Portland of the South
We’re waiting in line to place our lunch orders at Cafe 1217 on Malvern Avenue in Hot Springs, and David Frasher is talking excitedly about the importance of things such as good restaurants and the arts. This is, after all, someone who spent 11 years in Oregon before coming to Arkansas in March 2016 to serve as the Hot Springs city manager.
“I was looking for a new challenge,” says Frasher, a Kansas City native. “I also wanted to be closer to my parents. I had a strong relationship with my grandparents when I was young, and I wanted my daughter to have that same kind of relationship. That was hard to do living on the West Coast.”
There were other city manager jobs open at the time in places such as Stillwater, Okla., and Flagstaff, Ariz. Something about Hot Springs attracted Frasher. He says: “I looked at the photos in the job listing, and there was this downtown area tucked in the middle of a national park. It was unique. The descriptions of the place made it sound like Lake Wobegon.”
The deal was sealed when Frasher’s wife, who’s from Romania, visited Hot Springs and received a spa treatment at the Quapaw Baths & Spa.
“Bathing in water from natural springs is a much bigger deal in Europe than it is here,” Frasher says. “She came out of the Quapaw, looked at me and made clear that this was the place. So many towns that depend on tourism have this Disney-like, contrived authenticity. We didn’t want that. We wanted something that was real. Hot Springs is authentic. You can build on that.”
Lake Wobegon it’s not. There’s a contentious brand of politics that finds the city and county governing bodies at each other’s throat. The mayor at the time often was at war with fellow members of the city council. The rubble of the burned-out Majestic Hotel was at one end of Central Avenue, and the Arlington Hotel was in a serious state of decline. Large downtown structures such as the Medical Arts Building had stood empty for years.
Frasher, however, saw potential. Of the 11 years he spent in Oregon, six of them were in Portland, the Hipster Capital of America. The website Thrillist once said of Portland: “Any heir to the city’s handcrafted, freerange throne must have these qualities: A substantial food and drink culture, an emphasis on artisan shops and a considerable number of eccentrics.” Portland is the craft beer capital of the country and the home of the sketch-comedy television series Portlandia, a hipster favorite that’s sometimes set in a feminist bookstore. Hipsters are most likely between the ages of 20 to 35, tend to be highly educated and drink lots of expensive coffee.
Want to see the future of downtown Hot Springs? Walk into Kollective Coffee+Tea, a trendy spot at 110 Central Avenue. It’s a place that attracts the type of young, educated residents who someday might live in buildings such as the Medical Arts or Velda Rose. Frasher gets that. He also gets that this demographic wants things like hiking trails and bicycle paths.
“There was a group that demanded those types of amenities when I was in Portland, and the city responded by providing them,” Frasher says. “I saw that the formula works, though you can’t lose your identity in the process. Everything can’t be new or you’re no different than some suburb. There are things you can do to attract people without losing your historic character.”
Just last month, the Hot Springs Board of Directors authorized Frasher and his staff to seek a major grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to add a level to the Exchange Street Parking Plaza downtown. Some street parking will go away so what are known as bumpouts can be built in front of Kollective, the Ohio Club, Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe, the Craft Beer Cellar and the stretch of Central Avenue from the Porterhouse restaurant to a new restaurant known as the Vault. This will allow sidewalk dining at those locations. That should further spur the ongoing revitalization of downtown.
In addition to a needed multimillion-dollar renovation of the Arlington, a key to keeping the momentum going downtown is the proper use of the Majestic site. The spot where Central, Whittington and Park avenues meet is among the most high-profile locations in the state. How the city develops that property will help determine the trajectory of downtown for decades to come. Frasher would like to see a series of outdoor thermal pools to showcase the hot waters. People would be allowed to play in them and take photos with steam rising in the background. Test wells are now being drilled at the site, and a series of public meetings will soon commence so Hot Springs residents can provide input.
“This place is named Hot Springs for a reason,” Frasher says. “You can’t forsake your name. But when you do this project, it had better be special. You only get one chance to do it correctly.”
Another exciting development is the city’s plan—which is in the early stages—to develop what’s known as the Northwoods Urban Forest. This property of almost 2,000 undeveloped acres has three lakes that once provided drinking water. The pristine recreational area is within walking distance of downtown hotels and restaurants and eventually will include mountain biking trails and hiking trails, a bike shop and a watercraft rental facility. It will be a bit of outdoorsy Oregon come to Hot Springs, if you will.