By CLINT FOSTER | Lone Star News Group
MINERAL WELLS – Once upon a time, Mineral Wells was a national destination city.
During the first half of the 20th Century, countless visitors flocked to this small town in the North Texas hills, drawn by the promise of its healing Crazy Water and mineral baths.
Presidents including Franklin Delano Roosavelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and celebrities, the likes of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Lawrence Welk, and many others all made the trip to Mineral Wells.
And where did they stay? Why only one of the most luxurious properties in the entire Southwest: the famous Baker Hotel.
Built in 1929, the Baker was a modern marvel of hospitality and thrived for two decades, throughout the Great Depression and World War II. It continued to dominate the Mineral Wells skyline well after its decline and eventual closure in 1963. Although it could not sustain any attempts to reopen, the magnificent structure still looms over the rest of this town, against the backdrop of the massive, blue Texas sky. It serves as a symbol of the city’s former glory, slowly decaying with the passage of time.
For years it seemed any attempt to restore the Baker was nothing more than a apparitional fantasy. But Southlake businessman Laird Fairchild of Hunter Chase Capital Partners thinks differently.
Six years ago, he embarked on a quest to revive the once proud Baker and, unlike proposals from other suitors in the recent past, Fairchild has a concrete vision and is now closer than ever to pulling the trigger on the project.
“We’re making good progress right now,” Fairchild told the Index. “Ideally we’d like to be able to start work within the next nine to 12 months.”
Fairchild first noticed the Baker on his way to a hunting trip at the Rhodes Ranch, which he has leased for 12 years. Over the past decade, he has made the drive through Mineral Wells frequently on weekends and as he passed the Baker, he began to contemplate the enormous potential that lied dormant in the derelict property. He made it his mission to restore the hotel, not only for the hotel’s sake and its financial potential, but for the entire Mineral Wells community.
“It just calls you. You drive by and it beckons you,” he said. “You can tell that a renovation would have a huge impact on [Mineral Wells].
From my background in specialized real estate, I knew that there were some programs out there for buildings such as that and towns such as Mineral Wells. I think it’s almost like my responsibility, knowing that town as well as I do and knowing some of those programs that were out there that could help benefit that building, that I needed to take a stab at it.”
Fairchild is currently in the process of gathering investors for the project, having made many positive contacts with both individual and group investors so far. He has assembled a virtual dream team of project partners from the Dallas and Austin area who are dedicated to restoring the Baker to its original art-deco glory and making it a viable, money-making business again. Among this group is hotelier Jeff Trigger, a respected member of his field responsible for revitalizing other famous, historic hotels, such as the Driskill in Austin, the St. Anthony in San Antonio and Dallas’ Rosewood Mansion, the Adolphus and the Stoneleigh hotels.
This group has enjoyed marked success with projects like the Baker before and they are confident they can repeat that in Mineral Wells.
City Manager Lance Howerton is particularly optimistic about the project.
“From what I have seen, this has been the best progress that has been made on this project, to date,” he said. “We’re very encouraged at this point that there are some very substantial groups looking at the project. They appear to have significant levels of interest and that’s extremely encouraging. Typically the people that are looking at these types of projects don’t waste their time getting detailed information about a project unless they have a pretty good level of interest.”
Key to the Baker project is the acquisition of federal and state historic tax credits – the latter of which were just passed in the Texas Legislature. Fairchild explained that both types of tax credits will give back a combined 45 cents for every dollar invested in the project.
These credits can then go out into the market and be sold, to ensure cash flow.
In order to qualify for these credits, the project has to adhere to strict guidelines and must restore the Baker – a nationally registered historic building – as closely as possible to its original state when it first opened in 1929. For this reason, the new Baker will appear like a time capsule, harkening back to its full, original glory, with the exception of a few modern amenities.
Fairchild explained the hotel lobby will look exactly as it did in the hotel’s heyday. To make the hotel more attractive for potential visitors, every two to three rooms will be combined to give the hotel about 155 larger rooms, instead of 450 small rooms. However, because of the tax credit requirements, all of the original room doors will have to be refurbished and kept in the building. So, Fairchild said, the hotel’s corridors will look exactly as they did years ago, but only about one third of the doors will actually be numbered and access guest suites.
Those involved in the project are confident that the restored Baker Hotel will have no difficulty attracting guests and making money, according to Fairchild. The tax credits are a big part of that equation. Howerton, too, believes in the project’s viability.
“The bottom line is that the project has to make money,” he said. “The project has been structured with the idea that if they bring enough incentives to the project, it can make money. It’s a property that has a lot of name recognition throughout the State of Texas. Historic restoration is a hot-button issue among developers these days and developers like to do projects that have some caché to them. If a project can be made successful at the Baker Hotel, then that has a certain amount of attraction to it in and of itself. It’s a much easier product to sell as opposed to a product that no one’s ever heard of.”
Howerton believes that an improving economy, coupled with a growing Metroplex full of people with expendable incomes and the growth of “heritage tourism” all make the Baker an attractive investment and appealing project, more so than ever before. He compared Mineral Wells, with a renovated Baker, to the City of Granbury, which attracts a great deal of weekend tourism to shop in the historic town square and stay at hotels on the lake.
Also key to the hotel’s attraction will be special event hosting, including weddings, homecoming events, graduation events, weekday business meetings and the like. Fairchild said the hotel will offer a significant amount of “meet-and-greet space” and its proximity to the Metroplex will only help to attract such group business.
Fairchild said the renovation will be a long process – with cleanup and abatement, alone, lasting nine months to a year and the construction lasting about two years. Once underway, the process will benefit Mineral Wells significantly. Fairchild added that the project’s general construction partner out of Austin, Mark Rawlings, is “determined to utilize local workforce, as much as possible,” throughout the entire restoration process. Then, once the Baker is finished and operational, it will generate a whole new crop of local jobs, as well.
With every day that passes, Fairchild grows closer to making his dream, and the collective dream of Mineral Wells, a reality. He is only about $25 million short of reaching the estimated $55 million needed for the project and is quickly discovering just how important the task he has undertaken is.
“I can’t tell you the number of phone calls, emails and Facebook posts I get about the hotel and people already wanting to reserve rooms,” he said. “Obviously the hotel has an incredible following. I’m very excited.”
It truly is an exciting time for Mineral Wells. One can only hope that the rebirth of the city’s most iconic structure will trigger a renaissance of prosperity for the near future, unmatched even by the glory days of Mineral Wells’ “Crazy” past.