The Renaissance of Downtown Hot Springs
by Josh Williams
photography by Amanda Shelley Ledbetter
Tuesday. 9:15 am. Hot Springs, Arkansas. A person is walking to their favorite coffee shop and hair salon because of the rebuilt, usable, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks that line the streets. A person confined to a wheelchair is now able to enter their local neighborhood grocery store with ease because of the renovated access ramps. A mother is walking her dog and strolling with her young child to a newly established, memorial city park on the site of an old, condemned hotel that was a haven for vagrants and drug addicts. Locally sourced food trucks gather downtown on the last Friday of every month. The days of yore are being revisited because the century-old bathhouses that line Central Avenue are actually able to give baths to people today. Downtown Hot Springs is coming back to life, and it’s getting the much-needed attention it deserves. These improvements are thanks to the hard work of the dedicated citizens of Hot Springs, particularly the ones that make up the Hot Springs Metro Partnership.
Jim Fram is the President of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and has been in public service for more than two decades: He was the Senior Vice President of Economic Development for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in oil country. He worked for the COC in the college town of Lincoln, Nebraska. He also had prior stops in Arkansas, representing Harrison and Little Rock. He’s seen a variety of towns and has been immersed in varying economies and social structures, but the same desires resonate throughout every community in our nation: Get the economy to the next level. The attitude in Hot Springs is no different.
“I’ve been the Chamber president for three years now,” Jim said, “and this is the first time we’ve had investors come to our office and inquire about properties and discuss development on a daily basis. Everyone from that entrepreneurial spirit with little resources to the seasoned developers with a track record of success are showing more and more interest every day. It’s exciting.” This is good news for a tourist town with one of the very worst economies in the nation since 2008.
“The Chamber has over 1000 businesses that hold membership with us. Our job is to make sure these businesses do well, and our town thrives,” Jim stated. “By improving the heart of our city, we are able to keep the emphasis on shopping locally. By keeping [downtown] clean and safe, we can craft positive things to say about our community and keep it moving in the right direction.” Hot Springs hasn’t always been perceived in a positive light: But then again, old gambling towns rife with a history of mob activity and crooked politics rarely are. Hot Springs was Vegas before Vegas. All the more reason to save the struggling community.
Jim said, “We are in a unique place. The landscape, the low cost of living, the artist community, the restaurants, the selection of retail—there is unlimited potential here. We have a main thoroughfare, on one side you have the oldest national park in the country, and on the other side you have these historically significant buildings. When just one investor, in any form comes on board, more follow suit. When the domino effect starts, it’s hard to stop.”
One of the biggest modes of assistance Hot Springs could receive is just plain exposure. For a troubled economy, it’s hard to find ways to keep the lights on, let alone trying to turn on the lights in the public’s field of vision. Unfortunately, and incorrectly, advertising dollars are the first things to be cut from a business’ budget. And with all the bureaucratic red tape to wade through to secure funds from Uncle Sam, economic progress can take time. So, it’s going to take Hot Springs pulling itself up by the bootstraps to really get anything moving. And it is happening. But until everyone gets on board, the workload will be heavy.
“Even with all the old negative stigmas attached to Hot Springs,” Jim said, “they are beginning to be overshadowed by all the positives from the community. When you look at all the history here—Major League Baseball spring training, the gangsters, the movie stars, I mean—we had a two-term sitting president that grew up right here, walked the same streets and navigated the same mountains that we do every day. We need to take advantage of these things.”
The rebuilt sidewalks are just the beginning: The recently renovated bathhouses, particularly the Superior and Hale, are operational with new business; the 102-year-old Thompson Building will house a 60-room boutique hotel; the continued clean-up of the debacle that is the Majestic Hotel mess is finally being addressed—things are starting to happen. Referring to the Majestic Hotel, Jim said, “People like Bill Burrough and Cole McCaskill have done a great job working with agencies like the ADEQ and EPA. It’s a long process, but we will get there. We will get it cleaned up. We’ve got plans for everything from an outdoor amphitheater to a performance venue to a splash pad—everything from mild to wild has been suggested.”
It’s time to strike while the iron is hot. And it’s burning up in here. Jim said, “We’re trying to move the community in a growth pattern. We are bringing new jobs and new income. I don’t think anybody can argue with that.”
For more on Downtown Hot Springs visit www.hotspringsmetropartnership.com or call 501-321-1700.