Shame of Hot Springs: Part II

They gathered in downtown Hot Springs last Friday night to mark the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel.

The pile of rubble from that fire is still there a year later.

That’s right. We’re talking about one of the most high-profile locations in the state, and nothing has been done in a year.

Here’s what one Hot Springs resident wrote to mark the anniversary of the fire: “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the passion? Are we trying to turn into Detroit? I own a house that is more than 100 years old. I have spent more than it would cost to abandon it. But this house is part of our culture. I’m not the owner, just the custodian at the moment. I have a civic obligation to maintain this property because it is bigger than me. It has a legacy. Why can’t certain people who own properties that are so intertwined with our culture not do the same? What can we do as citizens to get the message out there?”

The writer concluded: “Our town has burned to the ground on three occasions, which is a tragedy. But watching it rot from within during the past 50 years is far more painful. I have many questions but not all the answers. All I know is that the burning of the Majestic is a sentinel moment for our town. We have risen from the ashes in the past. Can we do it again? Or are we just waiting for the whole damn downtown to burn or crumble away? What will be our legacy?”

Indeed. What will be the legacy of those in Hot Springs who claim to be leaders?

On the night of Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, I sat down at my desk and wrote a blog post headlined “The Shame of Hot Springs.”

I took Arkansans to task for having allowed the buildings along the most iconic stretch of street in our state — Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs — to deteriorate through the decades. The impetus for the post had been the boarding up of the windows earlier that week at the Majestic. The following day, more people visited this blog than on any other day in its five years of existence.

Something had clearly struck a chord with Arkansans.

The Majestic fire began about 5:30 p.m. the following Thursday and burned through the night. The out-of-state owner of the Majestic property, Garrison Hassenflu, has refused to do anything since then. Hassenflu, who has a checkered record as a developer, is emblematic of a problem that has beset downtown Hot Springs for decades: Out-of-town owners of historic buildings who refuse to keep up their properties. They are nothing more than commercial slumlords.

On the positive side of the ledger, it appears that the city of Hot Springs finally has gotten serious about code enforcement. Ed Davis, the city’s fire chief, has worked to ensure that buildings are being inspected in what’s known as the Thermal Basin Fire District. City officials so far have stood with Davis despite the whining of some building owners.

I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying since before the fire: What’s occurring in downtown Hot Springs is more than a Garland County problem. It’s an Arkansas problem. That stretch of Central Avenue is so famous that it says a lot about what outsiders think of our state and what we think our ourselves.

About a month before the fire, Hot Springs resident Brenda Brandenburg created the Facebook page “Save Her Majesty: Restoration of the Majestic Hotel.” In a guest column last week for The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs, she wrote: “I’ve been asked many times why I care; what skin do I have in the game? We all have skin in the game. How many of you have had a life experience in one of the buildings downtown? Are my concerns invalidated by the fact that I’m not a property owner or a business owner downtown? I think not. Do you want to live in a town where we allow buildings to just deteriorate and fall? Or do you want to live in a town where the streets are attractive and the economy is strong?

“Hot Springs has been a vibrant part of this state and remains so today. It is up to us to step forward and demand good stewardship of our historic properties. Ownership of a historic building is a privilege. With that privilege comes responsibility. If the owners do not want to put forth the money and effort to bring these buildings up to an acceptable code, then they need to sell them to an investor who will.”

She added: “I have tried to maintain a positive attitude and open mind when dealing with not only the rubble that still remains at the heart of our city but also when considering the effect of the new codes that are now in place. Not all building owners and business owners are resistant to the changes. In fact, many have embraced them. To these individuals, I extend my sincere thanks for having the selflessness to realize that preservation of their properties will ensure that they are here for generations to come. … It is time for us to band together as a community and take back our city.”

David Watkins, the Hot Springs city manager, calls the downtown debris pile a reminder of what can happen when owners don’t take care of their property. Watkins, by the way, is one of the good guys, unafraid to take on the commercial slumlords. He refuses to do business as usual.

Asked about Hassenflu, Watkins said: “I thought at the time that the property owner would be more conducive to working with us, and he has dragged things out. A year ago, I thought the rubble would be gone by now. I was expecting him to work with us, and he obviously didn’t. Right now our strategy is to continue working with our partners and keep putting pressure on him to either clean it up or get out.”

My guess is that the city of Hot Springs will end up owning the property and that city leaders will have to convince the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission to contribute funds to tear down what remains of the Majestic complex. There has been talk of passing a temporary tax to build a performing arts center surrounded by a park and outdoor thermal pools. Such a complex could provide an anchor for the north end of Central Avenue that would serve the state well for decades to come.

