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If his health holds out, Lee Corso will again appear on the popular ESPN Saturday morning program College GameDay this fall at age 84. Corso, a former college head football coach, has been a fixture on the show since 1987.

Corso's catchphrase when disagreeing with someone is "not so fast, my friend."

I'm thinking about that catchphrase as I tour Hot Springs' former Army & Navy General Hospital with Jonathan Bibb, director of the Arkansas Career Training Institute. It was announced in May that residential training for the disabled will cease at ACTI, leaving the giant building empty. Training will continue in a nonresidential setting across Reserve Street in a former armory.

The first veterans hospital on this site, which overlooks downtown, opened in the 1880s. The main building was completed in 1886 and was dedicated in January 1887. The current main building was finished in 1933 and seems to be in decent shape for a facility that age.

"We've tried to take good care of it," says Bibb, a Leola native who has been ACTI director since 2011. "We redid the water system, added new air conditioning and made other major improvements. I can promise you that it's in better shape now than it was in when I got here."

Bibb has studied the history of this place and delights in telling stories such as one about the rock retaining walls that were built by German prisoners of war during World War II. Some of those prisoners etched small swastikas in the concrete in silent protest.

The hospital had its largest population in 1945 when there were 1,770 patients in the main building and the Eastman annex. The Eastman, built as a hotel in 1882, stood until 1958. By 1959, the federal government had abandoned the entire facility. It was taken over by the state at a time when institutional settings for those with disabilities were more common than they are now.

"Thousands of Arkansans have come through here since 1960, and we've changed their lives for the better," Bibb tells me as we walk the long corridors.

The building where welders are now trained was once the stables. Bibb also shows me where the therapeutic pool, fed by thermal springs, was located. We even go to the basement to view what was the morgue and the large ovens in the crematorium where amputated limbs were burned. In the section of the main building that once housed the surgical suites, there was a balcony where medical students could watch procedures. The hospital even had a sun porch on the sixth floor that served polio and arthritis patients.

The main building is filled with brass and marble. Officers' quarters that were built in 1914 still stand out back. The adjacent Ross Hall provided housing for nurses.

"They spared no expense," Bibb says of the federal government.

During the years that the veterans hospital thrived, Hot Springs had the reputation of being among the nation's top health resorts. In addition to this massive hospital that looked down on Bathhouse Row, the Dugan-Stewart Building was constructed across Central Avenue in 1904 to house medical offices. In the 1940s, those offices were converted into a hotel. There was a bowling alley in the basement.

On the same side of Central Avenue, the 16-story Medical Arts Building was constructed in 1930 to house doctors' offices. It was the tallest building in Arkansas until 1960 when the Tower Building was completed in downtown Little Rock. The Medical Arts Building was advertised as the "Skyscraper of Health" and eventually housed 55 physicians and five commercial businesses.

Downtown Hot Springs went through at least five decades of decline as the use of thermal waters as a health treatment fell out of favor. The other fatal blow was the end of illegal casino gambling in the late 1960s.

One of the things that has made me the happiest during the past five years has been the rebirth of downtown. Seven of the eight bathhouses (constructed between 1892 and 1923) are now occupied, including the recently opened Hotel Hale. The beautiful Thompson Building is now the home of an upscale hotel (The Waters) and a fine-dining venue (The Avenue).

I fear, however, that state and local economic development leaders will become satisfied and think that enough has been done downtown. Consider the facts: The old Army & Navy General Hospital will soon be empty. The Medical Arts Building and the Dugan-Stuart Building have been empty for years. Other large structures such as the Wade Building, the former De Soto/Howe Hotel and the former Velda Rose Hotel are largely abandoned. They're all within a few blocks of each other.

That's why I want to say this to those who believe victory has been achieved in downtown Hot Springs: Not so fast, my friend.

Hot Springs is the No. 1 tourist destination in Arkansas. And tourism is the second-largest sector of the Arkansas economy (behind agriculture). Yet visitors to Hot Springs see abandoned, deteriorating buildings as they walk up and down Central Avenue.

Given the significance of Hot Springs tourism to the state's economy, it stands to reason that finding uses for these buildings would be a priority for everyone from the governor on down. This also includes deciding soon on the best use for the site that once housed the Majestic Hotel at the north end of Central Avenue. Unfortunately, I don't feel that sense of urgency.

Now is the time for the best minds in the state to come up with ideas for the former Army & Navy General Hospital. The state should think big. I believe Arkansas should pursue a branch of the Savannah College of Art & Design or a culinary branch of Johnson & Wales University. Either would be a perfect fit for the hospital campus.

SCAD is a private nonprofit school founded in Savannah in 1978 to provide programs that were hard to find in the South. SCAD has since added locations in Atlanta, Hong Kong and Lacoste in France. Johnson & Wales was founded as a business school in Providence, R.I., in 1914. After its culinary programs became internationally renowned, it added locations in Denver, Miami and Charlotte. With its emphasis on the arts and its growing restaurant scene, Hot Springs would be a natural expansion site for both schools.

Meanwhile, the other empty buildings provide prime development opportunities as sites for apartments and condominiums that would give Hot Springs a needed downtown residential base.

The Velda Rose is 10 stories tall and covers almost 135,000 square feet. It had 191 guest rooms and a covered parking deck. It was built in 1963 when gambling was still going strong.

The Wade Building, adjacent to the Arlington Hotel, is a four-story structure designed by famous Arkansas architect Charles Thompson and built in 1927. The building, constructed in the Classical Revival style, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.

The seven-story building that housed the Howe Hotel beginning in 1926 was renamed the Hotel De Soto in the 1940s. It was the city's first certified fireproof building. It had 150 rooms, a bathhouse, a coffee shop in the lobby and a lounge on the second floor.

These buildings are ripe for redevelopment. What's needed is creative thinking along with a concerted effort by the state's government, business and civic leaders to make it happen. If and when it occurs, all of Arkansas will benefit from Hot Springs' return to prominence as a nationally known resort.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 07/21/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Not so fast

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