Eureka’s lat­est in­car­na­tion

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

I’ve en­joyed vis­its to Eureka Springs for decades. I had lit­tle choice as a boy. My mother loved this town in the Arkansas Ozarks and would in­sist that my fa­ther take us there on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Marty and Elise Roenigk came to ap­pre­ci­ate its charms later in life. The cou­ple from East Hamp­ton, Conn., was vis­it­ing Fayet­teville when some­one sug­gested a day trip to Eureka Springs. It didn’t take them long to de­cide it would be the place they would re­tire.

“We loved the his­tory, ar­chi­tec­ture, gal­leries, shop­ping, peo­ple and the area,” Marty Roenigk told an in­ter­viewer in 2008. “There are in­ter­est­ing peo­ple in the com­mu­nity, great eclec­tic shops and restau­rants. You’re in the mid­dle of the Ozarks with lots of recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties but close enough to the growth, arts and cul­tural at­trac­tions of North­west Arkansas.”

Marty Roenigk was the for­mer chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Com­puDyne, a com­pany that de­signs and in­stalls elec­tronic se­cu­rity sys­tems. He pur­chased the his­toric Basin Park Ho­tel in down­town Eureka Springs in Fe­bru­ary 1997 so he and his wife could live in an up­per-floor apart­ment. When the 1886 Cres­cent Ho­tel came on the mar­ket three months later, the cou­ple pur­chased it and moved in­stead to its top floor.

“We wanted to save it from the path to ruin that it was on, hav­ing de­te­ri­o­rated from years with very lit­tle in­vest­ment,” Marty Roenigk said of the Cres­cent in that 2008 in­ter­view. “We wanted to see it be­come the fo­cal point of the com­mu­nity again.”

In June 2009, Marty Roenigk died at age 68 in a two-ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent in south­east Iowa. His wife, who was driv­ing at the time, was in­jured. Af­ter her re­cov­ery, she re­turned to Eureka Springs. In May, I was one of the au­thors in­vited to the an­nual Books In Bloom lit­er­ary fes­ti­val on the Cres­cent grounds. Elise Roenigk came to the tent where I was sign­ing books. With­out pay­ing at­ten­tion to whom I was talk­ing, I asked, “Where are you from?” She an­swered, “I live in this ho­tel.” I im­me­di­ately re­al­ized who she was and thanked her for keep­ing two Arkansas clas­sics—the Basin Park and the Cres­cent—alive.

Last month, I was back in Eureka Springs with my wife and two sons. We chose to stay in one of the Cres­cent Cot­tages, a Marty Roenigk project. He hired noted ar­chi­tect David McKee, who once worked for Fay Jones, to de­sign cot­tages with large decks that would blend into the sur­round­ing woods near the ho­tel. I walked to the ho­tel’s Crys­tal Din­ing Room one morn­ing to have cof­fee with Jack Moyer, who man­ages the Cres­cent for Elise Roenigk. There had been two wed­dings tak­ing place when we ar­rived at the Cres­cent on a Satur­day. Moyer said the wed­ding mar­ket is a key rev­enue source for Eureka Springs.

“We’ve had as many as seven in a day at this ho­tel,” he said. “You can’t let your­self get stale. We’re al­ways try­ing some­thing new. For in­stance, we’re hop­ing to add a wed­ding venue in the woods be­cause a lot of cou­ples like to get mar­ried in that type of set­ting.”

Moyer said he en­joys vis­it­ing with his sum­mer in­terns be­cause they give him a sense of what young peo­ple want in a va­ca­tion.

“The way I look at it, peo­ple like them will be our cus­tomers in five years,” he said. “We have to be pre­pared to give them what they want.”

One ex­am­ple is the hik­ing trails that have been added at the Cres­cent for those who de­sire more out­door ac­tiv­i­ties. Moyer said the tourism busi­ness in Eureka Spring has been rel­a­tively flat for years, but he does see sev­eral emerg­ing trends. He thinks fewer of the Vic­to­rian homes that dot the city will be used for bed-and-break­fast inns in the fu­ture, with more of them serv­ing as week­end get­aways for those get­ting wealthy in the lat­est North­west Arkansas eco­nomic boom.

“Our big­gest mar­ket is now peo­ple mak­ing the short drive from Ben­ton and Washington coun­ties,” Moyer said. “Wi­chita, Kan., is also a key mar­ket, es­pe­cially for peo­ple pur­chas­ing homes out to­ward Beaver Lake. The busi­nesses east of town have strug­gled in re­cent years as the Great Pas­sion Play au­di­ences have fallen off. We’re see­ing more ac­tion west of town to­ward the lake. Down­town con­tin­ues to do well with most of the store­fronts filled.”

Eureka Springs has ex­pe­ri­enced nu­mer­ous ups and downs through the decades. In June 1879, a judge named Levi Best Saun­ders built a house to take ad­van­tage of the spring wa­ter that he cred­ited with cur­ing his skin prob­lems. Within months, a gen­eral store had been built. Joseph Perry, who owned ho­tels across the coun­try, con­structed his four-story Perry House Ho­tel in 1881. Soon the word was out.

It was an era when baths in min­eral wa­ters were all the rage, and hun­dreds of wooden houses and busi­nesses were built on the sur­round­ing hills. Ma­jor fires struck the city in 1883, 1888, 1890 and 1893, but Eureka Springs bounced back each time. Re­con­struc­tion-era Gov. Pow­ell Clay­ton formed the Eureka Im­prove­ment Co. and opened the Cres­cent in 1886. The Basin Park opened in 1905 where the Perry House had once stood.

Eureka Springs had been in a long de­cline when the con­tro­ver­sial Ger­ald L.K. Smith moved there in 1964, un­veiled the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue in 1966 and be­gan the Great Pas­sion Play in 1968. Those projects brought thou­sands of new vis­i­tors. As in­ter­est in Smith’s cre­ation falls off, it ap­pears the eco­nomic as­cen­dancy of the Fayet­teville-to-Ben­tonville cor­ri­dor will be the lat­est eco­nomic sav­ior for Eureka Springs. Af­ter all, those newly minted millionaires need a nearby place to play.

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