Majestic Fire Puts Spotlight on Hot Springs' Vacant Buildings

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

And the vacant or partially vacant buildings along Central present a problem that goes far beyond their unused potential: They are fire hazards. The town has had several large fires in its history, including one in 1913 that destroyed 60 blocks of downtown.

Fire Code Change

One of the town’s big initiatives for preventing a catastrophic fire and promoting development involves changing its fire code for the downtown area, a change that has already taken place.

“We have buildings that need to come into code compliance,” Watkins said. “My board of directors and the mayor passed a Thermal Basin Fire District last December. What that empowers the fire department to do, through me, is we’re going through each building that meets our definition of not being safe and requiring property owners to bring those up to code.”

In the past, only the first floors of downtown buildings were required to meet code, which created the problem of vacant upper floors. Property owners didn’t want to go through the trouble of spending thousands or millions of dollars making the upper floors safe.

That’s why the new code dispenses with many previous stipulations and mainly requires that buildings have fire sprinklers on each floor.

“For example, if you go into some of our buildings, if you were to restore them to Uniform Building Code, the amount of interior work — with fire walls, fire-rated doors, egress and ingress issues — would be almost impossible,” Watkins said.

The process has already taken place in at least one historic building along Central, a three-story building just a block from the Majestic. It houses two businesses: Rolando’s Ecuadorian Restaurante and the offices of Taylor & Kempkes Architects, a firm known for decades of historic restoration in the city.

The process, when completed, allowed Rolando’s to expand into the building’s previously unused second floor.

“It was a twofold kind of thing,” said architect Bob Kempkes. “One was to show that it could be done and is not that expensive, and second, it allowed us to move Rolando’s up to its second floor, where they opened a speakeasy.”

“That’s what we want to see downtown,” Watkins said. “That’s achievable.”

Unwilling Owners



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