New Leases On Life For Hot Springs National Park

With a need for dollars to maintain historic facilities, the National Park Service sometimes turns to private enterprises to help meet ends. Top photo is of the Buckstaff, one of the still-operating bathhouses at Hot Springs National Park. The bottom photo is of Rose Schweihart-Cranson, who is working to install a brewpub in a former bathhouse, the Superior. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: In this, the second of a two-part series on how the National Park Service manages its concessions, David and Kay Scott look at how facilities at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas are being used for some untraditional purposes.

The town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the original spring training site for professional baseball (as baseball fans we needed to somehow include this fact), is best known for its historic bathhouses that commercialized the therapeutic benefits of waters that flow from Hot Springs National Park’s 47 springs.

People came for the healing effects of what was thought to be radioactive water utilized in dozens of bathhouses lining the town’s main thoroughfare. Famous visitors ranged from sports figures and movie stars to the infamous Al Capone. Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service, on several occasions journeyed to Hot Springs to take advantage of its healing waters.

The area’s golden age spanned the years from the Civil War to the end of World War II, when advances in medicine caused people to seek treatment at home rather than trek to Hot Springs. The resulting decline in visitation for medicinal purposes resulted in bathhouse closings and the once magnificent buildings gradually became decayed ghosts of their storied past.

The state of the surviving bathhouses, the main focus for most of the quarter-million annual visitors to Hot Springs National Park, became the major issue for park management. It remains so today.

Hot Springs National Park includes nine buildings that once served as bathhouses. The structures are of varying size, but each is quite large. All the buildings except one are on Bathhouse Row along the town’s main street, and only two of the nine continue in use as bathhouses.

One, the Buckstaff, has been in continuous use since 1912 and is currently operated under a concession agreement similar to most other NPS commercial contracts. The contract length for the Buckstaff is 10 years and the concessionaire pays NPS an annual franchise fee of 1.5 percent of gross revenues. The other functioning bathhouse, Quapaw, is being operated under a 55-year lease. The Quapaw closed its doors in 1985 and remained unused until renovations began and it reopened in 2008 under the current long-term lease. According to Don Harper of the Quapaw, the renovated bathhouse has been profitable since its second year of operation.

In addition to the two operating bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, three hotels offer competition with their own spa services. Thus, the town of Hot Springs has five functioning spas that together offer more than sufficient capacity to service a public that typically utilizes spa services for recreation rather than rehabilitation.

During the town’s golden age, visitors often stayed for weeks or months, during which they frequented the bathhouses on a daily basis. Today’s visitor may utilize bathhouse facilities one or two times, or, perhaps, not at all. The result is insufficient demand for additional bathhouses, thus leaving the park with seven large buildings no longer needed for spa services.

The National Park Service has long used Fordyce, one of the former bathhouses, as its visitor center. This building is currently under renovation and expected to reopen this fall as the park’s visitor center. During the Fordyce renovation, the park’s visitor center has been moved to the Lamar, a former bathhouse that, following the Fordyce’s completion, will house NPS offices and the Eastern National bookstore.

The NPS has and is in the process of locating interested businesses or organizations willing to enter into long-term leases for the five remaining buildings. Like the Quapaw that is currently operating as a bathhouse under a long-term lease, the lessees are required pay rent for use of the facility, and be responsible for interior and exterior maintenance for the term of the lease.

One former bathhouse, the Ozark, is currently serving as an art museum under a 60-year lease that began in 2009 and requires monthly rent of $2,000. Another former bathhouse, Superior, is being renovated under a 55-year lease for use as a brewpub. The lobby area of another former bathhouse, Hale, has been utilized as a café and bookstore under a temporary 2-year contract. Unfortunately, the organization using the facility recently announced it would move elsewhere when it was unable to raise $2 million in funds required to renovate the remainder of the building.

Thus, the NPS is left with three unoccupied former bathhouses. Two of these, the Maurice and the Libby (the Libby is several blocks off Bathhouse Row), will require extensive renovation. Although the NPS is doing some work on the interior of the Maurice in order to make it more desirable to potential lessees, both buildings will require substantial investments to make them usable.

Much of the major work to prepare a building for occupancy has been paid for by the NPS. Rose Schweihart-Cranson, the young, energetic entrepreneur working to prepare the Superior as a brewpub, indicated the National Park Service spent nearly $1 million removing asbestos, bringing plumbing and electrical up to code, installing heating and air systems, and putting in sprinklers and a fire alarm system.

Ms. Schweihart-Cranson said she is spending nearly $500,000 during the initial stage of preparing the interior for opening the business. The brewery and distillery will follow shortly thereafter. Additional funds will be required to prepare the second floor for private parties.

Don Hanson of the Quapaw related that he and his partners had spent more than $3 million in the spa’s renovation. It is obvious that renovations to the park’s historic buildings aren’t inexpensive.

Long-term leases such as those at being used in Hot Springs National Park offer substantial freedom to the lessees with respect to the products and services that are offered and the prices charged to the public. Ms Schweihart-Cranson will be free to choose what she considers an appropriate price for the craft beers and upscale snacks she plans to sell. If the price is too high, people will go elsewhere.

Selling beer in Hot Springs isn’t the same as selling beer in Yellowstone, where visitors don’t really have an alternative other than to not drink. In addition, the lessees in Hot Springs are putting substantial sums of their own money at risk.

Adaptive reuse, whether it’s a brewpub at the Superior or an art museum in the Ozark, benefits park visitors who are able to appreciate the magnificent buildings that were so popular in the early 1900s.

Without substantial amounts of additional government funding the NPS would find it impossible to complete the renovations or pay of the operations even if they could be renovated. In any case, there was never a chance the historic buildings could have been renovated for a return to their original use as bathhouses. The customers are simply no longer around.

Comments

It's going to take far more than "craft beer" to restore HSNP. I recently visited there, and the best that can be said about the entire City/Park is that it's a decaying, decrepit, down-on-its heels dump. The huge empty hotels are depressing and down right creepy. The shops are largely filled with the equivalant of "rubber tomahawks". The aura of decay is everywhere. I don't even know where one would begin to start to rejuvenate the area.