Mineral Wells hopes Baker Hotel is about to be reborn

02/15/2014 5:21 PM

02/16/2014 10:07 AM

Every time Annette Bennett walks out the back door of the family business, the Baker Hotel still looms large, but it possesses little of its majestic past.

The 14-story hotel, long the dominant feature in the Mineral Wells skyline, has been stripped of just about everything valuable. Rooms are trashed and windows broken. Entrances are covered with sheets of plywood, forcing city officials to constantly seal new entryways pried open by trespassers — the Baker’s most frequent guests.

But even in its dilapidated state, residents of this Palo Pinto County city 50 miles west of Fort Worth are confident that a rebirth is near for the Baker — and Mineral Wells itself.

“I think we’re closer than ever to bringing this icon back,” said Bennett, a co-owner of Bennett’s Office Supply & Equipment.

A group of developers led by Laird Fairchild of Hunter Chase Capital Partners in Southlake has been working for six years to bring the Baker back to life.

Fairchild believes he’s found a way to finance the project through a complex series of sources, including federal and state tax credits and an Environmental Protection Agency grant for lead and asbestos abatement.

The developers also plan to seek funds from the EB-5 visa program, through which international investors can get U.S. residency by placing at least $500,000 in a U.S. business that creates or preserves at least 10 full-time jobs.

If everything goes as planned, the project could begin by late this year or early next year.

“By far, this is the most complicated capital stack for a real estate project I’ve ever been involved in,” Fairchild said. “It includes four or five federal sources and two from the state. Now we’re looking for the city to help and show their commitment to the project.”

All but $4 million of the $56 million budget has been identified, Fairchild said, and Mineral Wells is considering using part of its 4B economic development sales tax to cover the rest.

Officials have stressed that taxes won’t rise, saying a reallocation would allow the city to issue a $4 million bond that could be paid off over time with sales tax revenue.

The City Council is expected to vote this month on placing a referendum on the May 10 ballot that would ask voters to dedicate one-eighth of a cent of its sales tax to the project.

“What we’re basically looking at doing is reallocating one-eighth of a cent to help be the last piece of the puzzle in this project,” said Mayor Mike Allen, who believes voters would support the sales tax initiative.

Years of struggles

Mineral Wells, a city of 16,788, has had its share of challenges since the Baker closed in 1972 and Fort Wolters, where helicopter pilots trained during the Vietnam War, was deactivated in 1973.

Its population has remained stagnant over the last decade while Parker County, just to the east, has grown rapidly. In August, the city lost about 300 jobs when the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility closed.

But City Manager Lance Howerton believes the Baker is a one-of-a-kind project.

“I think it’s a game-changer,” Howerton said. “It changes the entire landscape, not only for the downtown area but for the entire city. It’s a once-in-a-generation project. It’s huge.”

Mineral Wells has about 3,000 local jobs, but officials hope the Baker can bring more visitors to a town that was originally built on tourism.

While the old hotel has been the subject of endless rumors that went nowhere through the years, city officials point to the Hotel Settles in Big Spring as an example of a luxury small-town hotel reborn.

That hotel, built in 1930, closed in 1980 but reopened in December 2012 after being restored by Dallas businessman Brint Ryan, who grew up in Big Spring. Ryan has become a partner in the Baker project.

The Hotel Settles is much smaller than the Baker, but there are similarities, said Jeff Trigger, president of Austin-based La Corsha Hospitality Group, which helped redevelop the Hotel Settles and would serve in the same capacity at the Baker.

“There’s a lot of emotion around the Baker, and there was a lot of emotion around the Settles,” Trigger said. “There’s just no reason why it can’t be the same thing in Mineral Wells as it is in Big Spring. But the Baker is just on a much larger scale, with about twice as many rooms and 18,000 square feet of public-function and meeting space.”

Trigger has helped revitalize other historic Texas hotels, including the Mansion, Adolphus and Stoneleigh hotels, all in Dallas, as well as the Driskill in Austin and the St. Anthony in San Antonio. The Baker would be decorated in “Palo Pinto Chic,” becoming an upscale hotel and spa that could host conferences, meetings and weddings — lots of weddings.

“I think we would have weddings every weekend of the year once this opens,” said Trigger, who noted that people still inquire about having receptions in the old hotel.

From start to finish, Trigger said, the renovation would take about three years.

‘The South’s greatest health resort’

Until now, both Mineral Wells and the Baker have been defined by a shared past.

The town began as a health resort when officials claimed that mineral water cured a variety of disorders.

