texas.

The River Walk is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Lone Star State.

Hot Springs is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Arkansas.

Imagine how Texans would react if someone were to dump raw sewage day after day into that stretch of the San Antonio River.

Yet having thousands upon thousands of square feet of unused space in historic buildings that continue to deteriorate is the Arkansas equivalent of just that.

It is the shame of this entire state.

On April 7, we heard property owners whine about why they couldn’t do certain things. Some of them most likely will weigh in again in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

I’ve heard by telephone and email from many of those property owners and even the mayor. Because of my interest in downtown Hot Springs, I’ve read everything they’ve sent me. I’ve tried to keep an open mind. If the city has not communicated properly with them in the past, then shame on city government. Communication is vital.

You might have noticed that I haven’t written anything in several weeks in order to hear from as many people as possible. I’ve come to this conclusion: Despite the complaints of a few property owners, city manager David Watkins and Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce executive director Jim Fram are two of the best things to happen to the city. They come from elsewhere. They have good track records. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. They’re not beholden to the old power structure. They’re forcing change.

Change is never easy.

The message on April 7 from certain property owners was this: “We need to slow down.”

My message on April 14 was this: “We’ve been moving slowly in downtown Hot Springs for more than 40 years. If anything, it’s time to speed up.”

Yes, property owners’ voices must be heard. Government actions must be transparent. There must be a better job done promoting those businesses that are downtown. Ultimately, though, the property owners who want to blame their own inaction on the city have been unable to win my sympathy.

Here’s the bottom line: Either develop your properties or put them on the market at a reasonable price so we can see if there are people out there with the will and capital to do so. To have empty upper floors in so many downtown buildings is no longer acceptable. We as Arkansans are holding you directly accountable for the deterioration of the national treasure that is downtown Hot Springs.

As I said, the meeting’s tone on April 14 was different. It was optimistic. That’s because there were can-do people from three cities — one in the north third of the state, one in the central third of the state and one in the south third of the state. Those cities have become examples not just for other cities in Arkansas but also for communities across the country on how you accomplish downtown revitalization.

There was Mayor Bob McCaslin of Bentonville.

There was private developer Richard Mason of El Dorado.

And there was Brad Lacy, the president and CEO of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce.

“If you wait for everybody to agree, it will never happen,” Lacy said.

Sound advice.

Some people won’t be happy. That’s no reason for the business, government and civic leadership of Hot Springs to slow down now.

In the 1970 census, Hot Springs had a population of 35,631 people. The city had grown steadily in every census since 1860.

Conway had a population of 15,510 in that 1970 census.

So Hot Springs was more than twice as large as Conway. Look at the two cities now.

In the 2010 census, Conway was at 58,908. The city’s population is estimated to be more than 63,000 now.

Hot Springs had 35,193 residents in the 2010 census, fewer than it had four decades earlier.

What happened?

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it’s a huge asset for Conway to be the home of three four-year institutions of higher education — Central Baptist College, Hendrix College (I represent both Central Baptist and Hendrix in my job as president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities) and the University of Central Arkansas.

What Conway did was build an environment that would attract young, talented people who wanted to call the city home after college.

Hot Springs — with its many arts and entertainment venues — could also become a “hot spot” for the young and talented if it would create downtown residential opportunities.

In this century, economic development is all about attracting talent.

“We’ve been very deliberate in recruiting more white-collar employees to town,” Lacy said. “You have to get the coolness factor right. Young professionals want things that are different from what Conway traditionally offered.”

He said Conway experienced a crisis of confidence in the 1990s when high-tech Acxiom decided to move its corporate headquarters to Little Rock. Though Acxiom still employs far more people in Conway than in Little Rock, the fact that the company’s top executives would now be working in the capital city caused Conway’s leaders to examine their priorities.

Lacy went to work in 2000 and discovered that downtown Conway was dead at night.

