In 1987, a group of Hot Springs business leaders formed a nonprofit organization known as Fifty for the Future. Downtown Hot Springs was in sad shape in those days. Many of the storefronts along Central Avenue were empty. The era when thousands of people flocked to Hot Springs to take mineral baths had long since ended, and it had been two decades since Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller began shutting down the technically illegal but wide-open casino gambling in the city.
As one might expect, an early focus of the civic improvement organization was downtown revitalization. There were a few successes through the years. Art galleries filled some of the empty storefronts. But the quality of downtown hotel rooms continued to decline, and most of the once-ornate bathhouses remained empty.
Five years ago--Feb. 27, 2014, to be exact--a massive fire consumed the oldest portion of the abandoned Majestic Hotel. Along with the nearby Arlington Hotel, the Majestic had long served as a reminder of a period when Hot Springs was among the nation's most popular resorts.
"For more than a century, the five-acre complex anchored the intersection of the main thoroughfares, Park and Central avenues, at the north end of downtown Hot Springs," writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. "Originally named the Avenue Hotel, the Majestic was built in 1882 on the site of the old Hiram Whittington house. The Avenue Hotel was notable for its amenities such as streetcar service to transport guests to and from the bathhouses every five minutes. In 1888, the Avenue Hotel was renamed the Majestic Hotel after the Majestic Stove Co. of St. Louis."
The hotel complex grew along with the popularity of Hot Springs. The yellow-brick building that would later burn was added in 1892. By 1896, thermal water was being pumped into the hotel.
"When the Little Rock, Hot Springs & Western Railroad began running in 1899, the number of visitors increased dramatically," Hendricks writes. "The original Avenue Hotel was razed in 1902, and a four-story domed brick building with 150 rooms was constructed. Included in this addition was the hotel's restaurant called The Dutch Treat, which had an eye-catching windmill over the front door. In the prosperity of the 1920s, greater numbers of average Americans could visit the Majestic."
It was a favorite spot for major league baseball teams back when Hot Springs was the home of spring training. An eight-story annex constructed of red brick was added in 1926. In 1929, the hotel was purchased by H. Grady Manning's Southwest Hotels Inc. Southwest owned the hotel until it closed in 2006.
"Business at the Majestic steadily declined through the 1980s due to a combination of highway rerouting, medical advances that made spa bathing outdated, and the cessation of illegal gambling," Hendricks writes.
I think about the Majestic while seated at the Hot Springs Country Club on the final night of February with former Oaklawn Park general manager Eric Jackson. He was a founder of Fifty for the Future. He's listening to Wayne Smith, the man who replaced him as Oaklawn's general manager. Smith is the 2019 Fifty for the Future president. Oaklawn is about to embark on an expansion that will cost more than $100 million and give it a new casino, conference facilities, additional restaurants and a 200-room hotel. Still, Jackson and Smith understand that downtown also must do well for Hot Springs to reach its potential. And what's being unveiled on this Thursday night is the most exciting project for downtown in my lifetime.
The most common question first-time visitors to Hot Springs ask is this one: "Where are the hot springs?" They never fail to be disappointed when a local resident points to one of those green metal boxes and explains that the springs were capped years ago.
Fifty for the Future noted in a document handed out at Thursday's meeting: "As the namesake for our city and national park, the thermal hot springs are sought after by travelers. Except for a few hot water displays on Bathhouse Row, visitors miss out on what could be a quintessential Spa City experience. Initially explored in a 1992 feasibility study for the city of Hot Springs by a nationally known economics consulting firm, a thermal pool complex has the potential for broad market appeal if properly designed.
"Through a public-private partnership, a thermal pool complex could showcase aesthetic design, utilize surplus thermal waters, increase revenue from visitor taxes, and provide an array of experiences including shopping, dining, water recreation and entertainment. This project isn't to be mistaken for a municipal pool but rather the next chapter in the story of a town built on water, rejuvenation and tourism. A scenic thermal pool complex would attract more foot traffic."
With more foot traffic comes additional downtown development. Some out-of-state developers have even shown an interest in a modern Majestic Hotel that would combine upscale hotel rooms with condominiums. While Fifty for the Future isn't in a position to fund the project, these influential business leaders can put their weight behind a workable public-private partnership.
The National Park Service collects about 700,000 gallons of thermal water from the springs each day with a daily surplus of almost 300,000 gallons. Using that surplus water to create an iconic attraction makes sense. If done in a first-class manner, Hot Springs could be back on the map as a nationally known resort.
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 03/06/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: A majestic proposal