Spring in the Spa City

On the morning of Tuesday, March 15, Hot Springs business leaders gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel adjacent to the city’s convention center to hear from Mike Preston, the young, highly articulate executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Preston, who was hired by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and moved to Arkansas from Florida last year, gets it.

He understands that economic development in the information age is no longer about industrial recruitment.

It’s about recruiting people — smart, creative, talented people. They’re people who can live wherever they wish and often choose a city based on things such as the ability to reside in a walkable downtown, the quality of restaurants, the assortment of live entertainment at night, the number of bicycle and hiking trails, etc.

For decades, Hot Springs failed to play to its strengths. I know it has been a theme of this blog for several years, but I’ll say it again: Hot Springs’ business and civic leaders allowed a downtown that should be a national treasure to deteriorate. I watched those beautiful old buildings decline and wanted to cry. It was almost criminal what happened.

Preston told those at the breakfast meeting of the Hot Springs Metro Partnership that cities must play to their strengths and then let the world know when things are going well.

Eric Jackson, the veteran general manager at Oaklawn Park, took that message to heart.

Early on the Sunday morning after Preston’s speech, Jackson looked back on what had been a remarkable previous 10 days for Spa City tourism and sent a sunrise missive to key leaders in the city.

He wrote: “Our community recently wrapped up a series of events that resulted in an overall tourism and hospitality product unlike anything in the South. In a relatively short period of time, Hot Springs hosted the state high school basketball championships, several large conventions, the nationally acclaimed St. Patrick’s Day parade, live entertainment ranging from bagpipes to the blues, group tours and the Rebel Stakes day at Oaklawn, which essentially has become like a second Arkansas Derby day. Good luck trying to get a hotel room or a restaurant reservation. You couldn’t turn around downtown or at Oaklawn without running into celebrities or top names in industry and government.”

An estimated crowd of 35,000 people showed up on Saturday, March 19, to watch the Rebel, the race that began drawing the nation’s attention last year to eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

This year’s Rebel came just two days after a throng that some people estimated to be near 30,000 packed downtown Hot Springs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade on Bridge Street. This was the 13th year for the parade, a creation of the multitalented Steve Arrison, who heads the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau. The parade has garnered national media attention for Hot Springs and becomes bigger each year.

During the three days after the parade, more than 50,000 racing fans showed up at Oaklawn. Jackson pointed out that at Oaklawn there were:

— Attractions ranging from petting zoos to live entertainment on the open infield.

— Backstretch tours and the increasingly popular Dawn at Oaklawn program for those wanting to learn more about thoroughbred racing.

— A choice of several dozen concession areas and 10 places to sit down and get something to eat or drink.

— Wagering on live races, imported races, electronic games, poker and Instant Racing.

— Uplinks transmitting Oaklawn’s races by satellite to more than 1,000 locations in North America.

— National media coverage.

— More than $2 million in purses, including the country’s top race for three-year-olds that weekend.

— Four areas featuring live musical entertainment.

— Almost 1,500 horses being trained, fed and groomed.

“On top of all that, you have the Mid-America Science Museum, golf, fishing, restaurants, shopping and everything else in this resort community,” Jackson wrote. “It really was amazing. For about a week, our community was the epicenter for hospitality, tourism, entertainment and sports in the South. And, quite frankly, everyone from the shop owners to our police made it look effortless.”

The previous week, large crowds had migrated to the Hot Springs Convention Center for three days to watch the 14 high school basketball championship games. I attended the Saturday games. When I left the arena to walk over to The Porterhouse for dinner, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on Central Avenue downtown.

Add the fact that the tulips are in full bloom at Garvan Woodland Gardens on Lake Hamilton, drawing throngs of visitors from multiple states.

Verna Garvan spent more than three decades creating the gardens on family property. Her story is an interesting one. She was born Verna Cook in January 1911 in Groveton, Texas.

“Verna and her sister Dorothy were raised to be proper ladies, but Verna often accompanied her father to work and absorbed his business acumen,” Judy Byrd Brittenum writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1916, her father moved the family to Malvern to manage the Wisconsin & Arkansas Lumber Co., an enterprise producing oak and pine flooring. Malvern Brick & Tile was also purchased by Verna’s father, who later served as a board member of what’s now the Malvern National Bank. His land and business investments were transferred upon his death to his wife and daughters but administered by Verna. At the end of her life, she was purported to have the largest holding of timber rights in Arkansas, as she always retained the mineral and timber rights from company land sales.

“Cook grew up in Malvern but attended Holton-Arms, a prestigious Washington, D.C., girls’ school, for her secondary education. When her father died in an auto accident on Aug. 12, 1934, she was engaged to marry Alonzo Bernard Alexander of Spartanburg, S.C. Her mother and sister wished to take no active role in the family business, and after her marriage on Oct. 1, 1934, she proposed that she and her husband manage the the holdings. They moved to South Carolina.”