“You could shoot a gun down the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anyone,” he said. “We were standing downtown one night and a car filled with people from out of state came by. One of the people in the car rolled down his window and screamed out, ‘Hey, nice downtown.’ He was being sarcastic. We got the message. It was another wake-up call for us.”

Hopefully, the fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel in late February has provided a similar wake-up call for Hot Springs.

The Conway Downtown Partnership was formed in 2001, and the trajectory has been straight up since that time.

“We have more multifamily projects coming online,” Lacy said. “We want to extend that downtown feeling farther toward Interstate 40.”

Near downtown, the Village at Hendrix is among the best of the so-called New Urbanism projects in the country. Smart, talented people who could live in much larger cities are moving to Conway. And more and more of them are choosing to live in or near downtown.

McCaslin, the Bentonville mayor, is a native of Hot Springs. Like most Hot Springs natives, he loves the town and wants to see it prosper.

He was transferred by the food company for which he worked to Bentonville in 1996 to service the Walmart account — part of that “vendor revolution” that helped propel the explosive growth of Benton County and Washington County. McCaslin retired from the company in 2002 and ran for a city council position. Four years later, he was elected mayor. In 2007, voters in Bentonville overwhelmingly approved a massive bond issue (to be paid off by one cent of the city’s sales tax) for improvements in five areas. The bond issue included $85 million for street improvements and $15 million for park improvements. In identifying where to spend the money, the Bentonville city fathers pointed to downtown as one of the city’s strengths. There’s a charming town square, which was the home of Sam Walton’s five-and-dime store.

Streets were improved downtown. There was extensive landscaping done.

“Renovating downtown was the greatest investment we could have made with those taxpayer dollars,” McCaslin said. “There has to be a community and political will to make these kinds of things happen. I can tell you that Hot Springs has a lot better bones to work with than we did at the start. Hot Springs has more history. Your downtown footprint is bigger. You have a bigger palette to work on than we did.”

By the way, Bentonville had a population of 5,508 in that 1970 census. The population was 35,301 in the 2010 census.

Of course it helps to have the Walmart headquarters.

It helps to have Alice Walton create one of the world’s top art museums, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and place it near downtown.

I can hear the whiners in Hot Springs now: “If only we had an Alice Walton.”

Consider what you DO have: The first “national reservation” (later to become a national park) in America; the hot springs; Bathhouse Row; the city’s rich history.

These are things no billionaire could buy. Build on those assets.

The story in El Dorado is different from the ones at Conway and Bentonville. If anything, it’s even more impressive given the years of population loss in far south Arkansas.

In the 1920 census, El Dorado had a population of 3,887 people. In January 1921, oil was discovered. By 1923, there were an estimated 40,000 people living in El Dorado. That had leveled off to a population of 16,421 by the 1940 census. In 1960, there were 25,292 El Dorado residents. The city has lost population in each census since then, falling to 18,884 by the 2010 census.

“We started a long decline in the 1960s,” said Mason, who has been involved for years in the oil and gas business. “Cities need a vision, and we didn’t have one.”

He talked of old families who made no improvements to the buildings they owned (does that sound familiar, Hot Springs?). Eventually, Mason purchased 17 buildings, renovating all of them along the way.

“To attract a quality tenant, you have to have a quality piece of property,” Mason said. “I think you should look seriously at Central Avenue and encourage business owners to begin buying these properties up. You want downtown to be your key destination. It should be special because there’s only one downtown in each city. We now have one of the best retail districts in the state. We’ve recently raised $45 million to make El Dorado what we’re calling the Festival City of the South.”

More than 1,000 trees have been planted along the downtown streets in El Dorado, and there are planters filled with seasonal flowers. Mason talked of women who come from much larger cities such as Shreveport to do their Christmas shopping in El Dorado due to the festive atmosphere. He said he sees no reason why downtown Hot Springs couldn’t become a regional retail destination.

“Sooner or later, everybody in Arkansas is going to come to Hot Springs,” Mason said.

Here are words from Mason that everyone in Hot Springs must hear: “If the downtown is perceived to be dead and dying, the whole town is perceived as dead and dying. The downtown is more important than most people realize.”

