March in the Spa City

The month of March approaches.

It’s a month that has become prime time for tourism in Hot Springs.

The weather warms, and the crowds grow at Oaklawn Park. The crab apple trees bloom, and the infield opens.

The city hosts 14 state championship high school basketball games (seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games) during a three-day period early each March (March 9-11 this year).

And thanks to the imagination and promotional ability of Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is now among the top events of its type in the country. With the parade falling on a Friday night this year, record crowds are expected to fill the streets downtown if the weather cooperates.

Adding to the excitement is the opening of The Waters, a boutique hotel across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Renovation work on the historic Thompson Building, which will house the hotel, began in October 2015. More than $8 million later, 62 rooms are ready for guests from across the region.

“I had no idea when we started this how long it takes to build a hotel or to remodel a 100-year-old building,” Robert Zunick, one of the three partners in the project, told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club last month. “It took nine months to negotiate the sale. Once we owned the Thompson Building, it took 16 months to close the financing. We’re 15 months on the construction now.”

Zunick, a Hot Springs financial adviser, teamed up with veteran Spa City architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to create The Waters. The work of Kempkes and Taylor can be seen around town, especially their beautiful renovation of the Ozark Bathhouse on the other side of Central Avenue.

The three men considered hundreds of potential names for the hotel before deciding on one.

Zunick said: “We really wanted to settle in on the essence of what really ties everything together, the reason all of those people came to Hot Springs in the first place, and all of this kind of boils down to one thing — the waters that we’ve been blessed with here in the national park.”

The Thompson Building was constructed in 1913. It has housed everything from a hotel to gift shops to apartments to doctors’ offices through the decades. A century ago, the term “taking the waters” was common in this country, and the Thompson was built to serve those who came to the Spa City for that reason.

Zunick said construction crews found a hotel receipt from 1949. He told the Rotarians: “They spent two nights at the Thompson Hotel for $16 a night. We’re going to be a little bit higher than that.”

Chris Wolcott, the hotel’s general manager, said the renovation resulted in a facility in which “not a single one of the rooms is like the other. We have different sizes. We have different layouts. … We have exposed brick walls and bench-seat windows.”

The Thompson Building also is the home of the recently opened fine-dining venue known as The Avenue. Casey Copeland, the former chef at So Restaurant-Bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, is at the helm of the restaurant.

Copeland decribes himself as a person who “eats, sleeps and breathes food. We want to work with the community, local artisans and local farmers and bring Hot Springs something that I don’t think is here, a whole new dining experience.”

Within the next year, a rooftop bar and an outdoor garden will be added to the mix.

In addition to attracting more tourists, business leaders in Hot Springs hope to attract talented new residents who like living in an urban environment. Quality restaurants like The Avenue, brew pubs such as the one across the street in the Superior Bathhouse, art galleries and entertainment venues are the type of amenities that attract residents who enjoy urban loft living.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful with the businesses in the Thompson Building, I have no doubt that outside investors with even deeper pockets will follow with renovations of the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Vapors Club and other downtown structures that are empty and waiting on saviors.

There’s still so much potential there.

A report on Hot Springs compiled several years ago by an economic consulting firm out of Indianapolis noted: “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 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 (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets.”

I’m reminded of a statement that Courtney Crouch of Hot Springs made during a National Park Rotary Club meeting at the Arlington Hotel a couple of years ago. Crouch is a devoted historic preservationist whose Selected Funeral & Life Insurance Co. makes its home in the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told those gathered at the Arlington that day. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is.

“We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

Crouch has made numerous trips through the years to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a resort that attracts the rich and famous from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

He told me: “You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has.”

There was a time when Hot Springs called itself “the Saratoga of the South.”

With more upscale hotels, restaurants, spas and retailers, why can’t downtown Hot Springs attract people with money to spend from the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (it’s less than a five-hour drive away) just as Saratoga Springs attracts people from New York City?

With the development of the Thompson Building in downtown Hot Springs, the first domino has fallen.

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

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