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Facing the heat

No honeymoon for the federal superintendent of Hot Springs National Park.


HOT WATER: Josie Fernandez can take the heat.
  • HOT WATER: Josie Fernandez can take the heat.
Rain drizzles onto the Spanish-tile roof at the headquarters of Hot Springs National Park. It streaks down the window outside the new park superintendent’s office. Josie Fernandez enters, slipping the plastic rain cover off her uniform’s Smoky Bear hat. Without the hat, she barely tops five feet tall. Fernandez weighs about 110 pounds. Yet, as chief administrator of the national park, her decisions carry enormous weight in the city to which the park is wedded. When Fernandez became superintendent in April, she assumed responsibility for nearly everything that flows, grows or goes on in the park’s 5,000-plus acres. It was due to that sense of responsibility, she says, that one of her first actions was to raise the rates charged for the park’s thermal waters. Businesses that use water from the famous hot springs, including Levy Hospital, the Buckstaff Bathhouse, and the spas at the Arlington and Majestic hotels, reacted as if scalded. As they saw it, she came, she saw, and with barely a “howdy-do,” she spiked their rates for the water by a shocking 1,000 percent. “We knew the old rate was too low,” one spa manager sputtered. “But a thousand percent at one blow?” Users asked Fernandez to reduce the size of the hike. She wouldn’t. They asked her to phase it in. She wouldn’t do that either, though she did agree to delay the increase until January 2005. That was hardly a splash, however, compared to the tempest that arose when Fernandez rejected a proposal that supporters believed would resuscitate one of the park’s long-idle bathhouses. Soon after Fernandez’s arrival, the company that owns Magic Springs amusement park presented a plan to lease one of the national park’s vacant bathhouses for a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” museum. Though the park service has said for decades that it wants to lease the buildings, and though the museum’s backers were ready with financing, Fernandez rejected the proposal. After backers brought her the plan a second time, and she gave them the same response, Fernandez told a reporter, “It seems to me that they don’t believe, apparently, that a ‘no’ means ‘no.’ ” Steve Arrison, director of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, found Fernandez’s decision “disheartening.” He thought the plan represented a good, adaptive use for one of the park service buildings and that Fernandez and the park service “need to relax some of their rules.” Unlike at other parks, he says, “here you have a community that’s actively involved. I think the people who presented that plan were headed in the right direction but I don’t think they were given a chance.” As with the water rates, the Ripley’s storm has subsided. Arrison says it was partly a result of Fernandez’s “operating style” and the fact that “she has a difficult job.” “She jumped in with both feet. She tackled a lot of issues at once.” It is impossible not to contrast Fernandez’s style with that of Roger Giddings, the popular superintendent she replaced. Giddings, who retired after 22 years at the park, didn’t stir things up the way Fernandez has, and he’s remembered as having been “accessible.” As Arrison explains: “Roger pretty much knows how the city operates, and how the state operates. Josie didn’t have that background.” Fernandez’s background may be perfect, however, for preserving a national treasure while also dealing with pressure. She came to this country as a refugee and takes nothing about it for granted. Fernandez’s parents fled with her from their native Cuba in 1969, shortly before she turned 13. The young Josefina had already learned by then what it’s like to “work 45 days in a field, cutting sugar cane for the Castro regime.” She knew castigation, since her family had applied for permission to leave Cuba five years before they finally were given the chance. “In the meantime,” she recalls, “we had to put up with all the nonsense of being identified as people who wanted to emigrate — who didn’t support the regime.” Life in Florida was better but not easy. A Spanish-speaking English teacher, Mrs. de la Torri, helped. On Josefina’s first day of school, Mrs. de la Torri gently suggested that, now that she lived in America, she might want to go by “Josie.” Even so, the teen-ager faced taunts. She remembers classmates mocking her — calling her a “dumb refugee” — because she had only one skirt. “I was crying, and Mrs. de la Torri said, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. You determine who you are.’ ” Fernandez took the advice to heart, becoming the first female class president at her high school. Two years after graduation, on July 4, 1976, she took the oath to become a U.S. citizen. She considered the experience so profound that she marked it by legally changing her first name — from Josefina to Josie. As she puts it: “I wanted to be the me that I had become.” Fernandez joined the U.S. Air Force, where she worked in public affairs. Assigned to Italy, she became fluent in Italian. Upon leaving active duty, she earned college degrees in Spanish and in journalism, worked as a reporter, married, bore two children, and joined the Air Force Reserve. She joined the National Park Service in 1993, then worked her way to superintendent’s positions at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, Pa., and Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Fernandez returned to active duty for a year, working at the Pentagon as part of the Air Force Crisis Action Team. She now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. “I’m stubborn,” Fernandez says, “because I’ve lived under challenging times. I’m not immune to personal attacks, but I have lived with name-calling. I’ve experienced difficult times. And I say this only because these were what I call character-defining situations. “Had I stayed in the country of my birth, I would have gotten a one-way ticket to a Cuban jail — or six feet under it. Because I’m too opinionated, and that’s what happens to people who have an opinion in Cuba.” Fernandez’s speech is slightly accented, and lightly accented with humor. When asked about the recent controversies, she says, “Actually, there’s not been any name-calling – to my face.” On a more serious note, she adds, “But that’s water under the bridge, if you’ll pardon the pun. These situations are resolved, but they had to be addressed.” She compares the price the park had been charging for its thermal water to the legendary “$700 hammer,” symbol of federal waste. “When I came we were charging 25 cents per 1,000 gallons. That was a rate set in 1948. Yet I had before me a study conducted in 2001 that said an appropriate price today would be $2.70 per 1,000 gallons. “So what am I to do? Keep on undercharging for water and continue to carry a deficit? Would you, as a taxpayer, appreciate that? Or, should I come up with a new rate on my own? That would have been very arbitrary. “So I set the rate where it needed to be. And, while on its face that appears to be a 1,000 percent increase, actually that works out to only 91 cents per tub.” Fernandez’s decision not to allow a Ripley’s in the park was more subjective. Dan Aylward, president of the company that owns Magic Springs, brought the idea to Fernandez. He showed her he had the financial backing in place and said the museum would adapt to meet park service demands. For many in the business community, the offer looked ideal, like the “magic spring,” if you will, that could trigger a reopening of the moribund bathhouses. Popular as Giddings had been, not one of the shut-down bathhouses reopened during his 22-year tenure. Giddings took over the park’s administration in the early 1980s, about the time that Frank White defeated the young Bill Clinton after Clinton’s first term as governor. By then, three of the buildings on Bathhouse Row had already closed. Within the next three years, three more went out of business. For decades the buildings have loomed large and vacant on the downtown Hot Springs landscape. By now, one of them, the Maurice, has been empty for 30 years. The Lamar, the last to close, was locked up 19 years ago. The National Park Service kept up the exterior of the six empty buildings. But inside, the buildings were deteriorating. All of the bathhouses, save one, were built atop a lively hot spring, and those springs in the basements have never stopped flowing. Though the steamy water is piped out, moisture collected in the closed buildings, causing mold, eroding metal and rotting wood and plaster. Everyone recognized that getting the buildings restored and occupied would be the best way to preserve them. But two serious environmental hazards — asbestos and lead paint — had to be dealt with first. Under Giddings, those two problems were abated. But the process was expensive — and slow, lasting more than 10 years. Recent work has focused on stabilizing the buildings’ foundations, fixing roofs and windows, and on installing heat, air, and ventilation systems to control the humidity. But even as that work goes on, the buildings look to passers-by like antiques in an architectural museum. A padlocked chainlink fence surrounds them, keeping the curious at a distance. Downtown merchants have been steaming for years over having such a mass of dead space in a district they want to keep lively. While they count it a great good fortune to have a national park at their front door, they grumble that the park service has allowed the bathhouses to fall into abiding disuse. No other national park in the country has such a unique relationship with a city. On a map, the land controlled by the City of Hot Springs laces between sections of land controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior. City land and land belonging to the national park fold together, like the fingers of two hands. No place is the arrangement more noticeable than in the historic heart of the city, along Central Avenue, where the famous springs deliver hot water at a rate of 850,000 gallons a day — and where the city began. In 1832, four years before Arkansas became a state, the thermal waters were deemed such an important national resource that the federal government took control of them, and, over time, a few thousand acres surrounding them. The reservation was the first in U.S. history created solely to protect a natural resource. But this was not wilderness. Even when Hot Springs Reservation was created, many businesses — the forerunners of today’s restaurants, shops and galleries — were already catering to people who came to “take the waters.” Federal officials divided the valley, taking control of the base of the eastern mountain, from which the hot springs flow, but leaving a corridor of city-owned land between the springs and the base of West Mountain, which rises across the street. The result is Central Avenue. For more than a century, bathhouses bustled on one side of the street, under federal control, while businesses that served them lined the other. But after World War II, with the delivery of hot water to most houses, the bathing industry began its decline. That history has left today’s Central Avenue an odd strip of attractions. On one side, visitors find the park, with its looming empty relics, while businesses just across the street run the gamut from classy to crass. It’s like a street that’s trying to breathe without use of one of its lungs. City and park leaders have always envisioned the bathhouses reopening. A park service brochure acknowledges that as long ago as “the 1980s,” local citizens and park employees began “exploring ways to return the bathhouses and Bathhouse Row to the splendor, if not the function, of Hot Springs in its heyday.” The brochure describes the long-held hope that “a union of private and public money” would eventually lead to reuse of the buildings under the provisions of the federal government’s Historic Property Leasing program. But for nearly 20 years, that “union of private and public money” has proven sadly elusive. And the patience of downtown business owners, who see profits linked to Central Avenue’s vitality, has worn thin. Had the bathhouses been privately owned, they say, they would either have been restored and reused by now or — more likely — they’d be gone, with new buildings in their place. Although the summer of 2004 was a good one for Hot Springs tourism, it was not so good as to quell criticism of the national park. Monty Scott, whose company owns the Arlington and Majestic hotels, complained, for instance, that tourists were not finding enough to do in the park to make them extend their stays in hotels. As Scott told a reporter: “It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that for the last quarter-century, half of our downtown’s been missing.” Not surprisingly, Arrison, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and many of the city’s merchants were elated by this summer’s prospect of seeing one of the bathhouses become a Ripley’s museum. Dan Aylward, CEO of Themeparks, LLC, which owns Magic Springs, and who is widely heralded here for his success with Magic Springs, said the Ripley’s might focus on the uniqueness of the spa’s waters and the history of Hot Springs, including its “gangster period.” From a business point of view, Aylward’s offer looked like what the park service had long been seeking. But Fernandez quickly concluded that the image evoked by “Ripley’s” and Americans’ image of a “national park” were totally incompatible. She adamantly nixed the idea. Her critics didn’t like what she’d done, or the way she’d done it, either — publicly announcing her decision while some of those who’d been talking to her believed that negotiations were still ongoing. It didn’t help much when Fernandez explained, in an interview on radio station KUAR, that her rejection of the plan had been clear and that apparently the people who’d presented it didn’t believe that her “no” meant “no.” The issue for Fernandez centered on the type of museum Ripley’s represented. She uses the words “carnival-like,” “freaky animals,” and “oddities” to describe its exhibits. And indeed, a visit to the Ripley’s Web site confirms those characterizations. The site’s home page announces: “If you have an interest in the strange, the unusual, the interesting, the odd, and the just plain weird, you’ve come to the right place!” Further into the site are images purporting to be of the skeleton of a two-headed baby, human trophy skulls from New Guinea, and a suit of armor for a cat. Old films shown in the site’s “Odditorium” feature a man who smokes through his eyes; a woman eating razors; and “the human plank,” a man who supposedly drives six-inch nails into his head. Fernandez acknowledges that the museum’s backers “certainly had the financials lined up.” But, she asks, “Can you imagine a Ripley’s at the base of the Statue of Liberty? Or at El Capitan in Yosemite? Or in Yellowstone? Or at the Liberty Bell?” The museum’s supporters counter that Hot Springs National Park is different; its very being has historically been entwined with a city — and that city has been devoted to tourists. Fernandez acknowledges all that, noting further that “the city uses the moniker ‘Hot Springs National Park.’ ” But, when it comes to what should go where, Fernandez makes a clear distinction. “A Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum might be perfectly appropriate in the city,” she says. “But the city is one entity and the park is another.” Moreover, Hot Springs National Park is part of a larger system, and Fernandez says she and her superiors have to consider the “ripple effect” of every decision on the national park system’s other 387 units. “In people’s minds, there is a high expectation of what a national park delivers,” she says, “and if we start lowering the delivery, then we might as well call ourselves anything else.” So, what kind of businesses would Fernandez consider appropriate for the bathhouses? She lists restaurants, offices, art galleries and other kinds of museums — museums that “don’t display bones and make light of other cultures.” And naturally, she says, she’d welcome almost any kind of business that offered the services or amenities related to a spa — “for example, a Victoria’s Secret.” Victoria’s Secret? Yes. “Because if, next to Victoria’s Secret, in that same bathhouse, is a wonderful spa catering to a clientele that likes to have the nails done and the hair done and the pampering — in that setting, a Victoria’s Secret would be very appropriate, and the likelihood of it succeeding would be fine.” If a Victoria’s Secret could win national park approval, what about a Frederick’s of Hollywood? “So there you go,” Fernandez responds, gesturing as though the question illuminated the whole situation. “You betcha it becomes complicated. And you can be sure I’m not going to make that decision all by my lonesome. We always call for a detailed proposal. I have to weigh the park service’s interest in renting these spaces against the type of use being proposed. And I know that every decision I make can certainly be appealed to a higher level.” Fernandez is well aware that supporters of the Ripley’s idea took their complaints about her to members of Congress. She acknowledges, “I’ve had to explain myself, certainly to my bosses, and to Congressman [Mike] Ross. So far, I think I’ve explained myself to their satisfaction. “But I’m not infallible. I’m not always going to get it right. But I’m going to try, and I’m going to consult with a lot of people before we put the good name of the National Park Service and Hot Springs National Park on the line.” While members of the business sector have complained about Fernandez, Melinda Gassaway, the editor of the Hot Springs Sentinel Record, notes that the paper’s readers have expressed broad support for the new superintendent’s decisions. Letters to the editor have applauded Fernandez’s moves to collect a fairer price for the waters and to keep the gaudiness of a Ripley’s out of the national park. On the other hand, some of the letters Gassaway’s seen that were critical of Fernandez — including copies of some that were sent to Rep. Ross and Sen. Blanche Lincoln — amounted to personal attacks and bordered on ethnic slurs. “I find that terribly embarrassing,” the editor says. “That’s been an unfortunate aspect of this whole argument, and it’s left me a little downhearted. But she’s taken it very well. She’s even countered some of it with humor, and that certainly helps.” Noting that some of Fernandez’s harshest critics were men, Gassaway says that she “jokingly” asked one of them, “Are you sure this isn’t a man-woman thing?” The answer was a quick “Oh, no.” Still, Gassaway notes, “With her military background, in particular, Josie Fernandez is a different kind of woman than many of these men have ever seen. Personally, I find her refreshing. She’s outspoken, highly intelligent, fiery. I admire her.” Like Arrison, Gassaway believes that much of the friction that’s arisen is attributable to Fernandez’s style. “I told her that maybe she’d made a misstep, doing things so abruptly; that maybe she could have softened her approach. She said, ‘But it wouldn’t have changed anything.’ I said, ‘Yes, but it might have made things a little easier.’ “She doesn’t want to waste time. I think she does feel an urgency to get those bathhouses leased. But she wants to do it right. I feel she has a very strong sense of what’s proper, and as she has reminded me, this is not just our national park. It belongs to the people of the United States, as well. I hadn’t really thought about that. We tend to think of it as our national park.” Indeed, the park does belong to the people of Hot Springs — and everyone else in the nation. And, for better or for worse, the City of Hot Springs has an impact on the park. Just consider the rain that’s been falling outside the window of Fernandez’s office, onto Central Avenue, and on the businesses across from the bathhouses. That rain does not discriminate. Whether through federal or city gutters, it flows into the ground. And somewhere in the dark below, the waters merge. And here, again, the park’s future mixes with the city’s. Fernandez sees this clearly. Moving to her desk, she picks up a report that was recently released by scientists for the U.S. Geological Survey who have been studying the hot springs. The report concludes that the water’s origins are not entirely as old as once thought. The National Park Service has taught for years that the waters flowing from the park’s 47 springs “are more than 4,000 years old.” It has been believed that these ancient waters spent centuries percolating deep into the earth, and that then, after being heated, they rose fairly quickly to the surface. But the new study suggests that, on the way up, as those old waters near the surface, they are joined by waters of more recent origin — water that has seeped into the earth within the past 20 years. According to the USGS report, this “younger, cooler water” may account for as much as 29 percent of the hot springs’ flow. Fernandez is concerned about the quality of that “younger” water entering the springs. If it contains contaminants, so will the springs. Here is where the above-ground practices of the park and the city converge. For, while the springs are in the park, the primary area that feeds them appears to be city land. As the USGS report noted: “Although the exact extent and location of the recharge area providing the young water to the springs has not been precisely identified, preliminary estimates place it within the city boundaries of Hot Springs.” Fernandez folds together the fingers of her hands, symbolizing the two entities’ interdependency. Whatever issues develop, the futures of the park and the city are permanently meshed — ecologically, economically and politically. Fortunately, the humans controlling the properties seem to have survived their initial clash. Gassaway thinks that Fernandez is beginning to understand the “nuances” of the park-city relationship. Arrison says that the more he deals with Fernandez, “the more we come to the middle, we can see each other’s points.” And Fernandez agrees. “We won’t necessarily always have a wonderful, kumbaya relationship,” the superintendent says, “but there’s no way we’re going to get divorced. We’re not moving and neither is the town. We won’t be harmonious all of the time, but we’re going to strive for it most of the time. “We want to, and we have to. It would be very naive for us to assume that, if we do nothing, Mother Nature will continue to give us the good water that we’ve gotten. And if these waters are harmed, that would be a loss, not only for this park and the city, but for the people of the United States. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the legacy that we’re leaving to other generations?’ We all have to realize that there are consequences to this rain.”

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