Sav­ing the Ar­ling­ton Ho­tel

The Sentinel-Record - - VIEWPOINTS - Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette Se­nior Edi­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­

EDI­TOR’S NOTE: This col­umn was orig­i­nally pub­lished in Wed­nes­day’s edition of the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

Al Ra­jabi’s eggs are get­ting cold. The new owner of the Ar­ling­ton Re­sort Ho­tel & Spa is talk­ing pas­sion­ately about the state’s most iconic pri­vately owned struc­ture, which he pur­chased ear­lier this sum­mer. He ap­pears to have for­got­ten the plate in front of him as he shows me pho­tos on his phone of projects he has worked on through the years.

We’re hav­ing break­fast at the Four Points by Sher­a­ton Ho­tel on South Univer­sity Av­enue in Little Rock, which Ra­jabi pur­chased in May 2014. The ho­tel was a Hil­ton for many years and later be­came a Clar­ion.

Be­fore break­fast, Ra­jabi had walked with me around the grounds, show­ing off the many im­prove­ments he has made. He seemed es­pe­cially proud of the re­sort-style pool. Ra­jabi,

43, ad­mits that he’s a flip­per — some­one who buys dis­tressed ho­tel prop­er­ties, makes im­prove­ments and then sells them for a profit. But he in­sists that he has no plans to sell the Ar­ling­ton.

“Ev­ery project I’ve done so far has led me to this point,” he says. “The Four Points is an ex­am­ple of the kind of work I do. I de­liv­ered ev­ery­thing I had promised with this project. No­body writes news­pa­per ar­ti­cles about a ho­tel like the Four Points, though. Ev­ery­body is writ­ing and talk­ing about the Ar­ling­ton. I re­al­ize there’s a pas­sion in this state for that ho­tel. I’m not look­ing for a hand­out. I’m in­vested in Hot Springs, and I plan to stay. I hope they’ll let me do what I’m re­ally good at, and that’s turn­ing around strug­gling ho­tels.”

This is Ra­jabi’s first me­dia in­ter­view since pur­chas­ing the Ar­ling­ton. He says he’s “a very pri­vate per­son.” Ra­jabi, who’s based in San An­to­nio, was raised in Cal­i­for­nia but has spent most of his ca­reer as a ho­tel de­vel­oper in Texas. The fact that so little was known about him — com­bined with the fact that he didn’t hold a news con­fer­ence or re­turn re­porters’ phone calls when he pur­chased the Ar­ling­ton — raised a lot of ques­tions.

I wrote on July 23 that Ra­jabi “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. … 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.”

Ra­jabi now says: “Some­thing about that build­ing kept draw­ing me to it. I’m a guy who brings ho­tels back to life, and this was the chance of a life­time. I don’t blame the peo­ple of Arkansas for ask­ing ques­tions about me and in­sist­ing that this project be done cor­rectly. I hope they keep it up be­cause that shows they care. My hope is that they get to know me and know that I have plans for the Ar­ling­ton. They also need to know that this ho­tel isn’t for sale. I didn’t buy this to turn around and sell it, but it’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight. We only have one shot, and we have to do it right.”

Years of de­ferred main­te­nance have taken a toll on the Ar­ling­ton. An Aug. 10 let­ter from Mike Scott, the chief build­ing of­fi­cial for the city of Hot Springs, to Ar­ling­ton gen­eral man­ager Bob Mar­torana set a Nov.

8 dead­line for ad­dress­ing safety con­cerns and warned that the ho­tel would be shut down on that date if the con­cerns weren’t ad­dressed. The city closed 47 rooms un­til safety vi­o­la­tions could be reme­died. To Ra­jabi’s credit, re­pairs were made promptly, and the 47 rooms were re­opened Aug. 18.

Ex­te­rior work will take longer. Scott wrote in his Aug. 10 let­ter that the ex­te­rior issues “pose a com­plex task to ac­com­plish in such a short time, but the lo­ca­tion and scope of the prob­lems have been known for many months, and the new owner was also made aware of these prob­lems in a meet­ing last spring. Un­der no cir­cum­stance will the pub­lic be ex­posed to po­ten­tial haz­ard.” Scott later told The Sen­tinel-Record: “The plas­ter is cracked and could come loose, es­pe­cially dur­ing the freeze-and-thaw cy­cle this win­ter.”

Ra­jabi says he has con­trac­tors in place to do the work. In a so­cial me­dia mes­sage last week, he wrote: “I’m pleased to an­nounce that we are very close to award­ing the con­tract to var­i­ous com­pa­nies to start work­ing on the most im­por­tant stage of the ren­o­va­tion, which is to stop the wa­ter pen­e­tra­tion. We will start work­ing on the roof and the tow­ers. This has been my goal from the be­gin­ning. My team and I have been work­ing hard to de­ter­mine which ar­eas to get started on.”

Ra­jabi says the city’s threat of clos­ing the ho­tel has up­set the al­most 200 Ar­ling­ton em­ploy­ees who “don’t know if they’ll have a job head­ing into the hol­i­days. I don’t need the city to tell me that there’s wa­ter pen­e­tra­tion.”

Some peo­ple are por­tray­ing this as Ra­jabi ver­sus city gov­ern­ment. I don’t think this is a good guy ver­sus bad guy sce­nario. I haven’t met a bad guy on ei­ther side. The city has a duty to pro­tect pub­lic safety. The new owner says he’s com­mit­ted to a full restora­tion. Both sides have a job to do.

The fu­ture of down­town Hot Springs is tied to the fate of the Ar­ling­ton. It’s high time for every­one to work to­gether and en­sure the ho­tel is safe and doesn’t close. After decades of ne­glect, the Ar­ling­ton is go­ing to re­quire lots of love, lots of money and a dose of pa­tience.

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