It was August when we last checked in with Al Rajabi. I had breakfast with Rajabi at the Sheraton Four Points on South University Avenue in Little Rock, a hotel he purchased in May 2014. Rajabi completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of the hotel. Shortly before our breakfast meeting, he bought the historic Arlington Hotel and immediately went into battle with the city of Hot Springs.
An Aug. 10 letter from Mike Scott, the city's chief building official, set a Nov. 8 deadline for addressing safety concerns and warned that the hotel would be shut down on that date if those concerns weren't addressed. The city closed 47 rooms until safety violations could be remedied. Inside repairs were made promptly, and the 47 rooms were reopened Aug. 18. Rajabi then did exterior work. For now, there's a tenuous truce between the Arlington owner and city officials.
Next came the fight with Congress as it debated tax-reform legislation. Rajabi was active in efforts to persuade Congress to preserve historic tax credits that are needed to make a full renovation financially feasible. Just as he survived the battle with the city, Rajabi won his battle with Congress. He can now concentrate on a building that has seen few improvements through the years. Around Hot Springs, they call him Arlington Al. He's not from Arkansas, but he has possession of the most iconic privately owned building in the state.
We're sitting this winter day at the new lobby bar Rajabi had installed. I was greeted with "renovations in progress" signs as I entered the Arlington. There's scaffolding in the lobby as workers repair the plaster on the ceiling. Rajabi estimates that it has been at least 45 years since this much work has taken place in the lobby. We take off on a tour, accompanied by a construction supervisor from Colorado and a landscape designer from Louis-iana who Rajabi has hired to rebuild the swimming pool. Rajabi shows off the completely renovated men's room adjacent to the dining room, outlines his plans for restoring the more spacious women's restroom across the hall, and points out the cleaning that's taking place in the Venetian Dining Room.
"We even took down the chandeliers and removed 20 years of dust from them," he says.
The state's largest hotel suffered from decades of deferred maintenance. Even more important than the renovation work that has taken place is the deep cleaning that's being done in rooms and hallways. The carpets aren't new, but they look new compared to what I remember. We walk down marble stairs to the basement. The beauty shop has been renovated. The gift shop has been closed and incorporated into the Starbucks coffee shop adjacent to the lobby. Rajabi hopes to transform the former gift shop into a retro bowling alley with four lanes. He also plans to expand the hotel's fitness center.
His goal, Rajabi says, is to market not only to older folks who love the Arlington but also affluent couples in their 30s and 40s who will visit from places such as the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area for three-day weekends. To attract those kinds of guests, he knows that the old hotel must offer amenities such as the bowling alley, better fitness facilities, a new pool, an updated spa, healthy dining options and trendy bars. Rajabi excitedly talks about the jazz club and cigar bar he wants to put in the building that currently houses the maintenance department. In the pool area, he discusses his vision of a grotto with extensive landscaping, waterfalls coming down the mountain, lots of natural stone and an infinity-edge pool. We visit the fourth-floor bathhouses as Rajabi outlines his plans to make them attractive to younger customers who are accustomed to resort spas.
"As soon as I bought the hotel, there was the battle with the city followed by the battle with Congress," Rajabi says. "We're past those now and have the opportunity to move forward. I now realize this isn't just a Hot Springs project. It's an Arkansas project since people across the state have expressed their love for this hotel."
He says business is down because many people mistakenly believe the city closed the Arlington. The next major step will come when Rajabi announces the hotel's national affiliation. He promises that the name Arlington Hotel will remain, but it's important to have a relationship with a known brand in order to have access to worldwide reservation systems. There's also the fact that customers like to earn guest rewards points. Once the affiliation is announced, Rajabi hopes to obtain financing for a complete renovation that will cost more than $30 million. He says there's a fine line between keeping the hotel's historic character and meeting the standards demanded by companies such as Marriott and Hilton. The renovation will reduce the number of rooms from the current 478 to 385.
"We don't want to be the biggest hotel in the state," Rajabi says. "We want to be the best."
Rajabi is what's known in the hotel business as a flipper, someone who buys distressed properties, updates them and then sells them for a profit. I know plenty of Hot Springs residents who are convinced that's the fate of the Arlington. They believe that Rajabi will sell the hotel once the current improvements are completed and that the full renovation will never occur. Just as he did at breakfast back in August, Rajabi insists that's not the case. The hotel isn't for sale, he tells me. It's instead the project of a lifetime, he says, the one that will define his career.
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 02/10/2018