By 1909, Mineral Wells had 46 hotels or boardinghouses, and published reports said that by 1910, some 150,000 people a year were visiting the wells, according to the Texas Almanac. By 1920, the town had 400 mineral wells, and it was billed as “the South’s greatest health resort,” according to the Handbook of Texas.

The 200-room Crazy Water Hotel would open in 1927, and hotel magnate T.B. Baker would open the Baker in 1929, the same year as the stock market crash.

When the Baker opened, it included mineral baths, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a rooftop nightclub known as the Cloud Room, where old-timers could recall hearing music stream out across town at night.

Among the celebrities who stayed at the Baker were Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Roy Rogers and the Three Stooges, according to the Texas Almanac.

“Back in those days, the Baker would probably rival anything in Las Vegas today,” former assistant manager Roy D. Walker said in a 1993 Star-Telegram article. “Big-name stars like Lawrence Welk, Sophie Tucker, the Dorsey Brothers. You couldn’t find a parking place for blocks.”

By World War II, Mineral Wells was becoming a military town, and the Baker would be overrun with soldiers and start its slow decline from an opulent past.

Former employees recalled all-night poker games with plenty of liquor flowing.

“It was cheap rotgut whiskey,” Clifford Linsey, a former night bellhop, said in the 1993 article. “All I had to do was reach under the stoop of a building, and there would be a pint. I would leave $2 and then sell it for $10. It was quite a markup, but I was the only game in town.”

The hotel would close in 1963, only to reopen two years later. It saw its last guest in 1972.

A colorful past

Businesses remained open along street level throughout the 1990s, but the hotel would eventually be shuttered for good.

Not far away, the Crazy Water Hotel closed several years ago but was bought in December by a group of Las Vegas investors who plan to renovate and reopen it, said Howerton, the city manager.

The Baker has held such fascination for Arlington singer-songwriter Brian Burns that he’s written two songs about it: Ghosts of the Baker Hotel and The Girl at the Bar.

Burns said he was inspired to write a song while driving through Mineral Wells on the way home from a gig.

“To see that huge hulk in the middle of that small town, it’s almost like something out of The Twilight Zone,” Burns said.

Burns said the Baker’s lore is known statewide. He performed Ghosts of the Baker in front of a group of seventh-graders in Rockport, along the Texas coast, and the students’ history teacher approached him after the show.

“He walked up to me with tears in his eyes and said his parents were married at the Baker,” Burns said. “That’s the kind of response you get when you talk about the Baker. There are so many people that have a connection to it.”

Burns is among those who remain skeptical that the Baker will be reborn. And as a writer of historical ballads, he’s fond of the abandoned hotel that some say is haunted. Numerous YouTube videos purport that ghosts reside there.

Popular with trespassers

Throughout the years, trespassers have sneaked inside the Baker despite the risk of being arrested, from scavengers looking for a piece of copper to high school kids — from across North Texas — looking for a late-night adventure.

During a recent tour of the Baker, two trespassers were found crouched behind a plastic sheet in the third-floor spa area. Both were questioned by police and eventually released. City officials warn that anyone found inside could be arrested or issued a citation.

Tony Stubblefield, a building inspector and code enforcement officer for Mineral Wells, said the number of trespassers seems to be on the upswing as word gets out that the Baker may be renovated.

“I think they know time is running out,” said Stubblefield, who estimates that he has given 300 tours of the Baker in the last six years. “Once this project gets started, there will be fences and 24-hour security around this place, and nobody will be getting inside.”

Stubblefield deals with many older structures that are often not kept up to code. He sees the Baker as a chance to spur reinvestment in the town.

“We’ve been the hole in the doughnut while there is money all around us,” Stubblefield said. “Just look at all of the commercial development along I-20 in Weatherford and all of the growth around Possum Kingdom Lake. We just don’t have as much visibility as Weatherford, but this project could do something to change that.”

Since the loss of the pre-parole facility, Mineral Wells has had discussions with an ammunition manufacturer that would also bring more jobs to town.

But Richard Ball, president of the Mineral Wells Industrial Foundation, who has been involved in the efforts to revive the Baker, said the hotel project is what most residents like to talk about.

A Facebook page has been created to drum up support for the referendum, even though it hasn’t officially been placed on the ballot.

“You’ve kept hearing for years and years that the Baker is going to reopen,” Ball said. “All I could tell people is it wasn’t dead. To hear we might get to break ground before the end of the year is just unbelievable.”

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