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Portland of the South

Though Brooklyn gives it a run for the money these days, you would be on safe ground if you were to describe Portland as the Hipster Capital of America.

The website Thrilllist once wrote of Portland: “Any heir to the city’s handcrafted, free-range throne must have these qualities: A substantial food and drink culture, an emphasis on artisan shops and a considerable number of eccentrics.”

The television sketch comedy series “Portlandia” is filmed on location in Portland and is set in a feminist bookstore. It’s a hipster favorite.

CBS News once said it looks for four attributes that it believes hipster cities have in common. To quote CBS:

“Young people. Hipsters can be any age, of course, but they’re more likely to be between 20-34.

“Education. A high percentage have a bachelor’s degree.

“Cafes. Where else would you debate the best method for brewing pour-over coffee?

“Yoga studios. Because apparently hipsters and yoga are BFFs.”

David Frasher, who has been the Hot Springs city manager since the spring of 2016, came to Arkansas after 11 years in Oregon. Six of those years were spent in the Portland area.

Frasher hails from the Kansas City area. He wanted to be back in this part of the country to be closer to his parents, who are in their 80s. He has a young daughter, and he wants her to spend time with her grandparents.

But more than family considerations brought Frasher to Arkansas. He saw in Hot Springs — especially its historic downtown — tremendous potential; the Portland of the South perhaps. It’s much smaller than Portland, but there’s the chance for that same type of outdoorsy, coffee-fueled, bicycle-friendly, craft brewery-filled buzz that attracts young, talented people.

“I looked at the photos in the job listing,” Frasher says. “There was this downtown tucked in the middle of a national park. It was unique. The descriptions of the place made it sound like Lake Wobegon.”

It’s far from Lake Wobegon.

There’s a contentious brand of politics that finds the city and county governing bodies at each other’s throats on a regular basis.

The mayor at the time of his arrival often was at war with fellow members of the Hot Springs Board of Directors.

The rubble of the burned-out Majestic Hotel was at one end of Central Avenue.

The Arlington Hotel was in a serious state of decline.

Large downtown structures such as the Medical Arts Building had stood empty for years.

Yet where others saw urban decay, Frasher saw potential.

Want to see the future of downtown Hot Springs?

Walk into Kollective Tea+Coffee, a trendy spot at 110 Central Ave. It’s a place that attracts the type of young entrepreneurs who might someday live in buildings such as the Medical Arts or the Velda Rose.

Frasher gets that. He also understands that this particular demographic wants things such as hiking trails and bicycle paths.

“There was a group that demanded those types of amenities when I was in Portland, and the city responded by providing them,” Frasher says. “I saw that the formula works, though you can’t lose your identity in the process. Everything can’t be new or you’re no different than some suburb. There are things you can do to attract people without losing your historic character.”

The Hot Springs Board of Directors recently authorized Frasher and his staff to seek a major grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to add a level to the Exchange Street Parking Plaza along with an entrance to the deck from Central Avenue. Some street parking downtown will go away so what are known as bump-outs can be built in front of Kollective, the Ohio Club, Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe, the Craft Beer Cellar and a stretch from the Porterhouse restaurant to a new restaurant known as the Vault. This will allow sidewalk dining at those locations. That should further spur the ongoing revitalization of downtown Hot Springs.

Frasher speaks of cities with a “Disneylike, contrived authenticity” (think Branson and Gatlinburg) and says he will work to make sure that downtown Hot Spring doesn’t turn into that.

He notes that city managers often stay below the radar, doing administrative work in relative obscurity. That hasn’t been the case in Hot Springs. He’s impressed that many people in Hot Springs have given money to build a park honoring David Watkins, his predecessor as city manager. Watkins died on Aug. 17, 2015, following a fall at his home. Watkins, an Alabama native, was a former city manager in Auburn, Ala., and Bryan, Texas, who took Hot Springs by storm after accepting the city manager’s job in 2012. He took on the old power structure of downtown Hot Springs. These men had allowed historic structures they owned to deteriorate. New fire codes were instituted. They required those property owners to make long-overdue improvements to their buildings.

“Adoption of the Thermal Basin Fire District in late 2013 continues to be a catalyst for downtown building safety,” Frasher said in his most recent State of the City address. “To date, 28 occupancies have been properly separated and protected within the 24 multistory downtown structures identified as unsafe. Sprinkler system installation, means of egress improvements, building sales, remodeling, stabilization and demolition have all occurred as a result of enforcement efforts within the district. The Hot Springs Fire Department continues to work with downtown property owners through the district to preserve legacy structures when possible while protecting public health and safety.

