Majestic Fire Puts Spotlight on Hot Springs' Vacant Buildings

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Mar. 17, 2014 12:00 am  

The February fire that destroyed the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs has focused concerns on two troubling issues facing the resort city’s historic downtown: the fire danger posed by other largely vacant properties and the failure of building owners to maintain their properties.

“We’ve got a lot of structures that if a fire started at one end, if the wind was coming in from the north, I’m not sure we could stop it,” said City Manager David Watkins. “Then you’d lose not only downtown, but also the National Park, because these buildings back up to that.”

Mark Fleischner, owner of Lauray’s, a jewelry shop that’s been situated in downtown Hot Springs since 1924, said the potential of downtown has been “squandered” for many years.

In 2013, travelers spent $641 million in Garland County, up from $601 million in 2012, making it one of the state's most visited counties. Many of these travelers can be seen walking along Central Avenue in and out of shops, eateries and galleries within the district’s numerous historic buildings. The area is notable for being the only urban district in the country that borders a national park.

But there’s a lingering problem hiding behind these buildings’ facades: Because of outdated fire codes or owners unwilling to invest, many of them are vacant above their first floor. Others are fully abandoned or in disrepair: The Majestic Hotel, which anchored the north end of Central, made state news February 27 after a fire destroyed much of the abandoned building.

The fire has turned the public eye onto the reasons why these buildings stay vacant in one of the state’s most beautiful and well-attended downtown districts — and initiatives that might solve the problem.

“I think your first stroll through downtown is very impressive because of the architecture and the uniqueness of having a national park flank downtown,” said Watkins, who has been city manager since 2012. “The iconic nature of Bathhouse Row, the Arlington Hotel and the Army-Navy hospital and rehab center — these are some very visually striking components to downtown, they really are. They’re as impressive as anywhere you can go in the country.”

But he was also struck by the ill-maintained status of some of these same buildings.

“For a town of this size, those were really just — they’re just overbearing. It’s obviously because they were built when Hot Springs was thriving on gambling, prostitution and thermal water. But you don’t typically see a building like the Majestic empty in a town of 37,000 people. That really hit me.”

He said the general opinion of downtown is that it’s much better than it was in the 1980s, but “not as good as it could be.”

“There are people that come into my business that love the downtown area. They love to hike, to shop, to go into the bathhouses and the art galleries, to eat down here,” Fleischner said. “It’s a rather unique and very comfortable environment for people to enjoy, and it’s not to be had in many locations around our country.”

People who come to the city for these reasons and others “need a good environment down here,” he added.



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