The fire that destroyed the historic Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs three years ago helped prompt a wave of development in the downtown district.
After the fire that burned much of the vacant Majestic, which had anchored the north end of Central Avenue, a pile of bricks littered the sidewalk. Getting the site cleaned up was difficult because some asbestos-containing building materials were among the debris.
City officials, civic groups and others gathered and developed a plan to improve downtown. The meetings resulted in several recommendations, including strengthening building codes and creating a downtown development director position.
“The Majestic fire struck an emotional chord with a lot of investors and developers who were either on the fence about downtown or weren’t even considering downtown,” said Cole McCaskill, downtown development director for the Hot Springs Metro Partnership.
Since McCaskill was hired in the summer of 2014, downtown development has seen a flurry of activity, including more than $22.3 million worth of commercial property purchased. The most expensive transaction occurred in October 2015 when GRGCBHS LLC, led by Gary R. Gibbs of Brentwood, Tennessee, bought the Austin Hotel at 305 Malvern from Spa Lodging Inc. for $10.15 million. It was renovated and renamed The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa.
“There’s been a new energy in the city,” said Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Hot Springs has been a resort community and the No. 1 tourism destination in Arkansas forever. And it just continues to recreate itself. The old is still there, but we’re adding some great new to it.”
The city of Hot Springs also stepped in. It bought the Majestic Hotel in August 2015 for $673,000 from Gary Hassenflu of Park Properties LLC in Kansas City, after he failed to clean up the property. The site has been cleared and is awaiting final environmental approval before the location is redeveloped.
The city will ask for recommendations for what to put at the site, McCaskill said.
Some are pushing for the site to showcase the thermal water at the location. The Majestic had thermal water pumped in from Hot Springs National Park two blocks away, McCaskill said. “That would probably be the best use of that site, … so people could experience it,” he said.
A decision is expected by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Hot Springs developer Jason Taylor has several projects under development in downtown. He said he was motivated to invest in the area to improve entertainment options. “People come down here, they walk Bathhouse Row, they spend some time here,” he said, “and then they leave.”
He wants to change that. Next month in his seven-story Citizens Building at 723 Central, a restaurant will open on the first floor and a jazz club will be on the second. The remaining floors will be condominiums.
“Downtown is hopping,” Taylor said. “Downtown is starting to really, really come back and be re-energized.”
The following are some of the top projects in downtown Hot Springs:
The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa
305 Malvern Ave.
Price: $10.15 million
Size: 134,230 SF, 14 floors
Date Purchased: October 2015
Shortly after Gary R. Gibbs bought the Austin Hotel at 305 Malvern Ave. for $10.15 million in October 2015, it was closed for renovation. Built in 1986, the 14-story building was “100 percent” renovated at a cost of about $10 million, said Carlos Sibole, the general manager of the hotel, which was renamed The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa.
The 200-room hotel reopened on April 1, 2016. The hotel, which is connected to the Hot Springs Convention Center, is adding a 5,000-SF spa with thermal waters, pool and fitness facilities, Sibole said. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The rooms feature vinyl plank flooring instead of carpets and 49-inch television sets. The architect on the project was Douglas A. Arnold & Associates PLC of Hot Springs, and the construction was handled by CPI Construction LLC, which also is owned by Gibbs.
340 Central Ave.
Price: $1.25 million
Size: 60,000 SF, five floors
Date Purchased: June 2014
Built in 1913 and formerly known as the Thompson Building, The Waters has a facade that “creatively blends classic elements with a bold, storefront design echoing the rhythms of the 1920s,” according to a February news release from the hotel that announced its opening.
One of its owners, Bob Kempkes, a founder of the firm Taylor/Kempkes Architects of Hot Springs, said he and the other owners, Anthony Taylor, who is also a founder of the firm, and Robert Zunick, a financial adviser in Hot Springs, had always been interested in the building, which once was home to doctors’ offices. When it became available for sale, the three men were interested. They studied the hotel market in Hot Springs and found more hotels were needed, especially those that had a “higher level of service that you see in a boutique property,” Kempkes said.
He said a complete renovation was done to the building, bringing the total cost of the project to about $7 million. It now has 62 rooms. It also has a Southern artisan-style restaurant on the ground floor, called The Avenue.
Bank of America Building
528 Central Ave.
Price: $1.25 million
Size: 43,000 SF, six floors
Date Purchased: April 2016
Rustic Development LLC, led by Hot Springs developer Jason Taylor, bought the building because it’s one of only a few places downtown that has a patio for customers to sit and eat or drink, Taylor said. The space also can be used for live music “and things of that nature,” he said.
The craft brewery, Bubba Brew’s Brewing Co. of Bonnerdale (Hot Spring County), has signed a lease and is expected to move into the building by the middle of the summer, Taylor said. The restaurant will be done in “an old English, library style,” he said.
The building was built in 1972 and was modeled after the Federal Bureau of Investigation Headquarters in Washington. The Bank of America building “has got big concrete pillars and columns going up all the way to the top,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he doesn’t have plans for what will go on the remaining floors. “But we’re open for discussion,” he said. The architect on the project was Twin Rivers Architecture PA of Arkadelphia. Taylor is the general contractor.
723 Central Ave.
Price: $1.1 Million
Size: 24,700 SF, seven floors
Date Purchased: July 2015
The building at Central Avenue and Bridge Street has been empty since 1978, said Taylor, who is an owner and developer of the project.
Taylor was attracted to the building, built in 1909, because of its proximity to the Hot Springs Convention Center. “It’s kind of the gateway to downtown as you come around the corner there on Central Avenue,” he said.
On the first floor of the seven-story building will be a restaurant named the Vault, featuring a wood-fired grill. On the second floor will be a jazz club, Lagoria Rhythm & Rock’s Jazz Bistro. Both are expected to open in April, Taylor said.
The remaining floors will be condominiums, ranging in price from $200,000 to $1 million. The sizes of the units are 840 SF to 2,400 SF. In October, a unit on the fourth floor sold for $275,000 to Dal and Chris Strawn.
The architect on the project was Harris Architecture Co. of Hot Springs. Taylor said he was the general contractor for the project.
812 Central Ave.
Size: 16,700 SF, two floors
Date Purchased: February 2016
Taylor, whose Rustic Development bought the building, said he plans to put a sports bar type of restaurant on the first floor of the building, which was built in 1903 and features 18-foot ceilings and interior brick. It also has about 4,500 SF of mezzanine space.
Twin Rivers Architecture was the architect. Taylor is the general contractor.
Taylor said he didn’t have a timeline for when that project will be completed. “We want to bring a lot of energy to downtown Hot Springs,” he said.