The game changer
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.