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A dying town, a crumbling hotel and the water that could restore both

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago David Montgomery
a close up of an old building: The lobby of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Tex. A three-year plan aims to turn the Baker, which closed in 1972, into a destination and event space.© Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times The lobby of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Tex. A three-year plan aims to turn the Baker, which closed in 1972, into a destination and event space.

MINERAL WELLS, Texas — Equipped with a flashlight, Laird Fairchild unlocks a side door of the Baker Hotel and begins a darkened 14-story ascent to the top.

Along the way, each floor reveals a grim tableau from decades of neglect. Graffiti and vandalism. Crumbling plaster. Shards of glass. Stripped walls. Broken, uprooted boards that once collectively served as brilliantly polished dance floors.

a view of a city: Mineral Wells, where the towering Baker opened in 1929, wants to become a leading tourist spot in North Texas hill country.© Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times Mineral Wells, where the towering Baker opened in 1929, wants to become a leading tourist spot in North Texas hill country. For much of the early and mid-20th century, the Baker and its North Texas city shared a vibrant economy. Lithium-laced healing waters gave Mineral Wells its name and turned it into an internationally famous spa and tourist destination. T.B. Baker, a Texas hotel magnate, opened the hotel bearing his name in 1929.

A towering Spanish Colonial Revival hotel in the heart of Mineral Wells, the Baker closed in 1972 and has stood as an inescapable reminder of the city’s economic misfortunes over the past 47 years.

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Now, however, energized business leaders are rallying behind a planned $65 million renovation to reopen the Baker in 2022 and cement a downtown revitalization that has been underway for several years.

“This is not a renovation of a building,” said Mr. Fairchild, a co-founder of Hunter Chase Capital Partners, a real estate developer in Southlake, more than an hour’s drive northeast of Mineral Wells. “This is a renovation of a town.”

For decades, the Baker embodied elegance, with a guest list that included Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, the Three Stooges and, according to local legend, Bonnie and Clyde. But advances in medical science eroded Mineral Wells’ appeal as a health resort, and the city’s economy plummeted after the shutdown of Fort Wolters, a military base where helicopter pilots were trained during the Vietnam War.

a man standing in front of a building: Laird Fairchild, a developer working on the hotel’s restoration, walking through a hallway leading to the basement.© Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times Laird Fairchild, a developer working on the hotel’s restoration, walking through a hallway leading to the basement.

As businesses closed and jobs vanished, some disgruntled residents began calling their city “Miserable Wells.”

Mineral Wells, with a population of just over 15,300, had a poverty rate of 23.5 percent in 2017, according to census data, compared with a state average of 14.7 percent. Median household income was $39,292, lower than the statewide median of $59,206.

Nevertheless, a surge of optimism has begun taking root throughout Mineral Wells as Mr. Fairchild works with Randy Nix, a local developer, and other community leaders on what they hope will become a 21st-century update of the city’s glory days. The efforts have given rise to yet another nickname: “Miracle Wells.”

At the center of the redevelopment is the Baker, which has what Mr. Fairchild called a “cultlike following” across the globe, with thousands of followers on Facebook. City officials say they are repeatedly asked about the hotel during out-of-town trips. The Chamber of Commerce receives about 100 requests a year to hold weddings there.

“There’s something about that hotel,” said Mike Allen, who was on the City Council for 22 years and served as mayor for 10 years before retiring in 2018. “If you pay too much attention, she will put her claws into you.”

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Mr. Fairchild said he had become enamored of the imposing building more than a decade ago. Working with a longtime friend and business associate, Chad Patton, he successfully negotiated with the hotel’s owner, Times Industrial Limited Partnership of Mesa, Ariz.

They declined to reveal the purchase price, but they offered broad outlines of a complicated financing package heavily dependent on state, federal and local tax incentives.

“It’s kind of like putting together a complicated puzzle, and each piece is required in order to make the puzzle work,” said Mr. Patton, a first vice president and branch manager at Wells Fargo Advisors.