Last May, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas released its annual list of the most endangered places in the state. All of downtown Hot Springs was included on the 2014 list.

The HPAA stated: “Until recently, city ordinances allowed and even provided incentive for upper stories above Central Avenue storefronts to be left undeveloped by exempting the upper floors from meeting building codes as long as they remain unoccupied. The fire that destroyed the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel dramatized the issues facing legacy structures that define one of the most recognizable commercial districts in the state. Despite general recognition of the importance of the buildings along Central Avenue, some property owners remain resistant to making required updates and investing to make the buildings safe and suitable for occupancy. … We hope that the loss of the Majestic Hotel will encourage property owners, developers, city officials, community and state leaders to work together to address the issues of large-scale vacancy and find solutions for reuse and rehabilitation of these important assets for the benefit of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.”

During the anniversary event last Friday, Brandenburg told the Hot Springs newspaper: “I know a lot of property owners don’t want to dig into their pockets to make the changes required by the Thermal Basin Fire District. I know they are expensive, and I can appreciate that. I’m not a business owner or building owner downtown, but I’m a lover of downtown. I frequent downtown. I eat downtown and shop down there. I think this is a calling-out to those property owners to come forward and do what a responsible property owner should do, and that is save those buildings as well as protect the firefighters.”

Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of Visit Hot Springs (the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau) is among the best in the country at what it does. He’s quick to note that the rubble at the Majestic site “certainly doesn’t look good for us and doesn’t make a very good first impression. It’s just a shame.”

Arrison adds, however, that the public focus on downtown since the fire has led to several positive things. Watkins agrees.

“If you count the number of buildings that have been bought, sold or refurbished in the relatively short time since the fire a year ago, it’s really quite remarkable,” Watkins says. “I think it pushed the realization that Hot Springs can no longer just ignore the elephant in the room. Codes had to be adopted and enforced to prevent a similar tragedy.”

Suzanne Davidson, the city director whose district includes the Majestic property, says: “I can’t help but agree that the fire was a catalyst. I felt Hot Springs was at a tipping point. … Every day I drive down Central Avenue and see something new, another truck with a load of Sheetrock or plywood. I’m excited about what’s going on downtown. It’s unfortunate that it took such an event to do that.”

Yes, there are things happening downtown.

— Plans are still progressing to turn the Dugan-Stuart and Thompson buildings into boutique hotels. This could be the biggest thing to happen in downtown Hot Springs in decades. It’s an area that has lots of hotel rooms but very few quality hotel rooms.

— Regions is building a $3 million banking facility at the intersection of Broadway and Malvern Avenue.

— On the north end of Central Avenue, Kollective Coffee & Tea will soon open in the 100 block, and Spa City Tropical Winery & Gifts will open in the 200 block.

— Tom Daniel is renovating the knife and cutlery shop known as the Mountains Edge and planning to make renovations at National Park Gifts.

— Magician Maxwell Blade has added a small museum to his business.

— Mountain Valley Spring Water is making improvements to its landmark building.

— The owners of Rolando’s have added what they term a “speakeasy” on the second floor above the restaurant.

— The same folks renovating the Dugan-Stuart and Thompson buildings have purchased the first floor of the Medical Arts Building with plans to remodel it for retail space.

— The Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery is now brewing it own beer.

— In the former Newberry’s Department Store building, artist Long Hua Xu is renovating the second floor for a studio.

— A new art gallery will be opening where the Blue Moon once was.

— The Copper Penny Pub has opened in a renovated space.

— The owners of the Belle Arti are planning to have apartments above the restaurant.

— The site that once housed the Goodard Hotel has been purchased, though it’s unclear what will be built there.

— The building that once housed a J.C. Penny store has been remodeled and now houses an art gallery.

— Henderson State University is now offering classes in the Landmark Building.

Watkins also says that Tennessee-based developer Gary Gibbs has signed a lease for a building that once housed city offices. Gibbs plans to tear the building down and hopes to build a hotel tower on the site that will be connected to the Austin Hotel. Gibbs wants to renovate the Austin and transform it into a Holiday Inn. He’s the man who built the Delta Resort and Conference Center, a major shooting sports facility, in southeast Arkansas.

If Gibbs follows through with his plans for the Austin — and the investors in the Dugan-Stuart and Thompson buildings obtain the financing to move forward with their plans this year — the inventory of quality hotel rooms downtown will increase, allowing Arrison to attract larger conventions to the city. These new and remodeled rooms could, in turn, put pressure on the owners of the Arlington to make needed updates to the rooms at the state’s largest hotel.

I’m among those who think that Arlington improvements would be the biggest of all catalysts for bringing back downtown Hot Springs.

For now, though, let’s at least get the rubble cleaned up at the old Majestic site.

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