The game changer

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son Rex Nel­son is a se­nior edi­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

Itry to stay away from overused terms. “Game changer” is one of those terms. But I can think of noth­ing that bet­ter de­scribes what a com­plete makeover of the Ar­ling­ton Ho­tel would mean for the re­de­vel­op­ment of down­town Hot Springs and, in some ways, the im­age a lot of vis­i­tors have of Arkansas. It would change the tra­jec­tory of the Spa City.

Mer­riam-Web­ster de­fines game changer as “a newly in­tro­duced el­e­ment or fac­tor that changes an ex­ist­ing sit­u­a­tion or ac­tiv­ity in a sig­nif­i­cant way.” The newly in­tro­duced fac­tor is the sale of the Ar­ling­ton to San An­to­nio-based de­vel­oper Al Ra­jabi. South­west Ho­tels Inc. had owned the Ar­ling­ton since 1954. The head of South­west Ho­tels, Monty Scott, died in Jan­uary 2016, and the Scott fam­ily be­gan en­ter­tain­ing of­fers for the Ar­ling­ton, a grande dame that had be­come a shell of its for­mer self due to mil­lions of dol­lars in de­ferred main­te­nance.

Name a pri­vately owned build­ing in the state that’s more iconic than the Ar­ling­ton. I can’t. The other icons I think of—such as the state Capi­tol in Lit­tle Rock and

Old Main in Fayet­teville—are owned by gov­ern­ment or non­profit en­ti­ties. Those of us (and there are thou­sands) who love the Ar­ling­ton and love Hot Springs dreamed of a day when a new owner would step in and have the capital needed to re­store her prop­erly. We dreamed of a day when peo­ple in sur­round­ing states once more would flock there. We dreamed of a day when those of us close enough to make day trips would go to the Ar­ling­ton for spa treat­ments and meals. We dreamed of a day when statewide as­so­ci­a­tions again would make the Ar­ling­ton the head­quar­ters for their con­ven­tions. We dreamed of a day when the place to see and be seen in Arkansas would be the lobby of a ren­o­vated Ar­ling­ton. We dreamed of a day when the Ar­ling­ton ve­randa would be the front porch of Arkansas, a civ­i­lized place to sit in a com­fort­able, stylish chair un­der a spin­ning ceil­ing fan while be­ing waited on for drinks and din­ner.

Down­town Hot Springs is on the verge of fi­nally achiev­ing its po­ten­tial af­ter decades of de­cline. If done cor­rectly, a ren­o­va­tion of the Ar­ling­ton could be the cat­a­lyst that leads to ad­di­tional de­vel­op­ments. An ac­claimed ar­chi­tect I know de­scribes the north end of Cen­tral Av­enue as one of the great stretches of ur­ban street in Amer­ica. A strate­gic plan com­pleted in 2011 noted that “down­town Hot Springs has lost much of its lus­ter. His­toric struc­tures are in need of in­vest­ment, ground-floor re­tail space is un­der-uti­lized, and the up­per sto­ries of most build­ings re­main va­cant. The lack of new in­vest­ment should be a great con­cern to Hot Springs’ lead­ers.”

Since that re­port came out, there have been mil­lions of dol­lars in­vested down­town. How­ever, the ex­pe­ri­ences of too many vis­i­tors are sul­lied by stays in dated, musty ho­tel rooms and views of build­ings such as the Howe Ho­tel, the Velda Rose Ho­tel, the Med­i­cal Arts Build­ing and the Du­gan-Stuart Build­ing whose up­per sto­ries have been de­serted for years. As one prom­i­nent Arkansas busi­ness leader told me last week: “When I think of Hot Springs, the thing I think of are the words ‘just miss.’ We try to do things there, but we just miss do­ing them in the first-class way needed to take the city to the next level.” He said the clos­est thing he has seen to a project that gets it right is the Wa­ters, a bou­tique ho­tel that opened ear­lier this year in a ren­o­vated Thompson Build­ing across Cen­tral Av­enue from Bath­house Row.

Think what could hap­pen if the Ar­ling­ton were to be­come a much larger ver­sion of the Wa­ters. The new Ar­ling­ton owner re­cently ren­o­vated what had been a Clar­ion Ho­tel (and be­fore that a Hil­ton) into the Four Points by Sher­a­ton on South University Av­enue in Lit­tle Rock. This isn’t a chain ho­tel cater­ing to folks with rel­a­tives in nearby hos­pi­tals, though. This is the Ar­ling­ton, a ho­tel that should be men­tioned in the same breath as other clas­sic South­ern re­sorts such as the Green­brier in West Vir­ginia and the Home­stead in Vir­ginia.

A news re­lease that went out on July 10 pro­vided no sig­nif­i­cant in­for­ma­tion about the owner or his ren­o­va­tion plans. It was re­ported that he has owned al­most 30 ho­tels through the years, but no list of those ho­tels was re­leased. Ra­jabi wouldn’t an­swer ques­tions from the me­dia, di­rect­ing peo­ple in­stead to that sketchy news re­lease. The com­pany he used to buy the prop­erty, Sky Capital Group, has only ex­isted since April.

Those ex­pe­ri­enced in large-scale ren­o­va­tion projects tell me that the Ar­ling­ton needs at least $50 mil­lion worth of work to be clas­si­fied as a first-class re­sort. We’ll give Ra­jabi the ben­e­fit of the doubt for now, as­sum­ing he has ac­cess to that kind of capital. He must un­der­stand the skep­ti­cism of Arkansans. They’ve seen false prom­ises made in down­town Hot Springs so many times be­fore.

Due to a lack of capital at South­west Ho­tels, the Ma­jes­tic de­te­ri­o­rated as the Ar­ling­ton has done. Two sub­se­quent Ma­jes­tic own­ers made prom­ises but did noth­ing. The Ma­jes­tic fi­nally burned. Sev­eral de­vel­op­ers have promised through the years to renovate the Velda Rose. It still sits empty. Fur­ther south down Cen­tral Av­enue to­ward Oak­lawn Park, we were told that the Royale Vista Inn would be re­de­vel­oped. Scaf­fold­ing went up, but noth­ing was com­pleted. More than hot baths and thor­ough­bred rac­ing, Hot Springs be­came known as the home of land­lords who al­low their prop­er­ties to de­te­ri­o­rate.

Mr. Ra­jabi, please un­der­stand this: The Ar­ling­ton isn’t just an­other ho­tel, at least for those of us born and raised in this state. As stated ear­lier, it’s the most iconic pri­vately owned struc­ture in Arkansas. Even though you own it, there are cer­tain obli­ga­tions to the 3 mil­lion peo­ple of Arkansas. Whether or not Hot Springs will “just miss” yet again is up to you. We wish you well.

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