Hot Springs: Up from the ashes

One of the benefits of living in Little Rock is the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service. Interesting speakers make their way here from around the world, and the events are free to the public.

Few cities of this size have anything like it.

I had driven to the Clinton School early Thursday evening to hear a constitutional scholar speak. As usual, I made sure to put my cell phones (I carry two) on vibrate. Just before the lecture began at 6 p.m., both phones began to vibrate. For the next hour, they never stopped.

People were calling, texting and emailing to let me know that the Majestic Hotel in downtown Hot Springs was on fire.

A week ago, I had written an essay on this blog after plywood went up on the Majestic’s windows. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, a trip to downtown Hot Springs was a trip to the “big city.” It’s where we went to eat out and attend movies. It was an exotic place with visitors from across the country, shoeshine men, the Chicago Tribune for sale in the Arlington lobby and all the other things we didn’t have next door in Clark County.

I love Hot Springs, and I had grown weary of watching its downtown decay. I also was tired of this being the elephant in the room with nobody speaking the truth.

In other words, I was mad.

So I wrote what I thought.

The majority of downtown hotel rooms are bad.

The city’s past glory has faded.

Some of its largest buildings are empty.

All the while, we kid ourselves into thinking this is still one of the great American resorts.

Who were we fooling?

I wrote what I thought, and a record number of people came to this blog on Saturday of last week.

It showed me that people in all parts of the state truly care about downtown Hot Springs. It showed me that they agree that the stretch of Central Avenue from Grand to Park is the most iconic stretch of street in Arkansas. It showed me that they shared my shame that we as Arkansans have allowed downtown to lose its luster.

Frankly, I’m tired of excuses. I’ve heard them all. I’m tired of hearing about the guy who won’t fix up his property and the guy who won’t update his hotel. If they’re standing in the way of progress, find a way to run over them. Better yet, bring in competition and put them out of business. It’s the American way.

I followed up later in the week with a second blog post that contained suggestions for downtown Hot Springs; a little brainstorming, if you will.

At least we had people talking. Then, after a week of hearing from people across the country who care about downtown Hot Springs, the Majestic burned.

Those who know me will tell you that I’m an optimist by nature. Downtown Hot Springs has survived fires and floods throughout its long history. I have to believe that Thursday’s massive fire might just be the impetus that was needed to finally stop the infighting and finger pointing that have so long been the trademark of politics in Hot Springs. It might just be the thing to open people’s eyes so they can see that we have a historic treasure that we’re on the verge of losing.

It might just, as my late father would have said, get us off our butts when it comes to downtown Hot Springs.

I watched my hometown of Arkadelphia bounce back from one of the most devastating tornadoes in the history of this state. It struck 17 years ago on March 1, 1997.

I have no doubt that Hot Springs’ business and political leadership can find a way to work together to bring about a new golden era, just as the folks in that smaller city down the road did. Hot Springs is filled with decent, dedicated people who want the best for the Spa City. It’s just that all of the attention and investment for four decades occurred to the south along Central Avenue toward Lake Hamilton. Now those economic development efforts can be refocused on the Grand-to-Park stretch.

Nothing against the stretch of Central Avenue to the south, but it could be “anywhere suburban USA” with its chain restaurants, its mall and its chain motels. Look, a Red Lobster. Look, a Buffalo Wild Wings. Look, a Holiday Inn Express. You might as well be in Mesquite.

The Grand-to-Park stretch is unique. Where else does a national park (and the country’s first national reservation) share space with an actual city?

There are still eight beautiful bathhouses.

There are historic buildings ripe for investment.

There’s a nice convention center and the spacious Summit Arena.

There are a few quality restaurants.

There are the mountains, the hot springs and the other natural gifts that God bestowed on this part of our state.

Less than a five-hour drive away, there’s one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, a prosperous market bursting with people needing a reason to come to Hot Springs and spend money.

The potential is there.