The Baker project is the capstone in revitalization efforts that Mr. Nix began spearheading several years ago. Without a vibrant downtown, he said, any effort to reopen the Baker was likely to face the same fate as past unsuccessful attempts to bring the hotel back to life.

“All of these years, we in this community have been sitting here waiting for somebody like Laird to come along and build the Baker, thinking it’s going to save this town, and I say it’s not going to happen that way,” Mr. Nix said. “Until this community steps in and does something about itself and starts bringing in tourism, the Baker Hotel will never be a viable project.”

One of Nix’s key undertakings is focused on the Crazy Water Hotel, which opened in 1912, burned to the ground and then reopened in 1927, two years before the Baker. Like other things in Mineral Wells, it bears the nickname of the recuperative waters that supposedly helped cure a woman in serious mental distress.

Mr. Nix, owner of Nix Rental Homes, was among 10 local business leaders who put up $200,000 apiece to form a public benefit corporation to convert the seven-story Crazy Water Hotel into upscale apartments that can also be used for short-term rentals when tourism begins to take off. He said the project exemplified the community’s renewed commitment to revitalizing Mineral Wells, saying he expects 150 investors to be on board when the hotel fully reopens in December 2020.

a man standing in front of a building: Mr. Fairchild in the Brazos Room, a formal dining hall in the Baker.© Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times Mr. Fairchild in the Brazos Room, a formal dining hall in the Baker.

Restaurants and night life have also returned to the once-moribund city center, along with murals that brighten aging storefronts. Another Nix family project is the downtown Market at 76067, named for the ZIP code, where more than 100 vendors across two stories offer an array of items, from antiques to contemporary cuisine. An urban park is also part of the city master plan.

The goal is to transform Mineral Wells into a leading tourist destination in picturesque North Texas hill country, which will help draw more diverse industries and businesses to expand the city’s economic base. Mr. Nix said tourism was a natural for the region, pointing out the city’s proximity to the popular Possum Kingdom Lake, state parks and a 100-mile stretch of the Brazos River.

As part of that vision, the Baker’s developers espouse the brand “Palo Pinto chic” in describing plans to cater to a diverse clientele, including business conferences, school proms, reunions and weekend travelers looking for a small-town getaway. A major goal, Mr. Fairchild said, is to convert the Baker and Mineral Wells into “the wedding capital of North Texas,” if not the entire state.

Mineral Wells still has abundant supplies of “crazy water,” which will enable the Baker to reopen a second-floor spa as part of a larger fitness and wellness center. A private elevator will ferry patrons to an outdoor, Olympic-size pool downstairs. Workers will also reshape the interior into 157 spacious rooms instead of the current 450.

During a tour of the hotel this summer, Mr. Fairchild pointed out tarnished features from the hotel’s glamour days, and with a little imagination, it wasn’t hard to picture a ’30s-era celebrity being escorted through the lobby or lounging poolside, surrounded by autograph seekers.

Brass chandeliers, badly in need of polish and refurbishing, hung in the lobby. An acoustical dome in the ceiling once amplified the voices of guests so they could be heard by anyone in the room.

Mr. Fairchild’s favorite part of the hotel, he said, is the spacious Cloud Room on the top floor, which, as it did in the past, will host special events such as weddings and reunions. Now, however, its floors are destroyed, and the walls are marred with graffiti. A young oak tree has somehow taken root on the ledge outside, 14 stories above the sidewalk.

Planners are confident that the vast majority of residents eagerly await the Baker’s re-emergence.

“When I was growing up here, there wasn’t anything going on, and there was no reason for it to,” said Perri Leavelle, a co-owner of the Brazos Market and Bistro downtown.

Now “it’s better than it’s ever been in my lifetime,” she added. “It’s exciting that Mineral Wells is right here on the forefront of people coming back to downtowns all over the nation.”

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