“Rex Nelson has a spotlight, and he knows how to use it; he shines that light on the best of what Arkansas has to offer,” Hot Springs National Park Rotarian Neal Gladner said Wednesday during the guest introduction at the club’s weekly meeting.
“And if he’s shining it on something that’s really not quite up to snuff, he does it gently without finger pointing or assigning blame, but with suggestions for improvement.”
During Wednesday's meeting, the famed Arkansas journalist who is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blogger for Rex Nelson's Southern Fried, delivered a message on Hot Springs' future that lived up to Gladner's sentiments — stating both what's working and what needs improvement in the community.
Read on to hear the challenge Nelson imposes on everyone in and connected to Hot Springs in order to see it thrive in the post-pandemic future.
Nelson began by saying of all the blog posts he has made in the past 12 years, the single most popular has been The shame of Hot Springs, which he published Feb. 21, 2014. The article was inspired from the day the city put up plywood on the doors and windows of The Majestic Hotel, which had set empty since its closing in 2006.
"I thought that (boarding up the empty building) was symbolic to what I considered kind of a 50-year deterioration of Downtown Hot Springs that I unfortunately had watched," Nelson said. "... Of course, we know the story with the shut down of illegal gambling operations (and) with people no longer considering baths to really be a cure for anything, and baths going away. At the same time downtown went into this long era of decline."
The week after Nelson published The Shame of Hot Springs, a portion of The Majestic burned*. However, this fire served as the city's wake up call.
"I think when the fire happened that there was a realization on the part of a lot of people that we’ve got something very special here; that we’ve got something unique here (in Hot Springs)," he said. "Something that use to draw people from all over the world that made us one of the top resorts in the whole country at one time, and we’re in danger of losing it."
Now, after seeing revitalization in the more than seven years that has passed since the burning of The Majestic, Nelson said there is reason for celebration with all that's going on. He pointed to Oaklawn's more than $100 million expansion**; The Reserve bed and breakfast put inside the mansion across the street from the race track; the Velda Rose Hotel receiving new ownership; and the Medical Arts Building being purchased*** with plans to be reconstructed into a hotel.
"And if all of that were to happen, then that quarter would be well on its way," Nelson said. "But, Neal mentioned also trying to tell the other side of the story. I did not come here today just to give the Chamber of Commerce speech."
He challenges everyone to think even bigger as the city moves forward in growth.
"I think (if) we play our cards right, a post-pandemic America ... could really play to … the benefit to a place like Hot Springs where you already have so many natural attributes and you already have so many exciting things going on like I just talked about. So my challenge is to start thinking even bigger."
He first named the "largely empty" Hot Springs Mall, which has recently been renamed to "Uptown Hot Springs" in an effort to distance itself from being thought of as a mall.
"It’s all over America that people are looking about, 'how do we reuse malls?'" he said. "... But is there any really creative thinking going on for that space? ... Just an idea, what about making that the e-sports capital of Arkansas? ... Creative thinking. This town would be perfect for something like an e-sports center."
"Somebody could do something with the Royal Vista (Inn); that would help," he continued. "... We get downtown, and yes there has been progress, but there’s still big buildings that are empty, and there is still the Old Army Navy Hospital that still towers over downtown that is looking for a use. And again, that calls for great creative thinking."
The Bottom Line
"Don’t stop, don’t let up, don’t rest on your laurels and don’t screw it up," Nelson said.
But who exactly is he tasking to improve the community? Anyone with a passion for Hot Springs, and an idea to help it grow.
To name a few real-life examples, Nelson told The Post that is anyone who has taken a chance on businesses downtown when "that wasn't a sure thing by any means." He named art gallery owners; restaurant owners, like Tony Valinoti with Deluca's who he described as a "culinary rock star;" Low Key Arts, who created the Valley of Vapors Independent Music Festival; and those who "took a chance" on the bath houses.
"Kempke, Taylor, Rose Schweikhart and the mayor are all heroes in my book," Nelson said of the people who have leased the Quapaw, Superior and Hale Bath Houses.
"I guess that’s my bottom line: There’s still work to be done," he said at the meeting. "So, great progress made since I wrote The shame of Hot Springs in February of 2014. Great progress made, things to be celebrated, but still work to be done, still so much potential.
"Now we’ve got the races starting in early December****, which I think is great and should be a really roaring holiday season too. Still, even more potential. So be thinking about, 'what can we do?' 'What can we do with this mall?' 'What can we do with this Army Navy Hospital?'
"Don’t only think about it, get serious about it. Make it happen. I think those of us who love Hot Springs owe that to the rest of Arkansas, and frankly we owe it to the rest of America. Because this is a place that is unique."
*Two years after the fire, the remainder of The Majestic Hotel was demolished by the city.
**Oaklawn's expansion was a resort complete in April 2021.
***The Medical Arts Building was purchased by local hotelier Parth Patel in May 2021.
****Oaklawn's racing season will begin December 3, 2021, rather than late January like it historically has.