Last weekend, Laura Miller spent her time running on the Hot Springs Creek Greenway — a trail that runs 4.2 miles from just south of Bathhouse Row to Lake Hamilton, at the city’s southern edge. She said it was a great opportunity to see people walking their dogs, walking their kids or riding bikes.
“It was really good to see that,” Miller said. “I love hiking. One thing, with working at the Buffalo River National Park, was all the opportunities to get out and paddle the river, or hike and camp.
“And we have a lot of those opportunities here as well, or nearby.”
Miller was recently hired as the new superintendent for Hot Springs National Park. She replaces former Superintendent Josie Fernandez, who retired from the position after serving since 2004.
“Laura is an exceptional leader who knows how to listen and foster collaboration, both within and outside of government,” National Park Service Midwest Regional Director Cam Sholly said in a statement. “She will be a strong partner to the community of Hot Springs and work with the outstanding NPS staff to continue taking the park in new directions.”
Miller was born in San Antonio, Texas, but moved to Bryant when she was about 10 years old. She graduated from Bryant High School in 1985 and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1991 and a master’s degree in public history from UALR in 1999. This is her fourth park, but they have all been in Arkansas.
As part of her graduate studies at UALR, she got involved in the project to develop a museum at Central High School in Little Rock. She worked closely with her faculty adviser, Johanna Miller Lewis, at UALR.
“When the museum opened in 1997, I became the executive director for Central High Inc., the nonprofit that ran it,” Miller said. “So when that became a national-park site, that’s when I was hired on. I was there for about 10 years.”
Following her stint there, she became the first superintendent at the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site in Hope. She was there until 2014, when she was hired as the Buffalo National River deputy superintendent.
She said she was familiar with Hot Springs National Park because she had worked closely with its staff during her time at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
“It was a brand new park in the system, so we didn’t have many staff members, so we relied on Hot Springs National Park to provide administrative support and facility support,” Miller said. “So I got to know the staff here and the then-superintendent well and work with them.
“I have always been familiar with Hot Springs National Park, and I love it here. It is such a great park and community.”
Part of her duties as superintendent is to be in charge of the overall management of the park and to work with the staff, manage the budget and take care of the water itself and the water system. She wants to help restore and maintain the historic structure and interpreters — who conduct the public programs and educational programs to serve visitors.
“A big part of my job is to work with the local community and our external partners to help promote the park and to help guide the park into the future,” Miller said.
Having grown up in Bryant, Miller and her family would visit Hot Springs on weekends and holidays to get “away from regular life.”
“I enjoyed the community, and I enjoyed going to the lakes and hanging out in Hot Springs,” Miller said. “It wasn’t till I worked for the Park Services did I get a real exposure to Hot Springs National Park. It is a great park with a great story.
“I love that it has natural areas right next to the downtown and a very vibrant downtown with a lot going on. It is going to be a very exciting place to be.”
The biggest project for Miller and her staff at the moment is the leasing program with the historic bathhouses. She said they have worked really hard to restore some of the bathhouses and lease them.
She said the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, at 329 Central Ave. in Hot Springs, is growing, and Hotel Hale is set to open soon. It will feature a boutique, a hotel and a restaurant.
“We have a lot of development going down here,” Miller said. “I remember Bathhouse Row in the 1980s, and a lot of buildings were vacant. Now we have phenomenal restaurants and businesses.
“It is vibrant and exciting. There are a lot of new things happening.”
She said the Buckstaff and the Quapaw are the two continuously operating bathhouses. The Buckstaff is a more traditional bathing experience, while the Quapaw is more contemporary, with open pools where guests can either bathe in a group or have a private experience.
“It is fun that we have two bathhouses that are operating in that capacity,” she said. “There are a couple of bathhouses that need considerable amount of work on them — the Maurice Bathhouse and the Libbey.
“They both need some considerable restoration work, and we are working with our facility staff and our friends group to try to raise funds to restore those, in the hopes that someday we might be able to lease those out to businesses that would want to come in and put in something new.”
Hot Springs National Park is 5,500 acres, and part of it includes Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue, but the park also includes a wooded area and Hot Springs Mountain. The park was established in 1832 and is the oldest area set aside by the federal government, Miller said. She said it predates the park service and predates Yellowstone National Park.
“I do find that long history and the human use of the area interesting,” Miller said. “Generations of people have come here as a place to heal in the waters and find rejuvenation and wellness.
“We do have woods and water, but with this park, what makes it unique is the interplay and interface between the natural areas and a long history of human use of those areas.
“They took the woods and the water, which became a place of healing and wellness. The infrastructure of all the bathhouses grew up around the use [of the resources] and to meet the needs of the people coming here.”
She said the biggest challenge facing her at this moment is mostly financial, “to have what we need to properly fund the park,” Miller said. “I am a historian, and I have gone back and looked at the annual reports from the 1920s, and there has never been enough money or staff.
“The challenge is trying to balance the different needs and serve our visitors well, and to protect the water and its resources. Those are always challenging things. …
“… What I love is that we have so many people, both within the park and our partners, who are willing to donate their time and energy and overcome those challenges, even though they may be there for every park.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.