Saving the Arlington Hotel
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.