Port­land of the South

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son 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.

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.

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