Hot Springs is waiving building fees for residential developments in an effort to revitalize the city’s downtown. City Manager David Watkins said the city known for horse racing and therapeutic baths is looking to follow the path of urban revitalization efforts elsewhere.
Watkins said relying on tourism dollars from visitors drawn to Oaklawn, the lakes, and natural hot springs is not enough to sustain a vibrant downtown.
“You’ve got to have a permanent population if you want to drive grocery stores, and dry cleaners, and independent restaurants. You can’t just survive on tourist or office traffic 8-5. You’ve got to have a 24/7 downtown,” said Watkins.
Watkins expects reducing costs for residential projects will attract developers.
“A lot of cities have used targeted incentives to accomplish a city goal as opposed to just waiving all permits for everybody. You know, we have to fund the department. But if you’re trying to incentivize a goal you have to give some type of break to people who are willing to make that investment. This targeted incentive downtown is designed to make a deal that’s maybe on the bubble financially doable,” said Watkins.
City Board Member Karen Garcia (also the Democratic nominee for State Treasurer) argued improving the residential prospects of Hot Springs will also bolster tourism.
She said the city does expect to lose about $30,000 a year by waiving residential building fees. But Garcia contends the loss of revenue will be “negligible” when considering higher than expected commercial collections and the potential for greater overall economic activity if waiving fees does result in more residents.
The city board unanimously approved the measure Tuesday night and held a public announcement Wednesday along Bathhouse Row. Garcia said waiving the residential building fee applies to new projects, redeveloping existing structures, and retroactively to permits issued within the past year.