Wednesday, May 16, 2018
A crowd gathered earlier this month in front of the old Citizens Bank Building on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs. Among those at the event were two members of the state's congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman.
The Citizens Building is a narrow, six-story structure that was built in 1911-12. Known for its white glazed brick manufactured by the Tiffany Enameled Brick Co. of Momence, Ill., it was the city's first skyscraper. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. For years it was empty, like so much else of downtown Hot Springs. Developer Jason Taylor bought the structure in 2015. There are now condominiums and a jazz club upstairs. This month's event was held to celebrate the opening of the Vault at 723, a restaurant that marked the 100th business to open downtown since the 2014 fire that destroyed the building that once housed the Majestic Hotel.
Downtown Hot Springs was down and out at the time. Large parts of the business district were empty, and many of the businesses that had remained open were showing wear and tear. The huge fire at one of the state's most historic buildings served as a wake-up call for business and civic leaders. What has happened since then is nothing short of remarkable.
According to Cole McCaskill, the vice president of economic development for the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, 90 of those 100 businesses are still open. Sixty-six of them were net additions to the neighborhood, meaning that they went into spaces such as the Citizens Building that previously were vacant. In the wake of the fire, the city created the Hot Springs Thermal Basin Fire District to force landlords to make improvements to their properties. Most of those properties had seen few if any upgrades for decades. A Downtown Game Plan Task Force was created to provide a blueprint for downtown revitalization. Though much remains to be done, what's happening now represents one of the greatest economic renewal stories in the country.
"Think about your perception of downtown four or five years ago," McCaskill said. "I remember vacant storefronts downtown. Then the Majestic fire made a ton of news. Then, in an unprecedented move, Preserve Arkansas placed all of downtown Hot Springs on its most endangered list. ... It was a contentious and tumultuous time. There was no vision, no excitement, no momentum."
Looking back at the Citizens Building, McCaskill added: "This building has been vacant since 1978. Who would have thought four short years ago that we would be able to stand here and announce such tremendous growth?"
One of the owners of the Vault, Dr. Daron Praetzel, is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who was born and raised in Erie, Pa. He moved to Hot Springs eight years ago and saw the untapped potential downtown. He has other restaurant projects in the works. Praetzel said at the ceremony: "You're not entitled to anything. If you want something done, go get it. And once you've achieved it, keep working hard."
It's this kind of spirit that has sparked the rebirth of downtown. As I noted, there's still much to be done. A complete renovation of the Arlington Hotel, along with significant upgrades to other downtown hotels that have fallen on hard times, are essential for Hot Springs to take it to the next level. Developers also must be found for large empty buildings such as the Velda Rose, the Medical Arts and the DeSoto-Howe. These structures should have condos and apartments to provide a residential base. When people find it more attractive to buy a condo downtown than on Lake Hamilton, the neighborhood will know it has arrived.
Next, there must be more fine-dining venues such as the Vault and additional upscale retail establishments. There was a time when people would dress up to go downtown. While shops with T-shirts and cheap souvenirs always will have a place in the Spa City, I agree with the business owner who told me: "We must transition back to a steak-eating demographic rather than the hamburger and hot dog demographic we're attracting now."
Achieving that goal of becoming the Saratoga Springs of the South will attract tourists with money to spend from the booming Texas market. A few of those wealthy Texans might, in turn, choose to rent apartments or buy condos downtown as second homes or as places to retire.
A story I read last week in the Wall Street Journal began this way: "Texas wrapped up 2017 with the fastest-growing economy in the U.S., propelled by a resurgence in oil extraction that lifted business across the state. The Lone Star economy grew at a 5.2 percent seasonally adjusted annual rate in the fourth quarter with the mining industry the leading factor behind output gains, according to the Commerce Department."
The fastest-growing economy in the country is less than a day's drive from Hot Springs. For hundreds of thousands of potential visitors in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the Hot Springs area represents some of the closest mountains and clear lakes. The quality of thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn gets better each year. There's also legalized gaming.
Improve the quality of hotel rooms, add high-end boutiques, create the hottest restaurant scene in the South and build first-class spas in downtown hotels. Do all of that, and then stand back and watch what happens. Texans with plenty of money will flock to the Spa City. We'll quit talking about the good ol' days because these will be the good ol' days.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 05/16/2018
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