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Her honor.

Hot Springs' Outspoken Mayor Looks For Ways To Attract More Tourists -- Even Foreign Ones




Hot Springs?

Don't laugh.

Long recognized for its therapeutic waters and natural beauty, Hot Springs is trying to join the list of cities that draw tourists from around the world.

Leading the charge is a woman who is slight in stature and deaf to the point that she must wear hearing aids.

Meet Mayor Melinda Baran.

Once you meet her, you won't forget her.

And she won't let you forget Hot Springs.

She tirelessly promotes her city as an attraction for domestic and foreign visitors alike.

"We are the ultimate destination for stressed-out, harried people who have only 72 hours to get away from it all," Baran says. "We are an instant society, and Hot Springs offers instant relief."

Baran doesn't have an office.

But it quickly becomes apparent that she has no need for one. She's constantly on the go, touting the city's waters, its cultural offerings and its many forms of entertainment.

These days, she has plenty of help promoting the city. One of those providing that help is James Cherry, president of the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Cherry points out that a camping enthusiast can find several sites within three minutes of downtown. Boaters and fishermen can leave downtown and be on the water in 15 minutes, he says.

"We appeal to everybody," Baran says brashly. "We have a universal appeal, and the universe is coming."

Well, maybe not the universe, but she's hoping for a good part of the planet.

Hot Springs spends almost $1 million annually on advertising and promotion. Baran and the city are beginning to see promising returns on the investment.

Baran, who is seeking re-election this year, was elected as an at-large city director in 1986 and 1988. She was appointed mayor by her fellow board members in 1989 following the resignation of Jon Starr. At the time, she was assistant mayor.

One of Baran's latest projects is the proposed establishment of a sister-city relationship. The proposal must be approved by the Hot Springs Board of Directors.

City officials were approached by the leadership of Hanamaki, Japan, to be a sister city. The relationship would be similar to the one Pine Bluff shares with Iwai City, Japan.

Hot Springs would join about 130 U.S. cities that have sister cities in Japan.

"They came after us, we didn't go after them," Baran says.

Four boys and four girls from Hanamaki visited Hot Springs in January. The following month, an eight-member delegation of city and corporate officials from Hanamaki came to Hot Springs.

Touring The Town

Baran and other city leaders took the Japanese visitors to the Fordyce Bathhouse, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, Oaklawn Park (where the group picked the winner in the day's second race) and the Mid-America Museum.

Yet the highlight was a trip to the Mountain Valley Spring Co.'s downtown headquarters. Mountain Valley Spring Water is distributed in Japan by the Mitsubishi Corp.

The favors extended the Japanese delegation will be returned Sept. 4-6 when a group from Hot Springs tours Hanamaki. The city board will wait until after that trip before making a final decision.

Hanamaki officials have searched five years for a sister city.

During the week of the Hot Springs delegation's visit, Hanamaki will celebrate its 400th anniversary.

A sister-city relationship would involve trading ideas on education, government and business. It seems a natural considering the similarities between Hot Springs and Hanamaki.

Hanamaki has a population of 75,000. Hot Springs has 32,000 residents, and there are 73,000 people in Garland County.

Hanamaki, like Hot Springs, is in the mountains. It is about 350 miles north of Tokyo. About 60 percent of the city is forest, most of which is designated as a national forest.

Hanamaki promotes its natural beauty, just as Hot Springs does. Hanamaki also shares Hot Springs' penchant for arts and crafts. The city's handmade pottery and clay dolls are considered among the finest in Japan.

The Japanese city even has 11 natural hot-spring spas.

The success of large thermal pools in Hanamaki has led a group of Hot Springs business leaders to consider building a similar pool in Hot Springs. The nation's only such thermal pool is in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

Aimed At The Affluent

More Japanese vacationers are becoming acquainted with Hot Springs, thanks to Baran's efforts and a recent article in a Japanese travel magazine.

Vacation, a slick publication whose target audience is Japanese tourists with average annual incomes of more than $100,000, recently featured an article headlined "The South USA: It's Warmhearted."

The article describes Hot Springs and the Ouachita National Forest.

"The main hotels in the town are the Arlington Hotel and Majestic Hotel," Hajime Kitane, writes. "They are decorated in a mix of Oriental style and art deco. The facilities are not quite modernized, but like a wind-up record player, they have a 'good old days' comfortable feel. The general manager for these two hotels talked devotedly about them. He came here originally for three years, but suddenly he finds he has been here 13 years. He said that they need to refine many things, but that Hot Springs overflows with possibilities.

"A lot of people gather in Hot Springs to live after retiring early ... They have the chance to do what they really want to do. For many, it is a combination of work and play. You would not find this kind of thing happening in Japan. We have heard that people other than Americans are doing this after retiring ... What a mysterious charm this town has."

The mayor couldn't have written it better herself.

She likes to talk about the city's economic mix between tourism and industrial facilities.

"The last recession, with minor exceptions, did not hit Hot Springs because of that," she says.

Is this merely "mayorspeak?"

Baran, who draws no salary, says no. She says she spends almost 40 hours per week trying to build both the industrial and tourism base.

The Hot Springs native has no children.

Her parents are no longer alive.

She says her husband, John, provides "financial security and moral support."

It leaves a lot of time for Melinda Baran to promote Hot Springs despite what she has called "outrageous political intimidation."

"This has included arrests, a recall election to return to the paid alderman government and an unconstitutional grand jury indictment that was thrown out of court," Baran said when she announced she would seek re-election. "Yet I have survived all that and have emerged a stronger person."

If re-elected, one of her priorities will be attracting more international tourists to Hot Springs.

The Japan bashing of recent years has done nothing to discourage Baran and Cherry, who have become experts in Japanese customs.

"I have always been interested in the Oriental lifestyle," Baran says while admiring a souvenir from the Japanese delegation's visit, a pair of handcrafted dolls. "I admire their reverence for nature, their sense of order. A culture more than 2,000 years old deserves a great deal of attention."

Her father survived the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Her husband was injured during a World War II battle with the Japanese in the Philippines.

Baran, however, remains a supporter of strong diplomatic and financial ties with Japan. In fact, both her father and her husband influenced her feelings toward the Japanese.

"All of his life, he emphasized that it was war and that everyone was doing what their political leaders told them to do," Baran says of her father. "I think it is incumbent upon us to not forget what happened. And I firmly believe that if every city in the United States had had a sister city in Japan, we would never have gone to war in 1941. We would have known each other on a personal basis."
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Title Annotation:Selling Arkansas, part 1; Arkansas Mayor Melinda Baran promotes the city to tourists
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 13, 1992
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