She was a long way from the family businesses back in Arkansas, but those businesses survived the Great Depression. The brick company supplied thousands of bricks for the massive Army and Navy Hospital at Hot Springs, for instance. A son who had been born with cystic fibrosis died in 1954 in his teens, and Verna’s first marriage ended in 1956. She moved back to Arkansas and met Patrick Garvan Jr., who was visiting a friend in Hot Springs. Garvan was from a prominent New York family. They were married in June 1960 and were planning to build a home on the 210 acres along Lake Hamilton that now house Garvan Woodland Gardens. Patrick Garvan died in 1975, and the home was never built.

“Disappointed in her personal life, she sought to ensure that her garden would remain viable after her death,” Brittenum writes.

Verna’s father had purchased the 210 acres that became the gardens in order to harvest its hardwood timber for his flooring mill. The land became much more valuable when Harvey Couch of Arkansas Power & Light Co. built Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita River, creating Lake Hamilton. Garvan sold Malvern Brick & Tile to Acme Brick in the 1970s, giving her more time to develop the gardens.

The late Marla Crider wrote: “Gardening became Garvan’s passion. As she continued to develop the grounds after her husband’s death, she decided the garden should be shared with the public. She enlisted the help of longtime Malvern Brick & Tile employee Warren Bankson to assist with her vision of a public facility. Together they constructed infrastructure and planted thousands of native and exotic trees, shrubs and plants. She named her landscaped creation the Twentieth Century Gardens.

“Realizing that she and Bankson were not equipped to create a true botanical garden on the scale she had hoped, Garvan signed a trust agreement with the University of Arkansas on Nov. 11, 1985, committing the School of Architecture and its landscape architecture program to operate Twentieth Century Gardens in perpetuity as a service to the people of Arkansas with the understanding that she would maintain control until her death. As stated in the agreement, her motivation for bequeathing the property to the university was to serve as a tribute to natural preservation in the 20th century.”

Garvan hired famous architect Fay Jones and business partner Maurice Jennings of Fayetteville to design an open-air pavilion, which was under construction when Garvan was diagnosed with cancer. Garvan died on Oct. 1, 1993.

The aforementioned Judy Brittenum, who taught landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas, had been appointed by the school in 1990 to work with Garvan to document all the plants in the gardens. David Knowles, an engineering professor, did a detailed survey of all 210 acres. Bob Byers was hired in 1994 as the garden curator and resident landscape architect. Bankson served as garden superintendent.

In 1996, a Cleveland-based landscape architecture and consulting firm was hired to create a 25-year master plan for the gardens. The plan was completed three years later, and a rock and stream garden known as the Garden of the Pine Wind was constructed in 2000. It later was ranked by the Journal of Japanese Gardening as No. 15 on a list of 300 Japanese–style gardens in North America.

The university changed the name from Twentieth Century Gardens to Garvan Woodland Gardens in 2000. A welcome center was built, and the gardens opened to the public on April 7, 2002.

John Ed and Isabel Burton Anthony later were the major benefactors of the Anthony Chapel, which opened in September 2006. Maurice Jennings and David McKee of Fayetteville designed the chapel and the 57-foot Anthony Family Carillon.

Like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Garvan Woodland Gardens draws more national publicity with each passing year.

Hot Springs’ revitalization efforts received another boost last year when the Mid-America Science Museum reopened following an extensive renovation. In 2011, the museum was awarded a $7.8 million capital grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Museum officials spent the next several years working with construction consultants, architects and exhibit developers. The museum had to raise $1.6 million to match the grant. A sizable donation from the Oaklawn Foundation in 2013 allowed the museum to reach its fundraising goal.

The museum closed in August 2014 so renovations could begin and reopened in March 2015.

It was Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1960s who first had the idea of an interactive science museum for Arkansas. Rockefeller hired a well-known museum consultant and sponsored a symposium of state leaders to discuss the idea. Hot Springs was identified as the best place for the project.

After taking office in 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers supported the effort to build the museum. The Legislature established the Arkansas Museum and Cultural Commission during the 1971 session, and Rockefeller was appointed chairman. Temporary offices were opened in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs in 1974.

“Construction began on March 11, 1977, on the 65,000-square-foot facility, built on 21 wooded acres in Mid-America Park, a commercial development that includes what’s now National Park College, the museum, industrial and commercial entities,” Richard Mathias writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The multimillion-dollar facility is divided into two wings, which are connected by a glass-enclosed bridge that spans the outside stream. The museum opened to the public on Jan. 20, 1979.

“Sunday, April 22, 1979, was proclaimed Mid-America Day by the major of Hot Springs as the museum was dedicated by Gov. Bill Clinton in a grand opening ceremony. It also received the Henry Award from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 1982, honoring contributions to the state’s tourism industry. In 1981, the Hot Springs City Council appropriated, through the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, one cent of the hospitality sales tax to support the museum after Gov. Frank White abolished the museum commission and the appropriations for its operations.”

In November 2001, the museum became the first Arkansas facility to be designated an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. That was the year that the facility was deeded from the state to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. Efforts began in 2004 to become a private, nonprofit entity governed by a board.

Reopened and looking like new, the Mid-America Science Museum now takes its place alongside Oaklawn, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Magic Springs and even Hot Springs National Park as an important Spa City attraction.

So far, it has been a spring to remember in Hot Springs.

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