REX NELSON: Spa City dreaming

In a 1966 book titled Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Hot Springs National Park: The Story of a City and the Nation’s Health Resort, Dr. Francis J. Scully wrote: “Hot Springs was not only a health resort, it was also a pleasure resort, one of the most popular in the country, whose guests came from everywhere. Politicians, statesmen, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, as well as people who were considered somebody in their home communities, these were the people who came to Hot Springs. Many were sick, it is true, but they often made return trips just to enjoy the rest and leisure they knew they could find there, or to enter into the gay social life afforded by the large resort hotels.”

In his foreword to that book, John Ferguson, who headed the Arkansas History Commission for decades, called Hot Springs “one of the most surprising cities in America. From its location in the Arkansas mountains, the visitors might expect to see one of the sleepy provincial hamlets found in razorback folklore. Instead, he encounters a unique and cosmopolitan resort town which belongs not only to Arkansas but also to the world.”

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The year after the book was published, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller began shutting down gambling operations across the city. They were technically illegal but had flourished for years. The number of people visiting the Spa City for baths had started falling in the late 1940s. The end of casino gambling two decades later exacerbated a decades-long decline that ended only recently.

I thought about those words in Scully’s book as I walked around downtown Hot Springs on Monday night. The place was hopping. Hundreds of people had gathered for the 16th annual Tom Daniel Holiday Chili Cookoff on the first floor of the Exchange Street parking plaza. Thousands more were downtown to see the Christmas lights turned on. On Bathhouse Row, big trucks blocked the sidewalk as a movie was being filmed.

I walked to the Arlington Hotel. I love to occupy a window seat at its grand Venetian Dining Room and watch people walk by. The big band music playing on the restaurant’s sound system conjured up visions of the days when Hot Springs was among the nation’s top resorts. I dream of a day when it will thrive again.

A piece of the revitalization puzzle had been filled in earlier in the day when officials at Oaklawn Park announced that they will spend more than $100 million for a high-rise hotel, a multipurpose event center and a larger casino. When Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment Nov. 6 allowing four full-fledged casinos in the state, they made legal what Rockefeller had shut down in the late 1960s.

In a sense, Hot Springs will now return to its roots with more than just electronic games to entice visitors. Think Southern Club, Belvedere Country Club and the Vapors–but bigger. There will be actual dealers, big-name entertainers, 24-hour dining, sports betting and more. I expect Oaklawn will also build a turf course that will allow it to host the Breeders’ Cup one fall. Were that to happen, it would be the most important sports event to take place in the state since the Big Shootout football game between the University of Arkansas and the University of Texas in December 1969.

Louis Cella, who has done an admirable job since taking the reins at Oaklawn following the death of his father Charles, called Monday’s announcement “a new chapter in the rich 114-year history of Oaklawn. As we enhance the entertainment experience for our customers, we will also further elevate thoroughbred racing and help make Arkansas and Hot Springs even stronger regional tourism destinations. … The hotel will offer a unique vantage point for our patrons in that it will overlook the track. Imagine the spectacular view as the horses are heading down the stretch. Our goal is to achieve four-star status.”

Kane Webb now heads the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. Like me, he once covered thoroughbred racing for this newspaper. He said the Oaklawn expansion will “thrust Hot Springs into the category of the nation’s elite vacation and recreation locations.”

Oaklawn’s landmark announcement came just a few days after another major event–the opening of the first phase (seven miles of a planned 44 miles) of the Northwoods Trail. The mountain bike trails are being designed and built by the International Mountain Bicyling Association on pristine city-owned land near downtown. Financial support has come from the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville.

The foundation’s Gary Vernon said: “We’re trying to create a world-class destination in the state of Arkansas, and Hot Springs is one of the cities that’s going to contribute to that. If you have a trail leading from downtown, it enhances the cycling culture of a city.”

Vernon says IMBA experts “gave us a really good design. They had their talented builders come in and take a look at the ravines and the different shapes of the hillsides, and they made the best trail out of it. We rely on IMBA for a lot of the trail design because they’re one of the best designers in the business.”

Northwoods will bring a new type of visitor to Hot Springs. But what’s happening at Oaklawn and Northwoods can’t be the end of the revitalization efforts. They should represent only the start. The completion of the four-lane stretch of U.S. 70 from Interstate 30 has made Hot Springs easier to reach than ever before.

Rumors of future developments were rampant as I talked to people at Monday’s chili cookoff. There were rumors about well-heeled owners for decaying hotels downtown and planned developments on the site where the Majestic Hotel once stood. One man who lives near the airport noted that he has seen a stream of corporate jets landing and taking off in recent weeks. “Something big is happening,” he said.