Even if none of the Majestic complex can be saved, the north end of Central Avenue remains among the most important pieces of real estate in the South.

Dream big, Hot Springs.

Dream big, Arkansas.

How about a performing arts center and outdoor thermal pools there?

The success of downtown Hot Springs is so important to the state as a whole that this must be treated as a statewide issue, not just a Garland County issue. My wish is to have Gov. Mike Beebe appoint a task force to coordinate the efforts to revitalize that northern stretch of Central Avenue.

What a wonderful legacy that would be for this good governor during his last year in office: The man who jump-started the rebirth of the old American spa, the Saratoga of the South.

We’re Arkansans. We’re used to bouncing back. We’re used to hard work. We’re used to people underestimating us and then looking on as we prove them wrong.

On the night the Majestic burned, a group of basketball players from the University of Arkansas went into famed Rupp Arena in Lexington and shocked what’s perhaps the most storied program in the history of college basketball.

Maybe we can use that as an omen that positive things are on the horizon for the hardy band of dreamers and preservationists who have long wanted downtown Hot Springs to rise again.

It won’t be cheap.

It won’t be without its headaches.

It won’t happen as quickly as some of us would like.

Yet out of the ashes of the Majestic, a better downtown Hot Springs can rise.

19 Responses to “Hot Springs: Up from the ashes”

  1. Cal Wasson says:

    Wanna move and run for mayor? You’re developing a new fan base over here.
    There’s enough idle capitol around town to dome the place including lakes Hamilton and Carpenter. It needs to come to the table, now!
    I’m tired of the endless lectures on how the rich take big chances to make those big rewards. Hah! All I see are frightened, miserly puppies waiting for sure things.
    Central Arkansas is going to get a real casino but it will be owned by mobsters posing as Oklahoma Indians. Casinos belong in Hot Springs where we’ve been openly gambling since the Civil War.

  2. Brian White says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Rex. We are thinking along the same lines, as you saw from my post earlier this morning. Keep up the good work on your end, and I’ll try to get something going here locally. Maybe the dream may be achieved.

  3. Brebda Brandenburg says:

    Rex, as always, wonderful words spoken that cause a gal (or guy) to scratch her/his head. I think we’re on our way. What a great legacy you can take credit for getting started. The momentum has begun and we’re on our way. Yes, the fire was devastating. But, I think you are correct. This has lit a fire (literally) under our butts and we’re on the move! Thank you! Thank you, for loving and embracing Hot Springs!

  4. Kenneth says:

    Rex, Spot on man. I also agree that you should be running for Mayor.. just maybe not in Hot Springs…

  5. Betty says:

    Rex you could not be more correct! I was born in Hot Springs in 1938 (yes, I’m old), and grew up here in it’s heyday. I’ve seen changes, developments come about, streets paved and widened and the center of downtown almost become a ghost town. Five years ago, I moved away and only returned last summer to find my beautiful hometown in decay….Yes, there has been some renovations to certain downtown stores and businesses, but what about the rest of them? I was appalled and actually cried when I drove from the intersection of 70/270 down Albert Pike, Hobson, Third Street, Grand and Ouachita to Central…the boarded up buildings were hard to look at. It reminded me of Detroit! Those were once nice little buildings with nice little mom and pop stores…and now they sit with plywood covering the windows on the majority of them. Perhaps the tragedy of Thursday night will finally “light a fire” underneath those in authority and a total rebirth of our once beautiful little town nestled in the mountains, will be restored. It will take some planning and changes to our laws regarding the length of time a damaged or empty building (including residences) can sit without renovations or tear downs should be done….If our current administration can’t or doesn’t want to make those changes, then lets get people in office who have pride and care enough about our little jewel to get the ball rolling! Thank you for this wonderful article!

  6. Sherry says:

    Thank you, Rex, for your vision, leadership, courage AND optimism. We moved to Hot Springs 5 years ago with a lifetime of accrued assets and talents, full of optimism for the future of Hot Springs. After 5 years of driving through an underbelly of neglect, decay, cloistered crime, political corruption and wholly inadequate economic development, we are on the threshold of leaving for good.

