July 16, 2014 Edition

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Ever evolving
Hot Springs

John Bland
Publisher

The Arkansas Press Association had its SuperConvention in Hot Springs, Thursday through Saturday, and, as always, it was fun and interesting to be in the Spa City. As have many other Arkansans, I have regularly visited Hot Springs most of my life and have watched it change with the decades.

It is a unique mix of people and attractions with its downtown area, the mid-area with Oaklawn Park Race Track and the lake area beyond. The lake area includes the fairly new and spacious Garvan Woodland Gardens.

As a child, I thought Hot Springs was a Mecca for the elderly, who I suppose were there to take the mineral baths, with water supplied from the hot springs, or who were patients at the rehabilitation hospital.

Central Avenue, the heart of downtown Hot Springs, winds like a river between the wooded mountains of Hot Springs National Park. The avenue includes the beautiful and historic magnolia-lined Bathhouse Row.

Before my time, downtown Hot Springs had wide-open gambling and was even a retreat for the Chicago mafia. Later, downtown would be the afterhours place to go for the horseracing crowd with its nightclubs and adult entertainment. Now, the summer crowd seemed to be largely tourists in T-shirts and shorts and convention attendees.

More than anything, I associate downtown Hot Springs with historic hotels, such at the Arlington and the Majestic.

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It was depressing to see the remains of the old Majestic Hotel, a victim of a major fire in late February. I grew up making annual visits with my family to the Majestic and have many great memories of the place. The Majestic was itself unique and contained four distinctly different parts. The yellow brick section was the oldest section and the part most damaged by the fire. The second oldest section was the red brick center section, which contained the large lobby with lots of comfortable seating and a tiled fountain for enjoying cups of hot or cold mineral water. The Lanai suites, a motel-like section, overlooked the once-tropical courtyard with large heated pool. Lastly, the Lanai Towers, built in 1963, featured a glass elevator and rooms with balconies that faced down Central Avenue.

The parts of the Majestic that remain look forlorn and made me think that the fire should have been allowed to finish its work.

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One place that has changed very little is The Pancake Shop on Central Avenue. The only differences at this institution from the 1960s to the present are the presence of a new ice machine and a computer used by the cashier. The consistently good food, the decor, the menu and the crowds of people remain unchanged.

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A Hot Springs business and tourism leader told our group about upcoming tourism developments for the city. He said that a new five-star boutique hotel is planned for downtown and that there are plans to remodel the Austin Hotel, located adjacent to the Convention Center. He noted that the Mid-America Science Museum is being renovated and enhanced with new exhibits thanks to a $7.8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

As always, Hot Springs remains the site of countless conferences and conventions. At least three groups were staying at the Embassy Suites while we were there.

For the good of Arkansas, and for the enjoyment of future generations, I hope that Hot Springs will continue to evolve into an even more desirable destination for those seeking a little diversion and relaxation.

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