‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste'

Jim Fram Commentary

‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste'
Jim Fram

The Majestic Hotel fire in downtown Hot Springs in February ignited city leadership and caused citizens to demand greater accountability and a coherent plan to protect, preserve and rebuild Arkansas’ favorite vacation destination.

Hot Springs is the Arkansas city with the most direct connection to our federal government. National Park Service land surrounds our downtown, and much of Garland County belongs to the U.S. Forest Service. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has an interest in downtown as a populated floodplain. The Environmental Protection Agency and Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality have interest in the Hot Springs Creek watershed that drains into Lakes Hamilton and Catherine.

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Long before the Majestic fire, Fire Chief Ed Davis had been gathering support for a major revision to the fire safety code for the Thermal Basin Fire District, which includes Bathhouse Row and what tourists see as “downtown,” as well as surrounding commercial and residential historic districts. Importantly, the new code overrides an existing ordinance that allowed owners of multistory buildings to seal off unused and unoccupied upper stories. Under the new code, any building of three floors or more must have a functioning sprinkler fire suppression system. Passed by the city Board of Directors in late 2013, the new code requires owners of boarded-up multistory buildings to improve their properties, with some flexibility in enforcing that action.

The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership recognized after the Majestic Hotel fire that we should embrace the adage to “never let a crisis go to waste.” The organizations’ chairs, Bryan Smith and Paul Riser, immediately commissioned the Downtown Game Plan Task Force to study all aspects of downtown development and produce a road map for the city and potential investors and developers. Four significant gatherings followed.

Downtown property owners were invited to a closed-door session at the chamber’s headquarters. We learned of legitimate obstacles that had kept some from improving their properties. There were property owners who had little faith that investment would result in significant increases in business. Others felt that the new fire code presented an undue burden and unrealistic compliance deadlines. And there were enthusiastic entrepreneurs who were eager to use this impetus to create a new golden age for Hot Springs.

At three public hearings task force members listened to city officials, property owners, visionary leaders and developers from other Arkansas cities, as well as officials from the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas and Department of Arkansas Heritage. The task force released its findings on June 4.

The first two action items call for the creation of a new organization solely focused on downtown redevelopment. Under the aegis of the Metro Partnership, the new group will be built on the framework of the nonprofit Downtown Hot Springs Initiative. The new group will be authorized to quickly carry out action item No. 2: hiring a new downtown development director.

Due to the connections between downtown Hot Springs and the federal government, the next goal is to pursue financial assistance from the National Park Service, FEMA and the EPA. Potential flooding, rockslides and fires could require millions in federal dollars to clean up; why not invest now to mitigate potential disasters?

An online survey by the task force showed that a large number of people are willing to move downtown if apartments and condos are created in the upper stories of historic buildings. One recommendation is that an investment fund be created to finance such developments.

The Downtown Game Plan is meant to be a living document to be improved and revised in the coming years. Year 1 plans include prioritizing public projects, including a new performing arts venue, a public “hot springs” and the creation of a plaza entrance to make the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences & the Arts a visible anchor at the north end of Central Avenue.

We’ll be working with the city to create an easy-to-use “Guide to Rehabilitation & Development of Downtown Buildings.”

The Downtown Game Plan Task Force has done yeoman’s work studying the issues and proposing a road map to help our downtown live up to its reputation. Now it’s up to us to take a long, hard look at the potential for Hot Springs and make the investment required, put our shoulders to the grindstone and get to work. n

Jim Fram is the president and CEO of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership. Email him at Jim.Fram@GrowingHotSprings.com.