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A winning combination: historic setting and unique shops lead to revival of downtown Hot Springs.

A decade ago, even a gambler wouldn't have bet on a comeback for downtown Hot Springs.

With the exception of a few determined merchants who refused to cut their losses and relocate, the once-vibrant area was home mostly to strip joints, winos and boarded-up buildings.

Mark Fleischner owns one of the businesses that stuck it out.

"I was here during the good times, but I was also here during the bad years," says Fleischner, 42.

His family has owned Lauray's The Diamond Center since 1932.

"After gambling left downtown, buildings didn't have a dime spent on them," Fleischner says. "It was the pits."

That changed in 1986, according to Fleischner, who chairs the Central Business Improvement District. He says the CBID, the Main Street Arkansas program, the Garland County Industrial Development Corp. and other organizations launched a revitalization program that saved downtown.

A bond issue and special tax credits proved successful.

Once civic improvements along Central Avenue were completed in 1989, "things really took off," Fleischner says.

"The numbers were unbelievable," he says.

On May 12, a ceremony was held to recognize the rebirth of downtown Hot Springs. Thirty businesses have opened or expanded downtown since this time last year.

"For eight blocks along Central Avenue, there is not an empty building," says Bill Goodwin, chairman of the Hot Springs Downtown Merchants Association. "I bet my banker that downtown would be full by May ... I'm ready for that lunch he promised me."

Back From The Flood

Like many downtown businesses, Goodwin's two ventures, Goodwin's Gifts and National Park Aquarium, grew out of the renovation process.

They also are among the businesses that had to recover from a May 1990 flood.

"It was a big setback," Goodwin says. "There was a sign Mark Fleischner hung outside Lauray's while they were rebuilding that said, 'If it's going to be, it's up to me.'

"That held true for most businesses."

Fleischner's philosophy paid off. Since the flood, business has increased 25 percent, he says. A growth rate of at least 5 percent per month has been maintained this year.

Fleischner attributes much of the sales growth to the new businesses. Those businesses have drawn people downtown who otherwise would not have visited the area.

Lee Ross, owner of Crystal Baron Mining Co. at Mount Ida, opened a shop last month in downtown Hot Springs. Ross, an Oklahoma native, and his wife began mining and wholesaling Arkansas crystals and other stones three years ago. Although out-of-state wholesalers account for 75 percent of his business, he saw the opportunity for "lots of exposure" in downtown Hot Springs.

Ross, 68, says retirees are "bringing extensive business experience" to downtown ventures. He is a retired salesman.

Larry and Loyce Gates, both in their mid-40s, gave up careers in Texas to open a shop in downtown Hot Springs. Wick-its, which features hand-carved candles, opened in April.

"Downtown offers a walking tourist trade," says Loyce Gates. "Having visited Hot Springs as tourists ourselves, we knew that."

Jack Quaglino, a California native who sold his 2-year-old gift shop in the Hot Springs Mall to open Candlelight Galleria on Central Avenue, says downtown is having no trouble competing with the two malls several miles south.

Quaglino says his reason for moving was simple.

"Specialty shops appeal to tourists," he says. "Tourists don't want to come from their hometowns, where there is at least one nearby mall, and shop at a mall with the same chain stores.

"Downtown's historic setting and unique shops are a winning combination."
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Across Arkansas
Author:Harper, Kim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 25, 1992
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