Spa City gives incentive for residential development

By Wayne Bryan Published July 10, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

During a press conference on top of the Exchange Street Parking Plaza in Hot Springs on July 2, City Manager David Watkins announces a waiver of building-permit fees for new dwellings within the city limits that is designed to spur downtown residential development.

Downtown Hot Springs is more than Bathhouse Row, shops for tourists and a business district; it is also a neighborhood, and the city wants that neighborhood to grow.

As the Spa City looks for ways to preserve and improve its downtown, the city is offering an incentive to provide more opportunities for living downtown.

In a meeting atop the Exchange Street Parking Plaza overlooking a busy Central Avenue, Hot Springs City Manager David Watkins announced that the city will not charge building-permit fees during 2014, helping to cut through municipal red tape for residential development.

The announcement was made with great fanfare the morning after the Hot Springs board of directors created a permit holiday to stimulate new home-building within the city, especially in the Thermal Basin Fire District, a designation for the historic downtown area.

“Today is a day of celebration,” Watkins said. “We envision downtown as an attractive, vibrant place where more residents will live, enhancing the safety and economic vitality of the area.”

The city manager said the waiver of the fees is to spur on reinvestment in the center of the city, including adding single-family, duplex and multifamily homes, particularly any that will reoccupy the upper floors and fill downtown storefronts. The hope is to energize not only downtown, but also adjacent historic neighborhoods.

The permit fees average around $700 per residential unit, Watkins said. Any fees that have been paid during the first part of the year will be rebated to developers. The incentive will cost the city about $33,000 in revenues.

The announcement of the fees holiday — the latest in a series of meetings and announcements promoting investment in the restoration of historic downtown Hot Springs — gave the city manager an opportunity to applaud the various groups that are working in concert with the city to bring new life into the historic buildings downtown.

Watkins called the collaboration “the power of and in” the city.

“If the city can work with the downtown task force, the [Greater Hot Springs] Chamber of Commerce, the property owners, the National Parks Service, the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, we can do anything,” Watkins said.

Pointing to the city from the podium for the outdoor meeting, Watkins said the city has “great assets,” such as natural beauty and historic structures.

“It is just a matter of turning those assets into a triple-A, investment-grade community,” he said.

Also addressing the gathering at the announcement, Director Suzanne Davidson, who represents the downtown area in the city’s 1st District, said the historic buildings are the cornerstone of the community’s assets.

“We must preserve and protect these assets to encourage business investment,” she said. “We have seen some very positive moves recently. We have reached a tipping point on the future of our city, and I think the future is going to be positive. We must showcase the beauty of the land and the magnificent buildings. It is the legacy of the leaders of this community, and we must now leave our own legacy by bringing [the city] back to life.”

Hot Springs Police Chief David Flory said security in downtown would be a major key in attracting new residents to the area. He said the area is part of several patrols, including volunteer police patrols, who are being trained as “another set of eyes in downtown,” and a patrol of police officers on bicycles.

Flory said only 1.3 percent of the crime in Hot Springs occurs in the downtown area.

“That is a tremendous statistic as it relates to the incentive we are talking about today,”

the chief said. “You need to know that downtown is a very safe place to be — to travel as a tourist, and a safe place for people to live.”

Jim Fram, president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Hot Springs Metro Partnership, said the year-long fee holiday will be a useful tool for economic development.

Following are some of the recent steps to improve and promote downtown Hot Springs:

• A new downtown emergency warning-siren system, which the board of directors has voted to expand;

• Removal of many downtown parking meters;

• Community Development block grants;

• The announcement that the Hale Bath House will become a boutique hotel and restaurant;

• A project to build small upscale hotels from the Thompson Building and the Medical Arts Buildings on Central Avenue; and

• The addition of downtown security cameras.

Watkins said he has talked with economic-development experts who have said current efforts to reinvigorate downtown will make the community “white hot for growth” in the future.

“Who wouldn’t want to live here?” he asked. “You would have to be someone who hates urban life.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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