Hot Springs Grows Hotter

For more than a century, the image of Hot Springs has centered on a tourist-friendly downtown and what once were the elegant facades of Bathhouse Row along Central Avenue.
The city has struggled to maintain its image as the dowager bathhouses in Hot Springs National Park decayed and both residential and commercial development exploded near the city's lakes. More than time has taken a toll: Hot Springs has had to overcome floods and fires.
Now, however, a renewed excitement about the city's historic downtown can be sensed. The rehabilitation of the bathhouses is well under way, and retail shops along Central are thriving. More upscale shopping is planned for the north end of the street that claims the most foot traffic in Arkansas.
The redevelopment of downtown has been a work in progress for about a dozen years, and Hot Springs continues to evolve in its efforts to remain a primary destination for visitors to the state.
Already the city of roughly 38,000 residents attracts more than 2.5 million visitors a year. Most of those at some point visit the downtown shops. The city has more than 4,000 hotel rooms — of which about 2,000 are downtown — and more than 200 restaurants for all its guests.
On the southern end of Central Avenue, an arts community has become well established. This transformation of the downtown landscape began around 1988, with arts pioneers taking over and renovating condemned buildings and turning them into galleries.
These galleries, featuring works by nationally known artists, sparked the downtown revival, said Davis Tillman, who owns Tillman Antiques at the north end of Central. The growth of the arts community led to further economic development — cafés, restaurants, frame shops and supply stores.
"It put us on the map as the No. 4 community in America for artists to live in," Tillman said.
Tillman is hoping to copy the concentration of art galleries on Central's south end through the development of a concentration of upscale antique stores at the street's north end. Working with Ken Wheatley, whose Wheatley Family Trust owns many of the buildings downtown, Tillman wants to create an antique row.
Four of five stores have already been leased for the project: Joan Good Antiques, whose owner has a store on Royal Street in New Orleans; Ar-tiques, which will feature art glass; Manor House Antiques, a high-end consignment shop; and Rampart Lion, which sells furnishings, French tapestries and china.
Including Tillman's shop, the exclusive dealer for Faberge in Arkansas and which is exhibiting Faberge creations through December, would bring the number of antique stores in the 100 block of Central — the north end — to six, creating what Tillman calls a synergism. Tillman wants to start an Antique Walk on the third Friday of each month, similar to the Gallery Walk each month at the south end of Central.
Hotels at the north end are undergoing big changes. Wheatley sold the 139-room Downtown Hotel & Spa in July to MDG Enterprises Inc., though no one was available to comment on any planned changes.
Just down the street at the north edge of the downtown area, the Velda Rose Resort Hotel & Spa also changed hands in July. The 191-room hotel was sold by Kenny Edmondson to Leia Cha of California. Hotel manager Mary Hughes said there were no immediate changes planned for the hotel, which underwent a major renovation in 2001.
While something is definitely in the works, the future of the historic Majestic Hotel Resort & Spa remains up in the air. It closed its doors on Oct. 22.
Monty Scott, president of Southwest Hotels Inc., which owns the Majestic, has indicated that several parties were interested in buying the property, but as of last Wednesday there was "no deal." He said he hoped to have something to announce on the fate of the 124-year-old hotel in the next couple of weeks.
Scott's company also owns the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa in downtown Hot Springs, as well at the Hot Springs Country Club.
Scott said the 60 employees at the Majestic would be moved to the Arlington.
The Arlington had a record summer and the Majestic was profitable, Scott said. Both benefited from high gas prices (which caused tourists to stay closer to home), the shortage of rebuilt facilities along the storm-damaged Gulf Coast and a return of some convention business, he said. In the past, Scott has blamed the Majestic's woes on the lack of casinos in Hot Springs to compete with casinos in surrounding states.
"Today's tourists want a total package, like Las Vegas, with name entertainment, first-class accommodations, family activities, good restaurants and recreational activities in addition to the casino gambling," Scott told Arkansas Business after a renovation of the Majestic in 2001. "Without casinos, Hot Springs hotels can't compete with the neighboring states."
The Bathhouse Row Effect
The 5,500-acre Hot Springs National Park, which surrounds the downtown, greatly affects the economic well-being of the area. Figures provided by the National Park Service show that the park has an economic impact on the area of $92.3 million a year and provides 2,103 jobs.
The area obviously suffered as the grand old bathhouses closed. Of the eight bathhouses along Bathhouse Row, only two are open, but rehabilitation work on two others is nearing completion, and park superintendent Josie Fernandez is negotiating leases on those.
