The Spa City

The anticipation continues to build for the April 9 Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

A special website containing information about the April 9 race can now be found at www.appleblossominvitational.com. Let’s just hope that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra stay well — thoroughbreds are fragile creatures  after all — and the race comes off as planned.

Steve Arrison, the chief executive officer of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there’s international interest in the race with hotel reservations and inquiries pouring in by the thousands each day. Hotel and motels are expected to fill up in Hot Springs with people also staying in Little Rock, Benton, Bryant, Malvern and Arkadelphia.

In his column for Stephens Media, Harry King wrote: “The caller from Saudi Arabia wanted to know how big an aircraft is too big for Memorial Field in Hot Springs. We handled Vice President Cheney’s 757 and loaded up a couple of 727s with about 370 people for a Promise Keepers march in Washington, airport manager George Downey responded. Not big enough.”

So now, it seems, the sheiks are coming.

What a great spring this is shaping up to be for the Spa City.

I was asked earlier today if this race will be the biggest sports event ever held within the borders of Arkansas. In a word, no. The Big Shootout between Arkansas and Texas in December 1969 was bigger. That’s because college football is bigger than thoroughbred racing in this country. But this event will bring signficant media attention to Hot Springs, which some of us like to refer to as the Saratoga of the South.

Consider that:

— The Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament March 6-9 will be the biggest NCAA Division I basketball tournament in the country as far as the number of teams competing. The Sun Belt is bringing 26 college basketball teams — 13 men’s teams and 13 women’s teams — to one location for games that will be played on two courts in one building over four days.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Wright Waters, the Sun Belt Conference commissioner, told Arkansas Sports 360. “The eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams last year had so much fun that I think they rubbed it in the 10 teams that weren’t here. And the 10 teams that weren’t here went to the spring meeting and kind of lobbied the presidents and the athletic directors.”

In other words, people had such a good time in Hot Springs last year that the conference decided to let everyone in on the fun. So 24 college games will be played over four days. Some of the games will be played in the Summit Arena. In another part of the Hot Springs Convention Center, they will bring in a court and temporary bleachers for additional games.

“This is not only a tremendous community, but the leadership of the city and the management of the building are just super,” Waters told Arkansas Sports 360. “So we’re able to produce this kind of different format this year of bringing all 26 teams to one site, and we’ll play 10 games the first day, eight the second day, four and then two, and there just aren’t many buildings where you can do that. We’re excited about it.”

— The state high school championship games will again be played at the Summit Arena from March 11-13. There will be 14 championship games over three days — seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games. So that makes a total of 38 basketball games in the building in an eight-day period.

— Bo Derek will be the grand marshal of the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 on Bridge Street downtown. Derek gained fame in 1979 as the perfect fantasy woman in the Blake Edwards’ film “10.” I was in college then. How well we remember the sight of Derek, with her air in beaded cornrows, running in slow motion on the beach.

There also will be green fireworks, Irish belly dancers (you read that correctly), floats, the Irish Order of Elvi and more. Bridge Street became famous in the 1940s when “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” designated it as the shortest street in the world. Arrison came up with the idea for the parade, and it’s now recognized as one of the top St. Patrick’s Day events in the country.

— The Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 will be followed by the Arkansas Derby on April 10. The Arkansas Derby will be telecast by NBC this year.

— A huge FLW Tour bass tournament will be held May 27-29 on Lake Ouachita with weigh-ins at the Summit Arena.

Like I said, what a spring. Visitors from across the country and around the world will get to know Hot Springs. I love downtown Hot Springs. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs is where you went to “eat out.” Attending the city’s annual Christmas parade is a cherished childhood memory.

Here’s my major concern: With the exception of the Embassy Suites, the hotels downtown are in dire need of renovations. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Arlington. It’s indeed an Arkansas icon. Sitting in the Arlington lobby or on the porch is still special.

I remember my late uncle would say: “I want to be rich enough one day to sit on the porch at the Arlington all afternoon like those rich guys from Chicago.”

It could stand an update, though. The same goes for many of the other hotels and motels in the city. There have been newer and nicer motels built through the years south on Highway 7 toward Lake Hamilton. But downtown is the historic and cultural heart of Hot Springs. And, apart from the beautiful Embassy Suites next to Summit Arena, a major cash infusion is needed for downtown hotel rooms.

Would Charles Cella consider also getting into the hotel business to have a place to house his patrons? How about Warren Stephens, fresh off the beautiful renovation of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel? Or how about the Belz family of Memphis and Peabody fame?

I enjoy reading the reviews people write on the website www.tripadvisor.com. If you look at the reviews for the downtown facilities in Hot Springs, you will not be encouraged.

The most recent review for the Arlington is headlined “Next to Motel 6, this is the worst hotel experience I’ve had.”

“It’s old, musty and overpriced,” the reviewer wrote. “The whole atmosphere is off. Either the staff is working under very harsh  conditions or they know this place is going to be closed. I can’t see the Arlington continuing like this. … I wouldn’t stay here again unless under extreme circumstances.”

The most recent review for the Velda Rose said: “The pool looked like a crime scene, the toilet kept flushing for 10 minutes after you flushed it, the ice machine didn’t work. I hope I never have to stay there again.”

A reviewer who stayed at the Velda Rose last fall wrote: “I had the pleasure of experiencing the worst hotel in the country. The ceiling leaked, ants everywhere.”

The most recent review for The Springs Hotel & Spa (formerly The Downtowner) is headlined “The Springs would have to pay me to stay there again.”

“The Springs is a sewer trap waiting to flush good people away,” the reviewer said. “I would sleep outside on a vent before I would stay there again.”

The most recent review of the Austin Hotel (which is connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center) said: “The place is on the edge of the ghetto. Even the desk clerk said she would not walk to the historic district from there. Vagrants were living on the steps out back. The restaurant and lounge were closed.”

The most recent review of the Park Hotel on Fountain Street is headlined “Stay far away from the Park Hotel.”

“It was horrible,” the reviewer wrote. “The carpet, bedding and furniture were old. There is a difference between antique and plain old.”

I want the visitors to Arkansas to have a great time. A stay in a bad hotel, though, can sully an entire trip.

The Oaklawn expansion is marvelous. Magic Springs also has expanded in recent years. An additional bathhouse — the Quapaw — is now operating. Arrison is one of the best in the country at what he does.

Here’s my hope: When this recession is over and the economy is seriously improving, someone will invest some significant capital in one or more of the downtown Hot Springs hotels. With proper promotion, I believe that investment would pay off.

Goodness knows, improving those downtown hotels is now the most crying need in Arkansas’ Spa City.

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