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Want to lease a bathhouse? 

Josie Fernandez says she’s ready to deal

Josie Fernandez isn’t the only national park superintendent with historic real estate to lease. The Presidio in San Francisco, for instance, leases hundreds of buildings as office and retail and even hospital space. The Fort Hancock area of Sandy Hook, across from the island of Manhattan, is also seeing new life breathed into hundreds of its old buildings. Some are being developed for overnight lodging. Others for food service, office or educational space. But Fernandez may head the only national park whose buildings have a surfeit of bathtubs. Not that that’s a problem, she insists. The tubs won’t stay if a suitable renter wants them gone. “We might auction the tubs,” she says. Despite the recent flap over Fernandez’s rejection of a well-financed proposal for a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” museum, the new superintendent says she is intent on negotiating long-term leases for the six vacant bathhouses she manages. She considers reviving the buildings, both for income and to maintain the structures, her fiduciary responsibility. The idle bathhouses range in size from the Superior, at about 10,000 square feet, to the Quapaw, at 24,000. Together, they add up to more than 100,000 square feet of potential retail, office — or even residential–space, on a magnolia-lined street that receives some of the heaviest tourist traffic in Arkansas. “My job,” Fernandez says, “is to get the appropriate enterprises to lease the bathhouses and get them open.” That has been a goal for decades. “What has changed this go-round,” Fernandez says, “is that the private investment will be considerably less than we were looking for before, because now, the federal government is committed to bringing the bathhouses to tenant-ready condition.” That means that “there will be no more lead or asbestos issues,” she says. Each building will have new heating and cooling systems. Utilities will be available, and walls will be “ready for painting.” Of the six bathhouses, the Lamar — the only one without a hot spring in its basement — is in the best condition. With 21,000 square feet, it’s also closest to being ready for lease. Meanwhile, the others are coming along. If funding continues as planned, Fernandez expects that by 2007, the park service will have spent $17 million on refurbishing the buildings, and all six will be ready for occupation. If a developer with an acceptable plan wanted to hasten work on a particular building, Fernandez says he or she could underwrite the restoration in exchange for a deferment on future rent. Leases can be granted for up to 60 years. The longer the better, in Fernandez’s view. Leases will be for entire buildings, though a lease-holder would be allowed to divide the space and sublet it to “appropriate” tenants. While distinctive architectural features such as murals, stained glass or marble stairways will have to be kept intact, the erection and removal of certain interior walls, placement of kitchens and bathrooms, and such decorative items as carpeting, paint and tile will be largely left up to the leaseholders, as they will be footing that part of the bill. “We’ll be competitive with prevailing lease rates in downtown Hot Springs,” Fernandez says. “We have authority, and it’s broad, and we mean to exercise it. We can negotiate.” Like many business people in Hot Springs, Steve Arrison, executive director of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, is skeptical about the park service’s claim that the buildings will be made tenant-ready. “I’ve heard that before,” he says. “Let’s see. They always put out these proposals and nothing ever happens. Hopefully, this time will be different.” Fernandez insists that it will be, for the sake of both the buildings and her budget. “I need to attract somebody who wants to negotiate with me or, obviously, we’re back to square one,” she says. “Empty bathhouses.”
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