Yes, for more than 40 years, Hot Springs has neglected its historic downtown in favor of development in other parts of the city. Now, a rare window of opportunity is open. Sometimes it just takes that first domino to fall and start other things happening in a neighborhood.

Perhaps that domino was the announcement Wednesday that Henderson State University will place an education center in the Landmark Building at the downtown intersection of Central Avenue, Market Street, Ouachita Avenue and Olive Street. The center will be ready in time for fall semester courses and bring new life to that part of downtown.

Bringing life back to a dying downtown.

Conway did it.

Bentonville did it.

El Dorado did it.

Hot Springs starts with so much more than those cities had at the start of their downtown revitalization efforts. Due to the historic nature of the buildings in downtown Hot Springs, I would contend that the owners of those properties have certain stewardship responsibilities that go beyond their bottom lines. They are called on to be something more than mere monthly rent collectors. If they cannot live up to those responsibilities, it’s time to give someone else a chance.

Who will be the Richard Mason of the Spa City?

It’s time to act. Hot Springs business, civic and political leaders: You’ve neglected the state’s most noted stretch of street for far too long.

People across the state are watching to see if you take advantage of this window of opportunity or squander it. History will not judge kindly those who were on the wrong side at this critical juncture in the history of Hot Springs.

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7 Responses to “Examples for the Spa City”

  1. Betty says:

    Bravo, Rex! You are the shining light in the “war of wills” that has gripped Hot Springs for many years. It is heartbreaking to those of us who were born and grew up here to see the decline and deterioration in downtown, but are hopeful that eyes are beginning to open and measures will be taken to renew, rebuild and revitalize our hometown. You cannot know how much you are appreciated, sir.

  2. Kay says:

    Hope your challenge is taken up. I’m not holding my breath.

  3. Melinda says:

    I loved the article! We bought a Second home there on the out skirts of town 2 years ago. One of the reasons……I fell in love with downtown. We had never visited Hot Springs. We had come over for our anniversary and stayed at The Arlington for a weekend. But after 5pm, we noted there is NOTHING, but the bars & restaurants open. So, why would people want to come fill up those hotel rooms?

    We had a ton of friends come in for the Arkansas Derby. They stayed at The Springs Hotel. So, of course we came downtown after dinner, around 6pm. We paid $8 to park on the North end. That hurt my feelings! If they want more people to come, there has to be places to park, a way to get to downtown or a way to get from one end to the other. A Trolley….. ****Note on this. My friends said they would stay elsewhere next year, because it was a pain to get the car out of the parking to go eat. He has problems walking far. So, if there was a trolley to just get on.

    The Arlington was busy. Every table & bench was taken on the porch. The lobby was packed! We walked around a bit, but most shops on that end were already closed. People in town for the races, go to the races, but some would shop if places were open. Retailers could have RACE DAY SALES! Hang banners, let people know your open! Maybe next year.

    We hardly ever make it downtown before 5pm. People come downtown with money to spend and the Retail stores are closed. Bathhouse row was a ghost town. The visitor center closes at 5pm with the public bathrooms…..I can understand this in the winter months, but this time of year…… There were a Couple of places open and I made a small purchase. She said that we were the first to be in there in the last 2 hours. With everything around her closed, I understand this. People who live there….I am sure say there is nothing to do downtown, so they don’t go downtown. When they have the Art Gallery Walk…that area of downtown is packed. So, WHY only have one night a month for something special to happen and on a Friday. People usually come in for a weekend, after they get off of work.

    My view, from an outsider.

  4. BMcIntyre says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I hear you loud and clear in Mississippi! I hope they hear you just as clearly in Hot Springs!

  5. Michael Simons says:

    Good news to me. I love Hot Springs.

  6. Steve says:

    There seem to be many who want Hot Spring to remain a quiet little; they don’t want to attract talented young people.

  7. Steve says:

    I omitted the word “town” in quiet little town.

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