Back downtown in the Spa

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about downtown Hot Springs on this blog the past few years.

As noted in those pieces, I believe that the stretch of Central Avenue north from Grand to Whittington/Park is the most iconic stretch of street in our state.

I was embarrassed as an Arkansan that we had allowed what should be one of the great downtowns in America to deteriorate.

Finally, it seems there’s some momentum in the Spa City.

Several hundred people gathered on the top floor of the Exchange Street Parking Plaza on a warm Thursday night earlier this month for the release of a long-awaited downtown development plan.

Just two days earlier, it was reported that Harrison Construction Co. took out a building permit valued at almost $5.7 million for work on the Thompson Building, which is across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. The five-story building, constructed in 1913, is being transformed into a 62-room boutique hotel by Bob Kempkes, Anthony Taylor and Robert Zunick. It will supply downtown with badly needed upscale hotel rooms.

The day after the release of the downtown development plan, it was reported that Tennessee-based real estate investor Gary Gibbs (the same guy developing the Delta Resort & Conference Center in southeast Arkansas) closed on the purchase of the Austin Convention Hotel & Spa, a facility connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center that needs lots of improvements.

It all signifies that there’s momentum in polishing what should be the jewel of Arkansas.

The report by economic development consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates of Indianapolis calls for:

— Focusing on infrastructure improvements to upgrade aesthetics, walkability and livability downtown.

— Enhancing and adding amenities and mixed-used developments that are designed to meet the needs and expectations of visitors, residents and business owners.

— Embracing a more experimental, nimble and responsive approach to old policies and ways of doing business.

— Improving the physical and social connectivity between the businesses and residents of the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods.

— Promoting collaboration for downtown initiatives among key stakeholder groups and engaging millennials in the decision-making process.

— Nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

— Targeting business recruitment, retention and expansion to key industry sectors.

— Empowering local action in accelerating broadband access, adoption and application.

— Using downtown as a laboratory for work-based learning and skills training for the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts and area secondary and post-secondary students.

— Creating a niche of retailers and allied amenities to serve as a trailhead for adventure tourists.

A major part of the economic development study dealt with the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel site.

“Perhaps no other issue stimulated as much discussion and input in every public forum, focus group and one-on-one interview as what should happen with the site currently occupied by the remains of the Majestic Hotel,” the consultants wrote. “For many, the memories of the former glory of this downtown gathering place were a touch point for seeing the site revitalized to play a new, significant role in downtown’s future. For others, especially the younger or newer members of the community, the memory of the 2014 fire and its resulting rubble prompted a call to action for a swift redevelopment of the site.

“Hot Springs has a unique opportunity to leverage the redevelopment of this site to make a contribution to the physical, social and economic welfare of downtown for decades to come. Due to its size, location and prominence, the future of this site will set the tone for redevelopment activities throughout downtown, serve as a catalyst for additional public and private invesments, and present an opportunity to build on the impact of the tourism sector, which is of importance to the economic prosperity of downtown Hot Springs.

“Smart redevelopment of the site is critical to achieving all three of the plan’s goals. The physical impact on the quality of place downtown and its adjoining neighborhoods is obvious. However, what may be less obvious is the importance of ensuring that the redevelopment enhances the sense of community in Hot Springs, enriches connections to neighborhoods and drives economic development through cultural, retail attraction and other amenities that will create employment, spawn innovation and generate revenue.”

An average of 14,000 motorists a day pass the site.

The consultants note: “From a visual standpoint, this site serves as both the northern terminus of the central business district and a gateway into downtown. The remains of the former hotel (even in its current condition) are the focal point for both motorists and pedestrians traveling north along Central Avenue. This site is located adjacent to one of downtown’s most significant assets, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, a destination high school for gifted students from across the state. To the northeast, the shuttered Velda Rose Hotel & Spa was recently placed on the market, and across Park Avenue there are two large surface parking lots. Opposite the Majestic site and the high school campus are several businesses, including a new coffee shop that symbolizes the youthful energy permeating downtown.

“To the south of Central Avenue, there are numerous eateries, nightspots and other attractions frequented by visitors, including galleries, museums and an aquarium. Several redevelopers have announced plans for upper-floor conversions of vacant spaces into boutique hotels and housing in the immediate area. The historic significance of the hotel itself cannot be understated. As the first brick building in Hot Springs and one of the first buildings in Arkansas to feature an elevator, the older portions of the hotel and its additions featured spectacular architecture, art and therapeutic thermal waters that helped attract the famous and infamous to Hot Springs throughout the last century. Understanding the site’s role in history is an important consideration for the reuse of this location.”

During public meetings, dozens of potential uses for the site were suggested. The consultants came to the conclusion that the site could best be used for a performing arts center, outdoor amphitheater and public bathing facility.

They wrote: “Hot Springs lacks a quality indoor performance venue with the modern amenities required to attract traveling Broadway shows, large-scale music performances and other acts that would pump entertainment dollars into the local economy and provide an evening market for downtown eateries and nightlife. The venue should include a large theater/performance hall as well as one or more small theatrical performance venues for use by community theater troupes and local schools.

“Funding for this venue will likely require investment by a variety of sources, including federal, state and local public funds; foundation support; and private contributions. A feasibility study and finance plan should be commissioned to assess the necessary financial support required to get such a project off the ground.”

The outdoor amphitheater would complement the indoor performance space. It could be the home of everything from community theater productions to movies under the stars.

Of the proposed public bathing facility, the consultants wrote: “The addition of such a facility on the grounds of a performing arts center would attract day and evening visitors year-round. Concepts for similar facilities have been developed in the past for other nearby locations; however, the redevelopment of the Majestic site presents an opportunity for residents and visitors alike to experience firsthand what led the native tribes to name this area the Valley of the Vapors. The facility could be developed and managed by the city, the space could be leased to a developer who would build and manage the attraction or the city could possibly even explore a partnership arrangement with the National Park Service.”

The consultants also said Hot Springs should consider some type of sign downtown that would become as iconic as the Public Market sign in Seattle or the star in Roanoke.

Among the more interesting proposals in the report is a call for the removal of about 70 parking spots along Central Avenue. Those spaces would be replaced by bike paths and have the added benefit of making the shops and restaurants more visible to motorists on Central Avenue.

The consultants wrote: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home. Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets. These architectural wonders can only be effectively appreciated by pedestrians or cyclists moving at a slower pace with unencumbered views.”

In an attempt to revitalize the largely empty upper floors of downtown buildings, the consultants recommended that Hot Springs create property development incentives, a landlord registration process and a marketing strategy for professional office space.

So much potential.

So much still to be done.

But so much progress in getting the people of Hot Springs to focus on downtown.

The February 2014 fire that destroyed the oldest portion of the building that once housed the Majestic galvanized public opinion around the need to do something.

It also opened the eyes of people across the state to the fact that the historic buildings in downtown Hot Springs are national treasures that are in danger of being lost due to years of neglect.

“Determining what is feasible before choosing a path of redevelopment for the Majestic site will be a signal to all area residents and visitors that progress is occurring in Hot Springs,” the consultants concluded. “Those who have never visited Hot Springs will see the former site as a blight full of potential and question why the potential hasn’t been seized, while residents see the site as a constant reminder of the city’s descent from its heyday. Development on the site — or even temporary signs describing its impending development, be it for a performing arts center, a modern public thermal bath or any number of options — will be the lynchpin showing that downtown Hot Springs is on its way back.”

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