    We are tired of answering the question, “Where are the hot springs?”, posed by travellers who enthusiastically booked airfare and hotels here from around the globe.

    But here you are, in the past two weeks, nailing it with both indictments and hope. Thank you. We have believed in Hot Springs, we can roll up our sleeves and help. The potential, as you so aptly stated last week, is absolutely enormous.

  7. D. Riley says:

    First you don’t just push through federal red tape and the national registry of historic structures has very specific and difficult guidelines to follow. Secondly the hotel is technically in a flood plain and that alone is a huge issue and would have to be addressed somehow. It’s great to want these truly needed and inspiring ideas but there is more to it than just starting to hammer and nail out way back to prosperity. I’m all for doing something amazing with the site but it would take a lot of money to overcome the challenges. Here is to someone making me eat my words and in spite of the expense and red tape doing it anyways.

  8. Royteturner says:

    Wonderful piece Rex. Your appeal to the governor is on point and got me thinking. Hot Springs is a National Park after all. Imagine what local, state and NATIONAL dollars could do!

  9. michael simons says:

    Well Stated Rex I miss Coys.

  10. Wayne says:

    Hot Springs has a National Park but it is not a National Park. Why do people insist in making the place bigger and with more status than what it is?

  11. Brian says:

    I was just telling Brenda B about the open air thermal wading pool in Rejkavik, Iceland and how HS should do same. I was thinking in Arlington Park but the lot where the Majestic stood could also work.

  12. Ed Elliott says:

    Great column!

    Did I see you in “Pride and Joy”. I was watching the Ed. Channel here in St Louis and there it was. Know I saw your name in the credits.

  13. How about a cable car (aka ski lift) that carries tourists from the ruins of the Majestic up to the observation tower? Or over to Oaklawn? No, apparently the plan is to pave it over and make it into yet another gawdawful parking lot (just like the one across the street from it…)!

  14. Joe OBrien says:

    Two reactions. One, on personal level, loving seeing Rex get mad. Daily he is so relentlessly positive, beyond optimistic. That attitude is terrific for building reasons for pride in this wonderful, crazy state. But love to see the red blood can be fiery.

    Two, hozzanas for the hard hitting telling the hushed up realities. That creates a more open dialogue. Hot Springs needs that, desperately. Rex has started a new ball game.

  15. Margaret Frosyth says:

    Right on, Rex! I planned to reply before the Majestic burned, but kept putting it off. However, my thoughts haven’t changed.

    Hot Springs! The name of our town is Hot Springs. Has anyone been to Banff or Glenwood Springs? Large pools…not wading pools. People were in them when there was snow on the ground. We have a beautiful setting for such a pool. This seems like a natural for the Natural State. It would have to be near downtown, thus all would benefit.

    It’s time to think big.

  16. Mike McNeill says:

    Hot Springs should truly be one of America’s great small cities. Rex, I agree with you. Maybe this will be the event that helps turn downtown around.

  17. Michael Simons says:

    I took several dates from UALR down to HS to Coys and I wish I could take my wife there but alas it never reopened after the fire.

  18. Mary Louise says:

    RE: March 26 column on Hot Springs. You said something about absentee landlords and rental property…the same thing has happened to Helena’s Cherry Street…please address that situation also.

    Helena’s downtown cannot progress forward because the town does not make the building’s owners clean up or maintain their properties, consequently they fall down and bring down the area.

  19. Linda says:

    I am a former tourist who is gratified to see this blog and these responses. We had about given up on Hot Springs but maybe we shouldn’t after all. Hot Springs always had something unique and it’s seemed so odd that the city would just let all of that go. It’s so sad that such a glorious old hotel has burned but there’s still a lot left. We’ll be keeping an eye on things and hopefully will return and find that the lovely community we remember is still there.

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