Majestic Fire Puts Spotlight on Hot Springs' Vacant Buildings

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

But there’s more that needs to happen beyond the code modifications. It’s not just safety issues that are plaguing downtown Hot Springs. It’s also the unwillingness of property owners to improve long-neglected properties.

Anthony Taylor of Taylor & Kempkes said downtown Hot Springs was extensively redeveloped in the mid- to late 1980s, but reached a plateau when the remaining buildings in need had owners reluctant to embrace change.

Watkins said that a handful of buildings in and around downtown have been purchased by investors with intentions to develop. He said downtown is in urgent need of housing as more millennials are seeking urban living spaces.

“It needs to have the buildings revitalized so the economic vitality can begin — through people moving into buildings and using these upper floors,” said Fleischner. “When you look at the amount of square footage not being used … it’s a waste, and the moment you begin to put the first office building, the first apartment complex, into any of these buildings, it immediately breeds additional economic vitality into the downtown area and our city.”

But, Watkins said, “one of the issues here is that most of the downtown buildings that are suitable for conversion to apartments are owned by one family.”

That family is the Wheatley family. It owns about 20 buildings in downtown Hot Springs, most of them housing retail establishments across from Bathhouse Row.

The family, through its trust fund, has long been content to collect the rent from the buildings it owns and spend little on upkeep or renovation. The family has ties in town history: Hill Wheatley is credited for developing much of the town and is immortalized in a statue downtown.

Kenneth Wheatley III, heir of the trust and Hill Wheatley’s nephew, declined comment for this story.

Similar stories have been told about the owners of some of the city’s other historic buildings, like the Arlington Hotel, the Medical Arts Building and the Majestic Hotel, which are not owned by the Wheatleys.

The solution to this problem may be the new fire code requirements. Watkins said the fire department is in the process of inspecting buildings downtown and delivering deadlines to the owners for meeting the new code.

“We’re working in a cooperative manner,” he said. “We’re not fascist.”

“I think it may influence them to consider development or redevelopment of buildings,” said Jim Fram, CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. “Some building owners may think this is the time to sell those buildings, or market those buildings to somebody else who can make an investment to redevelop them. I think the new building code for downtown Hot Springs is a game changer.”



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