Valdosta Daily Times

June 23, 2013

Hot Springs National Park

New Leases on Life

David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — Hot Springs, Arkansas, the original spring training site for professional baseball (as Braves fans, we consider this important to mention), is best known for its historic bathhouses that commercialized the therapeutic benefits of thermal water flowing from the area’s springs.

The spring water contains few minerals, and has no taste or smell, unlike thermal waters in Yellowstone. Locals can frequently be seen around town at public fountains filling multiple containers with spring water.  

Individuals have been drawn to the Hot Springs area for hundreds of years seeking the healing effects of the thermal waters. Dozens of bathhouses lining the town’s main thoroughfare offered baths using what was once thought to be radioactive water. Famous visitors to Hot Springs ranged from sports heroes and movie stars to the infamous Al Capone.

Although it was more likely that healthful diets, increased physical activity, and reduced stress, not spring water, proved most beneficial in curing physical ills, the thermal water served as the honey that attracted visitors to Hot Springs.

The area’s golden age spanned the years from the Civil War to the end of World War II when more than a million individuals annually came for the park’s thermal waters. Advances in medicine and availability of better transportation following WWII caused people with illnesses to seek alternative treatments 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.

An Overview of Hot Springs National Park

The smallest of America’s 59 national parks at 5,550 acres, Hot Springs National Park surrounds the north end of the town of Hot Springs. Considered by some to be the oldest national park, it was actually classified as a federal reservation at the time the government settled land claims and took control of the springs in 1877. Not until 1921 was it declared by Congress a national park.  

At the time the government acquired the land, drainage from the watershed and runoff from the hot springs emptied into an open creek that ran through town. The government built and covered a channel that helped alleviate the creek’s problems of dangerous water currents from heavy rain, stagnant pools of water during dry periods, and contamination.   

The reservation became a national park during a time when large bathhouses were being constructed along what came to be called “Bathhouse Row.” The buildings were fancy both outside and inside, with the latter often decorated with murals, stained glass, statues, and marble floors. In addition to these private bathhouses, the government operated a free bathhouse for individuals unable to pay for thermal-water bathing recommended by their physician.

Although bathhouses remain the central feature of Hot Springs National Park, the park’s forested countryside offers numerous short walking trails from .1 to 1.5 miles. In keeping with its mission, the park has become a strong advocate for health and wellness, and one of its brochures is titled “Let’s move outside.”

A log sheet for recording hikes is available in the visitor center where participants can win incentives for achieving specific walking goals. Although not part of the park, several miles of scenic hiking trails, some elaborately landscaped, are near the edge of town in Garvan Woodland Gardens, a worthwhile stop for visitors to Hot Springs.


The Bathhouses Today

While the early wooden bathhouses burned or were torn down, a number of impressive bathhouses constructed in the early 1900s remained into the mid-1900s when they competed for fewer and fewer customers. By 1985, only one major bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park remained open. Today, two of the historic buildings operate as bathhouses, although three hotels outside the national park offer spa services.   

Hot Springs National Park includes nine buildings that once served as bathhouses. The structures are of varying size, but each is quite large with an impressive exterior. All of the buildings except one are on Bathhouse Row along the town’s main street. One of the two active bathhouses, the Buckstaff, has been in continuous operation since 1912. The other, the Quapaw, closed its doors in 1985 and remained vacant until renovations began and it reopened in 2008. One of the Quapaw’s managers told us the renovated bathhouse has been profitable since its second year of operation. The other former bathhouses are either vacant or functioning in some other capacity. One is being used as the Hot Springs National Park visitor center. Another is a bookstore that also houses National Park Service offices. With no current demand for additional operating bathhouses, the National Park Service has sought tenants for the remaining vacant buildings employing an innovative strategy that has proved at least partially successful.

National Park

Service Commercial Arrangements

Although nearly all commercial structures (stores, lodges, book stores, markets, studios, etc.) within national parks are government-owned, virtually none are actually government-operated.

The nine lodges in Yellowstone, all owned by the government, are operated by privately owned Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Lodges in Yosemite, including the upscale Ahwahnee are government-owned, but operated by Delaware North. The lodge and campground in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park are operated by ARAMARK.

Businesses bid against one another for the right to operate commercial enterprises within the national parks. For this right, they agree to pay the National Park Service a fee based on the revenue generated from the operation. The fee is essentially a rent paid for use of the facilities. Winning bidders may also be required to place funds in a reserve for maintenance and to undertake specified improvements. The contracts generally terminate in 10 years at which time bidding begins on a new contract.

Contracts in major parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon are quite complex and require sophisticated bidders. As a result, large commercial enterprises in the national parks are operated by a small number of private firms that can afford to employ personnel who specialize in evaluating these contracts.

Long-Term Leases and Adaptive Reuse

Park management at Hot Springs is burdened with two major issues in its attempt to renovate the historic bathhouses. First, although exteriors of the nine remaining bathhouses are attractive and appear in good repair, interiors of the vacant buildings need extensive work that will require substantial sums of money the park doesn’t currently have. In addition, with two operating bathhouses in the national park and three operating hotel spas in the town, there is little need for one, let alone four or five additional bathhouses. The bottom line is the impossibility of attracting an investor that will put large sums of money into a business that isn’t viable.

The park is addressing these problems in two ways.

One offers long-term leases that permit a business or organization sufficient time to recover the large investment required to renovate a building. Ten-year terms that are standard for most National Park Service commercial contracts don’t work well in this park where large sums of money are required to bring a building into working order. One of the two operating bathhouses is in the early stages of a 55-year lease during which $3.5 million of private funds have been invested. Two other former bathhouses are being operated under long-term leases of similar length.

The second problem is addressed by allowing lessees to utilize the buildings for something other than bathhouses. This strategy, called “adaptive reuse,” increases the likelihood of attracting a business or organization that will agree to spend the money necessary to renovate a building. One of the former bathhouses has been converted under a 60-year lease into an art museum. Another former bathhouse, currently being renovated under a 55-year lease, is to become a brewpub and distillery.

The brewpub business is being spearheaded by Rose Schweihart-Cranson, a young, energetic entrepreneur who is spending $500,000 in the initial stage of interior preparation. The National Park Service had earlier spent nearly $1 million removing asbestos, bringing plumbing and electrical up to code, installing heating and air systems, and putting in sprinkler and fire alarm systems.

Under most National Park Service concession contracts, the concessionaire is required to seek park approval for products and services that are offered and the prices at which they are sold to the public. Long-term leases being used at Hot Springs National Park offer substantially more flexibility to the lessee. Schweihart-Cranson will be permitted to charge whatever price she deems fair for the beers and snacks she plans to sell.

In contrast, concessionaires at most parks are required to seek approval when establishing the prices for everything they sell. For example, the Yellowstone concessionaire must seek the park superintendent’s approval for the prices it charges for rooms at Old Faithful Inn and each of the other eight lodges in the park.

Hopefully, Hot Springs National Park will be successful in attracting businesses and organizations to occupy its remaining vacant buildings. Active tenants that spend their own money on renovations will permit park visitors to continue to appreciate the magnificent structures that were an important part of America’s past, even if the buildings are utilized for purposes other than offering spa services. Drinking a craft beer brewed with local spring water in a bathhouse once frequented by Al Capone sounds like an enjoyable evening.              

David and Kay Scott reside in Valdosta and are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot).