HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (KTHV) -- The largest hotel in the state will eventually be smaller, if the new owner of the Arlington gets his master plan in place. But he may also be forced to close down the hotel if he doesn't fix some problems by November.
That’s the message AL Rajabi, the CEO of Sky Capital Group and new owner of the 93-year-old landmark hotel in Hot Springs had to say in his first television interview. He wanted to speak to the media after what he calls a less-than-welcome response from city officials since he bought the hotel in June.
In the days after signing the papers to buy and restore the Arlington, city inspectors served several urgent notices. Among them electrical work needed to be done immediately on several rooms and repairs made to parts of the concrete façade. Those repairs need to be complete by November 9, when the city estimates a hard freeze could occur and lead to pieces falling to the city streets below. If the deadline isn’t met, the city has threatened to shut down the hotel, or demand Rajabi take on extensive renovations right away that would require the hotel to shut down.
“How dare they? I mean who am I to come in here and shut it down,” the Texas-based Rajabi said. “That's why it was so important to come in here and invest $30-million dollars in this property and do it in phases because I want to make sure that I don't do any layoffs.”
Rajabi said he has already picked out local architects and other engineers and is ready to do the work, but the November timetable is too tight.
“It's not going to happen overnight,” he said. “All I know is that in 93 years this hotel has stood here. Not once, from the research we've done, has it ever gotten some type of citation or any type of code violation.”
Rajabi said he knew the hotel’s history when he bought it and was aware of the extensive work the place would need. He said that was part of the appeal of buying it. He said the response from state-level officials has been supportive. It’s the city he is frustrated with, and he is appealing the deadline, saying it is a threat to his hundreds of employees.
"I want the city to look in the eye of my employees and tell them that they're not going to have a job and that the place is going to be closed down," he said.
Longtime employees conveyed a similar message. Rajabi said one of the strengths of the hotel is the number of workers with 25 or more years’ experience working in the Central Ave. landmark.
“It's sadness because I know a lot of people who work here and I know that their struggles would be like my struggles if the hotel was shut down,” said Richard Moore, the banquet manager with 35 years on the job. “It seems like somebody's trying to get some gratitude for themselves and not looking at the overall picture of the people.”
Rajabi said a key part of financing the renovations will be a franchise agreement with a luxury brand. He said a request has already been made but wouldn’t specify the company yet. His master plan includes reducing the number of rooms, in most cases by combining adjoining rooms into suites.
“I know it’s the biggest hotel in Arkansas right now,” he said. “I’m more interested in running the most luxurious hotel in Arkansas.”
But to get there, Rajabi said he needs more time and wants to work with the city as a partner.
“I invite the city to come to the table and look at what we're looking to do,” Rajabi said. “The deadline that they have for us is unrealistic.”
City officials declined to speak on camera, but a spokesperson pointed out there are no restrictions in place stopping Rajabi from beginning his renovations and that they welcome his plans to overhaul the property.