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Reconstructing the past.

Reconstructing The Past

The door is open at the National Baptist Hotel on Malvern Avenue in Hot Springs, prompting those walking by to pop their heads in and take a look.

Many reminisce about the days when the National Baptist was a regular stop for the likes of Count Basie, B.B. King, Duke Ellington and Ike and Tina Turner.

Larry Cheatham, a black man regarded as something of a Hot Springs historian, surveys the splintered wood, broken tile floors and cobwebs in the lobby.

Instead of a deteriorating building, however, Cheatham sees a glorious past.

And, finally, a future.

"I used to come here and pay $1 to see some of the top jazz singers in the country," Cheatham says. "To think of it coming back, I'm excited, let me tell you."

At its peak in the 1950s, the National Baptist was a luxurious facility that indeed attracted influential black entertainers.

The 68,000-SF hotel had 155 rooms on five floors, a full-service bathhouse, a 2,500-seat auditorium with a large theatrical stage, a snack bar and a restaurant.

Desegregation in the 1960s led to reduced business and, eventually, the hotel's closing in 1983.

$300,000 Buy

Investor Ron Erickson has been in Hot Springs since the purchase was announced July 31.

Crews began cleaning up the facility Aug. 6.

Curiosity seekers have been steady ever since.

"I met with city officials early on, and they said it was important for me to meet the black leaders," Erickson says. "I said, |Before I meet the black leaders, I want to meet my black neighbors."

He went from door to door in the neighborhood surrounding the hotel, introducing himself.

"We're not looking to return to the days of yesteryear when this was an exclusive black hotel," he says. "But we're not going to ignore its heritage."

Erickson and his partners bought the National Baptist for $300,000 from the last of four Dallas businessmen who purchased the property in 1983.

The Texans, too, had plans to turn it into a luxury hotel, but the oil and real estate bust killed those efforts. Two of the partners went bankrupt, and another died.

The last owner put the hotel on the market about three years ago.

It stood as a white elephant in a steadily decaying area until Erickson walked by and noticed a "for sale" sign several months ago. He was on a nationwide search for a hotel. "We had others who were serious about buying, but they didn't think they could raise the money," says Helen Selig of the Selig-Smith commercial real estate firm, which listed the property. "This group was the first with the expertise and money to put it together. "I haven't seen their bank statements, but they're doing things right. It looks to me like these people can do it." Erickson's partners come armed with hefty resumes: * Ken Santor, a former state treasurer of Nevada. Santor, who lives at Reno, was a major construction contractor in southern California before moving to Nevada and running for public office.

* Rod Jones, an educator from Gardnerville, Nev. His wife, Gale, is an interior decorator who likely will assist in the renovation of the hotel. The Hot Springs architectural firm of Taylor & Kempkes will handle the bulk of the work.

* Rod Reber, the founder of an ad agency in Las Vegas and a member of the Las Vegas Convention Authority.

* Al Makhanian, a manufacturer of automobile parts in Los Angeles. He owns a thoroughbred ranch in northern California.

Erickson is a former sports columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. He began his career in the hotel business in 1964 as the assistant public relations director for the Sands at Las Vegas.

He since has worked at hotels throughout Nevada, including such famous names as the Sahara, Thunderbird and Frontier.

Most recently, Erickson was vice president of marketing at the Sahara Reno, a 500-room hotel-casino.

Needs Work

Despite the investors' collective experience, some in Hot Springs question the business savvy of the boys from out west.

One former hotel manager says there is no way the National Baptist can be open for business by racing season.

"It will take $1 million just to make it into an old, ugly building," he says. "The, it will take another $1 million to bring it up to date."

Another Hot Springs businessman calls the plan for a Vegas-style hotel "half-cocked and absurd."

Former Hot Springs Mayor Jon Starr is happily confused by the purchase.

"I don't know why they would buy that rundown hotel when they could buy a ready-made hotel at a discount," Starr says. "Don't get me wrong. I'm glad it's being renovated. They say it can still be gorgeous inside."

Indeed, a visitor touring the building senses its history, especially in the auditorium with its rows of curtains and its orchestra pit.

"It was a great place in the |20s, |30s and |40s," says Bob Haupt, chairman of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. "Duke Ellington, Count Basie played there. Just a neat, neat place."

Before the color barrier was broken in professional baseball, black teams in the old Negro League would hold spring training at Hot Springs. They stayed at the National Baptist, then known as the Woodmen of Union building.

"One of the most significant buildings in this city is that hotel," says Cecil Cupp Jr., chairman of Arkansas Bank and Trust, which has offices a few blocks from the hotel. "We've had high hopes that someone would take it on and redo it."

Heavy Burden

Historically and economically, Erickson and partners shoulder quite a burden when it comes to renovating the hotel, which will be renamed soon.

Although the skeptics say an early 1992 opening is unrealistic, Erickson and Santor are confident that when the horses leave the starting gate at Oaklawn Park on Jan. 24, their hotel will be open for business.

At least part of it.

"It may be only six months, but we're talking between 40 and 50 rooms at first," says Santor, who may, like Erickson, relocate to Hot Springs. "So it's very possible."

The guest rooms will be enlarged, leaving about 100. The auditorium will have about 600 seats, with suites to be build behind it.

The facility will include a bar and restaurant with a sports theme, a swimming pool and volleyball courts.

The bathhouses underneath the ground floor probably will not be reopened.

"I don't think you can classify it as a Las Vegas-style hotel," Santor says. "It won't have all the glitter. It will be a homey hotel with a much slower pace than Vegas."

It will, however, have the Vegas touch.

Erickson believes firmly in that.

"In Vegas, we understand how to operate and understand service," he says. "We'll provide a level of services that people aren't accustomed to."

Erickson offers the example of a typical patron in town to attend the races at Oaklawn.

When he arrives at the hotel, a Daily Racing Form will be on a table in his room along with a bottle of his favorite wine, Erickson claims.

"We want to develop people as regular clients," he says. "If Mrs. Bradley calls and says she will be in for a few days, we'll know exactly what Mrs. Bradley's needs are."

Once in the hotel, "Mrs. Bradley" also should expect to be entertained.

After 25 years in the hotel-casino-entertainment business, Erickson can drop a few names.

He mentions working with Wayne Newton, Steve Lawrence, Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis Jr., Louie Armstrong.

He once was part of Elvis Presley's entourage on tour.

Just don't forget the B.B. Kings, say the old-timers at Hot Springs.

"If we get that thing open, B.B. King will be back and quite a few of the other ones," Santor promises. "Plays, entertainment, local and traveling talent. This will be a big, big drawing card.

"Just wait."

Hot Springs has been doing that for years.

PHOTO : SOLD: A group of five businessmen from Nevada and southern California say they will pump between $1 million and $2 million into the National Baptist Hotel at Hot Springs.

PHOTO : MOVING IN: Ron Erickson of Gardnerville, Nev., believes there is a niche in the Hot Springs market for a luxury hotel with Las Vegas-style entertainment and customer service. Erickson is on of the investors who purchased the National Baptist Hotel.
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Title Annotation:Ron Erickson and partners buy historic National Baptist Hotel
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 19, 1991
Previous Article:The epic continues.
Next Article:Growing pains.

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