The park service maintains the Fordyce Bathhouse as a visitor center. Most of the furnishings and equipment are original to the 1920s. The only bathhouse operating as a bathhouse is the Buckstaff, which has been in business since 1912. With the closure of the other bathhouses, the Buckstaff stays busy.
Fernandez said the park service had invested more than $18 million in stabilizing and rehabilitating the bathhouses over the past decade. All are in various stages of rehab. The service had $5 million budgeted for the rehabilitation work last fiscal year, and another $6 million is budgeted for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Work is nearing completion on the Ozark, which has been closed since 1977, and the park service has a letter of intent to negotiate a lease with the Museum of Contemporary Arts.
Fernandez said the park service was also near a lease agreement on the Quapaw bathhouse, closed since 1984, where Taylor/Kempkes Architects of Hot Springs plans to open a family-oriented bathhouse. Anthony Taylor said he hoped to complete the lease arrangement in the next three to four weeks and open the Quapaw next year during the 175th anniversary of the park service.
The federal government has spent more than a decade removing asbestos and lead paint and then rehabilitating the bathhouses. With the expected completion of the park service project late next year, the downtown will receive a big boost.
Fernandez said the park service will be selective in leasing the businesses. The park service turned down a request to lease one of the bathhouses for use as a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, calling that use incompatible with the park service's mission.
The entire Bathhouse Row area is a National Historic Landmark District that contains the grandest collection of bathhouses in North America.
They date back to the "The Golden Age of Bathing" (the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s) in Hot Springs, when the city was nationally known as a health spa and the hot spring water baths were a popular destination for the wealthy. As modern medicine replaced faith in healing waters, the bathhouses closed one by one: the Maurice in 1974, the Hale in 1978, the Superior in 1983 and the Lamar in 1985.
Businesses interested in the bathhouses can be eligible for a 25 percent tax credit through the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program if there's a 39-year lease. Properties must be income-producing and must be rehabilitated to standards set by the secretary of the Interior Department. The National Park Service and the Internal Revenue Service, in partnership with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Pro-gram, jointly manage the program.
Leasing the bathhouses to commercial businesses, said Dave Byerly, president of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, will boost downtown business by 25 percent.
Starting With Infrastructure
City Manager Kent Myers credits the property owners of the downtown buildings with the improvements made over the past decade.
Property owners formed a series of Community Business Improvement Districts to make substantial infrastructure improvements. They included replacing sewer and water lines, removing overhead utility lines, putting in new sidewalks, new historic lighting and benches and plantings and trees.
A new 250-vehicle parking deck on Central helped alleviate a parking shortage that had discouraged shopping downtown.
Myers claims more than $12 million in public investment has gone into the new parking deck and plaza, renovation of the bathhouses, and the other downtown improvements during the past five years.
The big challenge, Myers said, is creating more nightlife. "Downtown is unexciting after 9 p.m.," he said.
Doing its part to change that — and playing a major role in bringing visitors — is the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Although on the edge of what most call downtown, Hot Springs' convention center, combined with the attached Summit Arena, is the largest in the state. It's a driving force in the city as Executive Director Steve Arrison keeps it filled with conventions most of the year. Most of those attending conventions will eat and shop downtown.
Hot Springs certainly has much more to offer than most towns its size. As Davis Tillman said, it's "not a one-tune town."
The area's attractions include its lakes (Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita), which offer recreation for many and retirement and second homes for others; horse racing and new gambling machines at Oaklawn Park; Magic Springs and Crystal Falls theme parks, which continue to grow; and Garvan Woodland Gardens.
He hasn't been as excited about the future of downtown Hot Springs since he opened his antique store 13 years ago, Tillman said.
Just about 100 percent of the buildings downtown are leased, said Mark Fleischner, the third-generation owner of Lauray's jewelry store.
The definition of what constitutes downtown Hot Springs varies greatly. But work also is under way at the old National Baptist Hotel on Malvern Avenue, where developers Johnny Brown and Dean Baxter of Nashville, Tenn., are converting the historic structure into apartments, according to architect Anthony Taylor, who is working on the project. He said he knew of plans to convert another old downtown hotel (not the Majestic) into condominiums, but couldn't yet disclose more information.
Although downtown businesses ap-pear to doing fine, a theme does emerge among boosters: a focus on upscale businesses.
Keeley Desalvo, owner of the Pan-cake Shop and who also leases other buildings, echoes others' expression of the desire to keep and attract high-end retail stores, saying she's excited to see downtown heading in that direction.
She's hoping that the new owners of some of downtown's hotels will implement upgrades, improvements that will bring in "quality tourists."
The shared vision of downtown Hot Springs supporters is one of quality tourists spending their quality dollars at the upscale shops along Central Avenue.