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Another Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival has begun, bringing film enthusiasts from across the country to the Spa City. This is the 27th year for the event, making it the oldest all-documentary festival in the country.

Those attending this year's film festival, which began Friday and runs through Oct. 27, will choose from 62 short and 62 feature films. The event at the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is one of only 38 festivals worldwide designated as an Oscar-qualifier in the category of Documentary Short Subject by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

"It has been an outstanding year for documentaries, and we're honored to showcase films that have received noteworthy buzz from festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and the Toronto International Film Festival," says Jennifer Gerber, the executive director of the Hot Springs festival.

In addition to watching films, those in attendance will be able to see the continued renaissance of downtown Hot Springs. I was reminded earlier this month of what downtown Hot Springs once was. I visited an exhibit titled "Como Square--Then & Now" in the Landmark Building.

I also was reminded of what downtown Hot Springs still can be after a long walk along Central Avenue. The walk allowed me to check out the progress of projects I've written about before--Ken Wheatley's two-story building (there will be shops on the first floor and Wheatley will live on the second floor), which marks the first new construction across from Bathhouse Row in decades; the transformation of the Hale Bathhouse into a restaurant and boutique hotel; the renovation of the Citizens Building, constructed in 1911-12 for Citizens National Bank; and additional murals that brighten up downtown.

What's going on inside the Landmark Building also represents a significant step for downtown since it adds college students to the mix. Tiffany Rogers, who once represented the Stuttgart area in the Arkansas House of Representatives, took over as the executive director of Henderson State University's Hot Springs program in the summer of 2017. Rogers says more than 200 students now take classes in the Landmark Building with its six classrooms at capacity. She hopes to be able to remodel the basement into additional classrooms.

Rogers brought to Hot Springs two decades of experience as director of development, continuing education and work-force training at the Stuttgart campus of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas. Henderson, which has its main campus at Arkadelphia, wants to increase its Hot Springs enrollment to more than 350 students who will complete their bachelor's or master's degrees there.

I've long believed that downtown Hot Springs has more potential than any city its size in the country. To achieve that potential, though, it will take more than tourists. Students, office workers and full-time residents must be part of the mix for downtown to thrive as it did in the Como Hotel's heyday. The Como exhibit, which is open to the public each Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. and runs through Nov. 30, includes more than 40 photographs from the Garland County Historical Society. The exhibit also showcases the work of local artists.

The Como Hotel derived its name from its location at the intersection of Central, Ouachita, Market and Olive. It was constructed in 1915 and proved so popular that it doubled in size the next year. Its rooftop garden became the site of some of the city's top social events. The hotel closed in 1965, and the building was imploded in July 1976 to make way for the Landmark Building. Dyke Explosive Service placed 200 pounds of explosives in the basement and on the first floor near support columns. Raymond Ledwidge, the First Federal Savings & Loan president, flipped the switch, and the roof collapsed within 15 seconds as hundreds of people looked on.

First Federal had moved into the Citizens Building in 1946. In 1957, First Federal bought the entire building in what the Sentinel-Record called the "largest real estate transaction involving business property here in several years." First Federal moved in 1978 to the new structure on the Como site that's now the Landmark Building.

The 1915 version of the hotel had its main entrance on Ouachita. In 1916, the owners acquired land on the Central Avenue side and built the other half of the hotel. They changed the main entrance to Market Street and added a third entrance to the 200-room, six-story facility on Central. A highlight in the 1920s was a female flagpole sitter who was atop the hotel for four days and nights.

Studying the colorful history of downtown Hot Springs is fun, but it's even more fun to consider the future. While things are happening along Central, the overwhelming sense in Hot Springs these days is that people are waiting for the truly transformative projects to move forward.

They wait for the multimillion-dollar renovation plans for the Arlington to be unveiled. They wait for word on what will go on the site of the Majestic Hotel, the most high-profile piece of vacant property in the state. They wait for a developer to lease the Maurice Bathhouse from the National Park Service. They wait for entrepreneurs to bring life back to empty properties such as the Velda Rose Hotel, the DeSoto-Howe Hotel, the Medical Arts Building and the Dugan-Stuart Building. They wait for other developers to purchase and upgrade downtown hotels such as The Springs and The Park that are in dire need of renovation.

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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 10/20/2018

Print Headline: Hot Springs waits

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