On a recent Tuesday night, I left the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism at Hot Springs and strolled from that city’s convention center over to Central Avenue. As always happens when I walk down Central, I was struck by this thought: This place has more untapped economic development potential than any other stretch of street in Arkansas.
It’s a busy time of year at Hot Springs. Earlier this month, the Sun Belt Conference held its annual basketball tournament at Summit Arena. Last Saturday, the Rebel, a major stakes race for 3-year-old thoroughbreds, was run at Oaklawn. A day later, the city hosted the annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Last year, the online U.S. News & World Report placed the event on its list of the 10 top St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country.
The online site stated: “While this city has the youngest St. Patrick’s Day parade on the list, Hot Springs has been routinely given the distinction as the strangest since its inception in 2003. Recent participants include the Irish Elvises and the San Diego Chicken, among others. It also receives the title of the shortest procession of note, with a route on Bridge Street that is only 98 feet long. Featuring bagpipers, floats and appearances from the parade king and queen, the Hot Springs parade is presided over by a celebrity grand marshal, who keeps the crowd on its toes throughout the event. Previous grand marshals include Mario Lopez and Pauly Shore. We are not making this up.”
Steve Arrison and those who work with him at the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau like the factthat the parade is honored for being quirky. Hot Springs has a history of strange events and attractions.
I marvel at how far downtown Hot Springs has come since those sad days in the 1970s and 1980s when a tacky wooden canopy covered the sidewalk across the street from Bathhouse Rowand many of the storefronts were empty. On the other hand, I think of how much better downtown Hot Springs could be given its inherent advantages.
Much attention has been paid this year to news of a proposed steel mill near Osceola and the possibility of a new paper mill funded by Chinese investors at Camden or Arkadelphia. Additional manufacturing jobs always are welcome, but the bulk of new jobs come from small businesses, many of which are created by young entrepreneurs. In the knowledge-based economy, attracting talent is everything. And smart, talented people look for places that offer unique cultural, entertainment and culinary opportunities.
These kinds of people look for events such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the documentary film festival, the music festivals and gallery walks that Hot Springs has developed. If farsighted (and admittedly deep-pocketed) investors could turn some of the empty buildings in downtown Hot Springs into condos and loft apartments, such entrepreneurs would be attracted to the city. Sadly, the Majestic might be too far gone to be saved, but what about the Medical Arts Building, the former Howe-DeSoto Hotel and the upstairs of the buildings across from Bathhouse Row?
Downtown also needs hotel upgrades and additional upscale shopping. Such upgrades will attract more tourists, but this state’s economic developers need to understand that the ultimate goal is to attract well-educated entrepreneurs who will live downtown. Jon Roberts of Austin, Texas, the well-known community development consultant who was hired towrite an economic development plan for Hot Springs a couple of years ago, understands this. He told me he believes that “Hot Springs could be one of America’s truly great cities. There are people who realize this, but it remains an uphill struggle.”
One person familiar with the situation told me the problem is that “the properties not owned by the National Park Service have been allowed to slowly deteriorate. Add to that the hotels with glorious facades that surely have provided false impressions to brochure-reading tourists for decades. Compare that to El Dorado, where you have a forward-thinking majority property owner, and you see worlds of difference. Hot Springs has everything going for it, but it has rested on its laurels for years because of the luxury of its history and architecture. I’m glad to see that they’ve figured out that can’t last much longer.”
Entrepreneurs such as Rose Schweikhart Cranson represent the future of Hot Springs. Indeed, they’re the future of Arkansas. As last week’s column noted, there has been a revival on Bathhouse Row. Now, thatrevival must spread to the other side of Central Avenue and throughout downtown Hot Springs. If high-quality redevelopment were to occur, no other neighborhood in Arkansas would be as strategically positioned to attract entrepreneurs ranging from artists to high-tech visionaries.
What we have in downtown Hot Springs is unique to all of America. We owe it to the country not only to preserve what’s there, but to take it to the next level. I look forward to a future spring walk from the Summit Arena to the Majestic when I’ll see a vibrant neighborhood filled with condos, exclusive shops, fine dining and lots of people on the sidewalks at all hours. Only then will we have achieved the vision of having created the Saratoga of the South.
Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.