“In 2016, $14.8 million in real estate sales generated 25 new downtown businesses with an overall downtown capital investment exceeding $18 million. These numbers reflect a sharp increase compared to $8 million in real estate transactions generating 18 new businesses downtown in 2015. … The jewel of downtown is the newly opened Waters Hotel in the historic Thompson Building. The 62-room boutique hotel is situated in the heart of downtown, directly across from Bathhouse Row. It features The Avenue, a new restaurant with an award-winning young chef.”

Frasher spent much of his first year on the job listening to Hot Springs residents.

In an interview with The Sentinel-Record soon after taking the job, he said: “It’s important for the city manager to be engaged in the community. The first year is about making relationships. You can’t listen too much in that first year. I’m going to try to spend my first six months to a year just getting to know the values of the city. The challenge is to understand the value dynamic and make sure recommendations are consistent with those community values. As soon as you understand the values, you can give much better advice.”

Frasher listened.

Then the city’s often controversial mayor, Ruth Carney, resigned suddenly in March.

Everyone now seems to be pulling in the same direction at City Hall.

Of the current members of the Hot Springs Board of Directors, Frasher says: “They like each other, and they work well together. It’s full steam ahead for the city of Hot Springs. The potential here is incredible.”

In his State of the City address, Frasher noted: “Redevelopment projects continue to be stimulated by the city’s building permit fee holiday extension. … The gateway intersection of Malvern Avenue and Convention Boulevard was transformed after the former Austin Hotel was extensively renovated and renamed the Hotel Hot Springs. Across the street, the new Regions Bank building was dedicated along with a historic water trough fountain in an expansive plaza that punctuates this downtown gateway. The plaza and fountain exemplify the visionary planning and partnership between Regions Bank and the city.

“To further the transformation of this area, the Embassy Suites Hotel completed a major remodel at the other end of the Hot Springs Convention Center. Increased nighttime lighting along with the completion of the Wayfinding Trail linking the Hot Springs Greenway Trail with the National Park Service’s Grand Promenade augment the safety and connectivity of this intersection to the surrounding area.”

Four big things now need to happen for downtown to achieve its full potential:

  1. The new owner of the Arlington Hotel must do a complete renovation, which likely will cost more than $50 million. Any halfway effort is doomed to fail. This is the most iconic privately owned building in Arkansas, and it’s in bad shape. The Arlington should be to Arkansas what the Greenbrier is to West Virginia, the Homestead is to Virginia, etc. — our grand ol’ Southern resort. People will flock there it if includes rooms along the lines of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, a first-class spa, hip bartenders and a well-known chef working in an updated version of that beautiful dining room known as the Venetian. Room upgrades also are needed at other hotels downtown.

  2. The city must find the best use for the former Majestic site. The spot where Central, Whittington and Park avenues meet is among the most high-profile locations in the state. How the city develops that property will help determine the trajectory of downtown for decades to come. I’m among those who favor a series of outdoor thermal pools to highlight the hot waters. People would be allowed to play in them and take photos with steam rising in the background. Test wells are now being drilled at the site, and a series of public meetings will soon commence so Hot Springs residents can provide input. Frasher says: “This place is named Hot Springs for a reason. You can’t forsake your name. When you do this project, it had better be special. You only get one chance to do it correctly.”

  3. What’s known as the Northwoods Urban Forest must be properly developed. This property of almost 2,000 acres has three lakes that once provided drinking water. The pristine area is within walking distance of downtown hotels and restaurants and eventually will include mountain biking and hiking trails, a bike shop and a watercraft rental facility. It will be a bit of outdoorsy Oregon come to Hot Springs. A November feasibility study by Pros Consulting Inc. noted: “The site, if developed, would contribute significantly to the quality of life and tourism in Hot Springs. The strategic recommendations contained in this document provide a road map for the future of Northwoods, where outdoor adventure recreation opportunities will enhance and promote environmental stewardship and natural resource management. The Northwoods property has enormous potential to be a local, regional and even national leader in outdoor adventure recreation while preserving its beautiful natural setting. The proposed development would provide Hot Springs with a unique site that balances recreation and environmental stewardship and would serve as a valuable asset that attracts users from across the country.” Frasher says there are 44 miles of possible trails. And these days, it’s important to note, Walton family money often follows the development of mountain biking trails.

  4. More downtown residents through the development of apartments and condos in large, empty buildings such as the Velda Rose, the former Howe Hotel and the Medical Arts Building. That will give the neighborhood a 24-hour vibe, making it even more attractive to tourists while drawing additional restaurants and boutiques.

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