Majestic Fire Puts Spotlight on Hot Springs' Vacant Buildings

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But there’s a lingering problem hiding behind these buildings’ facades: Because of outdated fire codes or owners unwilling to invest, many of them are vacant above their first floor.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.

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

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.”

Public-Private Partnership

But the fire code changes won’t be the single solution to this problem.

“There’s no way for downtown to be developed in an economically feasible way without a public-private partnership,” Taylor said. “There has to be participation from the public sector.”

It’s happened before in Hot Springs, when in the early 2000s the National Park Service helped in the process of restoring Bathhouse Row.

At least two groups are working on the issue.

First, for the last several years, the Downtown Hot Springs Initiative has been collecting information on downtown properties.

“We’ve put together a great deal of information that the chamber and the city will hopefully be able to use to the benefit of potential developers and also to the benefit of possible sales of property, if that comes about,” said Fleischner, who is a member of the DHSI.

The chamber and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership also have a plan.

A survey is being undertaken, Fram said, of who owns which buildings downtown and what tenants are present.

“We hope to have that completed within the next 60 days. Additionally, in the wake of the Majestic Hotel fire, we’re in the process of putting together a small task force of business leaders who have an interest in downtown.”

The task force will hold a series of public hearings between March 31 and April 21, Fram said, each to collect different ideas on downtown development. At the final hearing, the task force will release a report “that either validates or revises the strategy for the redevelopment of downtown Hot Springs, and possibly add additional elements to the existing strategy.”

Fram and others are optimistic that the Majestic fire will spur development in the long-neglected downtown.

Watkins said the Majestic fire has “ignited passion” in redevelopment.

“I think this fire kind of really jolted everybody, and they may be more receptive to doing some things in the future,” Kempkes said.

“I think redevelopment was about to occur with or without the Majestic fire,” Taylor said. “But with the fire, there’s the potential for greater public interest in what’s going on. It’s galvanized a lot of support behind downtown.”

“These buildings are salvageable,” Watkins said. “They are gems. They are part of not only Arkansas history but American history.”