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Make Hot Springs great again

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Well, I guess some folks think Hot Springs is still great, but if it is, then why does Rex Nelson, the Dem-Gaz columnist keep writing about how Hot Springs is turning things around and pretty soon Central Avenue will once again shine? If you’re not familiar with Hot Spring, somewhere along downtown Central Avenue is the center of town. So if we’re going to make Hot Springs great again, we need to start with the center of town.

Okay, now let's be brutally honest. What are the things Central Avenue would have if it were great? That easy; a great downtown must be people friendly, have good entertainment, great restaurants, and quality shopping. How does Hot Springs’s Central Avenue stack up? On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a five, and I’m being generous. But Hot Springs does have the potential to move up. Here's the major problem: the center of town—Central Avenue—is not pedestrian friendly. Let me tell you how I know: I was invited to speak to a group of Hot Springs leaders, merchants, and other interested individuals a couple of years ago about how to invigorate downtown Hot Springs. Well, I wanted to get a close view of the shopping, restaurants, and other amenities, so I started from the Arlington Hotel and slowly drove down Central, in the inside lane, where I could get a good feel for what downtown Hot Springs has to offer. I guess I was going 15 to 20 mph, but wow, horns started honking and talk about some bad looks as drivers passed me. Folks were obviously using four lane Central Avenue to get across town, and shopping, restaurants etc weren't on their radar. Central Avenue has something in common with Oaklawn; they are both raceways, one for horses and one for cars. That in a nutshell is the overriding problem with downtown Hot Springs. Unless Central Avenue is made pedestrian friendly, Hot Springs will never reach its potential.

That’s the problem as I see it, and I have traveled extensively across our country parts of Asia, all of Western Europe and most of North Africa. The ideas I will put forth to make Hot Springs’s downtown what it should be have been distilled and used by hundreds of other cities. I’m not proposing anything that hasn’t already worked in hundreds of downtowns.

First, the traffic on Central Avenue must be diverted to another street. I’m no traffic engineer, but it seems Malvern, one block east, could be converted into a four lane street by removing the parking on either side, and with a very limited number of stop signs or red lights, give the commuters who across town a better route to get from one side of town to the next. That’s step one.

Now, let’s look at Central Avenue today. It’s, a four-lane raceway. Remember, the plan is to make Central pedestrian friendly, and you start with the attitude that not only do you want to make Central friendly to pedestrians, but unfriendly to vehicles. You do that by doing several things. First, you make it a boulevard, which of course means you get rid of two lanes of traffic. Step two, take the space those lanes took up and plant trees down the middle of the street, and use the other space to make the sidewalks wider to encourage sidewalk dining. Then, every 200 feet put in a pedestrian crosswalk with stop signs. I’ll guarantee you one thing, if that happens, the crosstown commuters will line up to go down Malvern rather than Central.

But we’re not there yet. In order to get the quality businesses and restaurants to occupy commercial space on Central Avenue, the city must strongly enforce electrical, fire, and structural zoning codes, and mandate enhanced landscaping along the street. The commercial space on Central must be improved to equal the best in the town. Any property owner who refuses to renovate their space should be forced to place their property on the market.

The goal should be to have a series of 25 foot retail or restaurant tenants along the opposite side of the street from Bathhouse Row. The 25 foot retail spacing not my idea. Disney did a survey and found shoppers preferred that spacing of retail stores, but not just any retail stores. Hot Springs must decide who they want as a customer, and every store should cater to that customer. If they decide to be a discount mall type street, every store should be of that nature. Or, if they decided to cater to middle and upper income shoppers, every store along the street must serve that customer. Of course, it means only retail or restaurants on the ground floor; no accountants, lawyers, or yoga studios.

If Hot Springs does the above, they will ready to add landscaping and other pizzazz items to draw pedestrians. Just remember this: you can’t have too much stuff, and if you don’t believe me, check out the successful downtowns around the world. Every successful downtown is patterned after the items mention above.

I know what I have suggested is a tough nut to crack, but progressive towns with great downtowns across this country are proof it can be done. So Hot Springs—get started by putting the needle in the Central Avenue Raceway.

Richard H. Mason of El Dorado is a syndicated columnist and author and former president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and the state Pollution Control & Ecology Commission.