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Summer in Saratoga and Hot Springs

Walking into The Pancake Shop on Central Avenue in Hot Springs is a bit like stepping back in time.

That’s especially true in the winter and spring months when the live meet is in progress at Oaklawn Park. It’s not the daily newspaper the breakfast patrons are reading during those weeks. As Southern Traveler put it in a 2006 article, “It’s sometimes hard to get in, but if you keep your ears peeled, you’ll likely hear educated opinions from locals who study the Daily Racing Form like a valedictorian studies textbooks.”

Earlier this month, I took a visitor from Washington, D.C., to Hot Springs for the day. We left Little Rock early with our first stop being The Pancake Shop for breakfast. As usual, there was a wait. We were happy to take two stools at the counter. I likely would stand if necessary for those buckwheat blueberry pancakes and that great sausage. Owners Keeley Ardman DeSalvo and Steve DeSalvo have done a tremendous job maintaining this Arkansas institution.

Steve, a well-known financial adviser during the week who mans the cash register on busy weekends, came over to where we were sitting, and the subject immediately turned to racing.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love thoroughbred racing. They also know that I love Hot Springs.

We talked about Steve’s planned August trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (I’m jealous), and I began thinking about Hot Springs’ old moniker as the Saratoga of the South. The column I’ve written for this Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will focus on that topic.

There are indeed many similarities between Hot Springs and Saratoga Springs.

You can start with the tracks. Saratoga Race Course is the oldest continually operating thoroughbred track in the country and home to the Travers Stakes, America’s mid-summer derby that occurs late each August. In this era of the sport’s decline, I can think of few places where going to the races remains an event — something you circle on the calendar and dress up for. Saratoga, Oaklawn and Keeneland come to mind.

The 142nd season at Saratoga Race Course opened July 23 and runs through Labor Day. Travers day is Aug. 28. Despite heavy rain, the daily average attendance for the first four days of the Saratoga season was 18,113. The largest opening-day crowd ever was 32,913 in 2002.

Racing is an important part of the economy in both cities.

Ken Ivins, the city finance commissioner for Saratoga Springs, puts it this way: “It’s not just the track season but also the people who are up here for several months training the horses, the people who are buying the hay, the veterinarians and many others.”

Famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas has noted the similarities between the two towns. Lukas has spent the entire meet in Hot Springs each of the past two seasons, saying how much he likes a smaller place where life revolves around racing whenever the horses are running.

There are many other similarities between the two towns.

Both tracks have added hundreds of video gaming machines in recent years.

Both have parks that grew up around natural springs — Saratoga Spa State Park and Hot Springs National Park.

Both have spas where visitors can still enjoy natural mineral baths.

Both have historic downtown hotels. In Hot Springs, it’s the Arlington. In Saratoga Springs, it’s the Adelphi.

Unlike the Arlington, which has never closed though it could stand some serious capital investments, the Adelphi at Saratoga Springs had to be brought back from the dead.

The hotel’s website notes: “The first time Sheila Parkert saw the Adelphi Hotel, it was an abandoned building about to be torn down. That was a long way from what it was a century earlier, and it was a long way from where Parkert and her late husband, Gregg Riefker, thought they could take it. Built in 1877, the hotel had been considered a Saratoga Springs jewel from the moment it opened, an occasion that owner William McCaffery celebrated by hiring the 77th Regiment Band of Saratoga to play from the second-floor piazza, which ran the length of the hotel’s facade.

“But a century later, when Parkert and her husband — a pair of Nebraskans in their 20s — took their first good look at the property, the Adelphi was enough of a blight that it had been slated for demolition.

”’At the time, it was painted red,’ Parkert said. ‘It had been closed up from the time we had lived here. The people who had it had compeltely pulled up stakes, and vandals had taken everything out of it.”’

The couple from Nebraska had passed through Saratoga Springs in the early 1970s while on a road trip and fallen in love with the place. They were able to buy the Adelphi in 1979 for just $100,000.

“We were really kids,” Parkert said. “Urban renewal was a big thing here, and this town was up for grabs in the ’70s. My God, they were tearing down everything. If you could stop the wrecking ball, you could buy something for $10,000. All the mansions on Union Avenue, you could buy anything you wanted. It was a big ol’ land grab. It had gotten to be big news that they were going to tear this place down. We had gone to France a lot, and we had seen what people had done with old hotels. We were just young enough and dumb enough to think this could work.”

Parkert was 27 at the time.

A similar story can be told about the Saratoga Arms on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. Built in 1870, it had been The Putnam, The Windsor and The Walton. It wound up being a transient hotel before it closed. In 1998, Saratoga native Kathleen Smith and her husband Noel began bringing that structure back to life.

Hot Springs is fortunate that many of its most historic buildings remain intact. Unfortunately, a number of them sit empty. There’s the Medical Arts Building, long known as Arkansas’ first skyscraper. The 16-story art deco structure was constructed in 1929 and was the tallest building in Arkansas until Winthrop Rockefeller built the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock in 1960. An investor with deep pockets, a love of history and a strong business sense is needed to turn it into a condominium project.

There’s the Howe Hotel (later the DeSoto Hotel), constructed in 1926 by William Howe. It has received a fresh coat of paint and is looking for a buyer.

There’s the National Baptist Hotel on Malvern Avenue and the Riviera Hotel on Central Avenue, also in need of investors with vision.

The linchpin of downtown development, however, might just be the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel, which anchors one end of Central Avenue. It’s a bleeding sore at this point. Arc of Arkansas had promised to renovate it into apartments, but nothing has happened.

It’s a landmark that needs to be saved. The oldest part of the hotel was built in 1902 on the site of the 1882 Avenue Hotel. An eight-story addition was constructed in 1926 on the site of the 1830s Whittington House. The Lanai Tower was added in 1960. While Al Capone liked the Arlington, Bugs Moran normally called the Majestic his home away from home when he came down for rest and relaxation.

If the people behind the Majestic renovation can get financing approved and do a quality job of renovation, it could signal a new day for downtown Hot Springs. Full-time residents downtown will add to the urban fiber, supporting more restaurants and other businesses in the process. I will suggest at the end of Saturday’s newspaper column that three of Hot Springs’ most famous restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — be resurrected in the Majestic complex.

Success could begat success.

If residents were to fill up the Arlington, developers could move forward to renovate the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the National Baptist Hotel and the Riviera Hotel for residential use. The National Park Service could lease out the four bathhouses that currently sit empty. Capital investments could be made to improve the rooms at the Arlington Hotel, the Velda Rose, the Park Hotel, The Springs Hotel & Spa (formerly The Downtowner) and the Austin Hotel. In a post back on Feb. 18, I discussed the shortcomings of some of those facilities.

I’m told there may soon be movement on the Majestic project.

And after I wrote that Feb. 18 post, the new manager of the Arlington called, said there were some improvements planned and said he would have me down for lunch one day once those improvements are in place. I look forward to the invitation.

Add it up — eight bathhouses humming with activity, hundreds of new downtown residents living in historic structures that have been carefully renovated, classic restaurants brought back to life, better downtown hotels — and you have the Saratoga of the South shining as never before.

I can dream, can’t I?

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