Congressmen tap into Spa City’s success to relieve National Parks’ maintenance backlog

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The cost of projects to spruce up national parks across the country has grown to $12 billion.

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, along with Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, traveled from the nation’s capitol to Arkansas’ spa city for the first time to hear from local leaders about a solution to the maintenance backlog. 

Hot Springs has tapped into the National Park Service’s historic leasing program to breathe new life into eight of its nine bathhouses on the border of Hot Springs National Park, where millions of tourists trickle in every year.

Bathhouse Row is among 350 historic buildings leased through the program nationwide. It signs over the rehabilitation and maintenance costs to the local business owners, who also pay lease fees to the park service.

However, there are still properties on the system’s millions of acres sitting unused or in disrepair. 

“It’s a program I’m eager to explore to improve and to potentially provide to other Americans across Arkansas and across the country,” said Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, while heading the oversight hearing in his hometown. 

“Far too often, it seems like we import somebody from some other part of the country in here when we have local people who care about this area, who know this area and who should be empowered to make more decisions on how these areas run,” said Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the committee chairman.

During the hearing, city leaders and members of the committee also credited the program with helping Hot Spring’s downtown area bounce back after the 2014 fire at the Majestic Hotel. The spa city recently opened its 100th business since then.

“This is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been in,” said Lettie Harrison, a first timer to Arkansas from Tennessee. “I like progress, but I like older better. I’m just old fashioned. We may have to make more trips here.”

“Spa day,” said Sam Whitt, laughing. “Right, right.”

Instead of crossing the last two states off their country-wide bucket list, Whitt, his wife and their friend, all from Alabama, came back to the Natural State to see more.

“I just didn’t feel like we saw everything we wanted to see,” he said. “I don’t know of anything like this in Alabama. It’s pretty unique here.”

Last week, the committee marked up a bill that would pay for the bulk of the maintenance backlog facing the park service. Westerman and other congressmen said visits like this help its chances of passing.

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