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When I was a boy, one way we marked the start of the holiday season was the trip from our home in Arkadelphia to downtown Hot Springs for the annual Christmas parade.

From my point of view in those days, Hot Springs might as well have been New York City. There were tall buildings (Medical Arts was the tallest building in the state for several decades until Winthrop Rockefeller opened the Tower Building in Little Rock in 1960), restaurants that stayed open until late at night, auction galleries, and the crowded lobby of the Arlington Hotel.

After being elected governor in November 1966, Rockefeller began shutting down the illegal but wide-open casino gambling that had been in the Spa City for decades. Though growth continued south on Central Avenue toward Lake Hamilton, downtown Hot Springs fell into a period of decline that lasted almost 50 years and only recently began to turn around.

For the first time in decades, I attended the Hot Springs Christmas parade last month. It's the oldest and largest event of its type in the state, and I was impressed. Thousands of people lined Central Avenue downtown, and the parade took more than an hour to pass. I would be tempted to say downtown Hot Springs is back if it weren't for the empty buildings--the aforementioned Medical Arts Building, the Dugan-Stuart Building, the DeSoto/Howe Hotel, the Velda Rose Hotel. Meanwhile, the city moves at a snail's pace (far too slowly for my taste) when it comes to deciding what to do with the empty lot at the north end of Central Avenue that housed the Majestic Hotel. There's also a new white elephant downtown with the state's abandonment of the old Army-Navy Hospital.

There are, mind you, fresh attractions downtown. The rooftop bar at the boutique hotel known as The Waters has opened and is sure to be a hit when warmer weather arrives in the spring. As I walked down Central the night of the parade, I was able to visit with Mayor Pat McCabe, who joined forces with his wife to renovate the Hale Bathhouse into the Hotel Hale, a boutique hotel with two dining venues.

Some of the current activity is being spurred by a facility that's not downtown--Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. The return of full casino gambling to Hot Springs--it's legal this time around--has spurred investor interest in all parts of town. Proceeds from the casino have driven up purses for the thoroughbred race meet that begins on Friday of next week. Those record purses are attracting owners, trainers and jockeys who usually race in California this time of year. Trainer Doug O'Neill is as an example of the exodus to Arkansas. He has pulled almost 30 horses out of Santa Anita and sent them to Dubai and Oaklawn.

"The owners are excited, the crew is excited and I am excited," O'Neill told the Thoroughbred Daily News. "With all the uncertainty at Santa Anita, it's nice having some control over something good like this. I know there are six or seven barns from here that are sending horses to Oaklawn. The majority of horsemen are trying to make a plan with their stables. It's not just a great sport, it's a business. So you just have to keep the jobs going, keep the horses and the men and women who work beside them going. ... The purses are tremendous at Oaklawn and in Dubai, which makes the traveling make sense."

With its race meet now lasting through the first Saturday in May, Oaklawn added 1,000 tons of air conditioning to the grandstand during the offseason. Oaklawn has increased purses for 12 consecutive years and expects a purse distribution of at least $35 million this year. For the first time, there will be four $1 million stakes races. Louis Cella, the Oaklawn president, calls it "one of the premier racing programs in all of North America."

He's right. As noted, that success has developers sniffing around for opportunities. Let's hope some of them take a chance on the empty buildings downtown. In his book Arkansas in Modern America Since 1930, historian Ben Johnson of El Dorado addresses the city's ups and downs.

"The revival of casino gaming in Hot Springs contributed to the city's strengthening economy, but those walking up and down Central Avenue in the second decade of the 21st century passed numerous vacant and deteriorating buildings, historic structures exempted from municipal code regulations," Johnson writes. "In 2014, fires destroyed the Majestic Hotel, first opened in 1902, and the Baxter Building that had housed an African American hotel during the Jim Crow era. Yet the gamblers and tourists were not deterred, and the city trailed only Little Rock in visitor numbers and dollars.

"Nevertheless, the largest source of modern employment in a city that had been built on its curative waters was the health-services industry. The percentage of Garland County residents age 65 and older was greater than state and national levels. Retirees living in lakefront homes required professional, technological and pharmaceutical ministrations for their ailments rather than a vigorous massage and soaking bath. Fewer and fewer people from surrounding areas came to fill their containers with the spring waters."

Johnson notes that "innovative and careful renovations of several buildings to house local businesses as well as an upscale hotel contributed to the hopes of city leaders that this time, braced by gambling's reprise, Hot Springs would recover its swagger."

As far as downtown is concerned, the next five years should tell the tale as to whether it has truly turned the corner.

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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 01/15/2020

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Recovering its swagger

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