HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, Arkansas — On a cold December 6, 2003, evening in Arkansas singing legend Tony Bennett, the world’s greatest interpreter of The Great American Songbook, returned to the city where he first sang what would become his musical signature.
A large crowd sat enraptured as the 77-year-old Bennett, his voice as strong as ever, delighted them with an evening full of songs, including the signature “I Left My Heart (In San Francisco),” which he had first sung at The Black Orchid nightclub on Upper Central Avenue during a gig at The Vapors casino in 1961. Bennett and his pianist Ralph Sharon had gone to The Black Orchid to use the club’s piano so that the singer could hear the song that Sharon had recommended to him. The bartender that night told Bennett, “If you record that song I’ll buy the record.” The rest is history.
On Thursday, December 6, Hot Springs will mark the 15th anniversary of Bennett’s return to Hot Springs to open the brand new Summit Arena, which had just been added to the recently expanded Hot Springs Convention Center.
The dream of the late civic leader and Hot Springs’ biggest fan, Bob Wheeler, the facility, now the Bank OZK Arena, has been since that 2003 grand opening the host of hundreds of thousands of people attending hundreds of events as varied as the world championship of bass fishing and high school graduations.
After the Tony Bennett concert, it didn’t take long for the $39.8 million 6,500-seat Arena to host its first sellout event, a February 7, 2004, concert by the legendary Willie Nelson. Soon after, on April 8, 2004, the Arena was sold out again for the first of three appearances by Garrison Keillor and his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.
Since then, the Arena has been the scene of repeated sellouts for such events as the Arkansas High School Basketball Championships and three FLW Forrest Wood Cup World Championship bass fishing tournaments.
The 120,000-square-foot Arena was added to the Hot Springs Convention Center, which had been expanded in 1998 to 240,000 square feet, and thus gave Hot Springs a convention center complex of 360,000 square feet — the largest in Arkansas.
“There is no doubt that Bank OZK Arena has proved to be one of the best investments the residents of Hot Springs ever made,” said Steve Arrison, the CEO of Visit Hot Springs who came on board just as the Convention Center expansion was being completed.
“In addition to being an engine for economic growth in our city, the Arena and its adjoining Convention Center have also become a focus of Hot Springs life ranging from the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfasts to hosting high school graduations to serving as the headquarters for family reunions, the location for the funeral of President Bill Clinton’s mother, art exhibits and music concerts,” Arrison said. “In the 15 years since the Arena opened, our city has expanded its reach as a place for meetings, conventions, entertainment and a gathering spot for uncounted citizen functions.
“The people of Hot Springs should be justly proud that after 15 years, Bank OZK Arena remains a modern, up-to-date addition to Hot Springs and its civic life. We intend to see that it remains as modern and attractive as the day when Tony Bennett opened it in 2003.”
Gordon Mahoney, chief operating officer for Visit Hot Springs, said, “We estimate that 800 events have been held in the Arena since that grand opening 15 years ago.”
“That’s probably a conservative estimate,” Mahoney said. “And, of course, it doesn’t include the thousands of meetings, conventions, banquets, exhibits, trade shows and other events that have been held in the other areas of the Convention Center complex since that part opened in 1998.”
Here is a timeline for the expansion of the Convention Center and the addition of Bank OZK Arena:
• 1995 — Voters approve a $34 million bond issue to be repaid by a ½-cent sales tax to expand and improve the Hot Springs Convention Auditorium. In addition the City received $5 million from the Governor’s Office for off-site improvements.
• November 2, 1996 — Groundbreaking for the first expansion of the Hot Springs Convention Auditorium. Expanded the facility from 70,000 square feet to 240,000 square feet.
• December 10, 1998 — Grand opening of the new Hot Springs Convention Center.
• May 15, 2001 — Voters approve (68% for, 32% against) the refinancing of $11.7 million in remaining debt and $28.1 million in new bonds to expand the Hot Springs Convention Center by adding a multi-purpose arena.
• December 19, 2001 — Groundbreaking ceremony for the new arena. The 120,000-square-foot expansion will make the entire Convention Center facility the largest in the state at 360,000 square feet.
• April 1, 2002 — Groundbreaking on the new $35 million Embassy Suites Hotel that will connect to the new arena.
• November 18, 2003 — Grand opening of the Embassy Suites Hotel.
• September 1, 2003 — Agreement signed with Summit Bank to call new arena Summit Arena.
• December 6, 2003 — Grand opening of Summit Arena with a concert by Tony Bennett.
• May 31, 2007 — Bonds ($62.1 million) for Convention Center Complex pay off five years early leaving the facility debt-free. Half-cent temporary sales tax ends.
• March, 2014 — Name changed to Bank of the Ozarks Arena
• December 6, 2018 — Naming rights agreement extended an additional five years with Bank OZK
Here is an abbreviated list of just a few of the hundreds of events the Arena has hosted since Tony Bennett’s December 6, 2003, grand opening concert:
• Little Texas; Blake Shelton; Confederate Railroad; Jason Aldean; .38 Special;
Willie Nelson; Lee Brice; Luke Bryan; Lady Razorback Basketball; Vince Gill; State Basketball Championships; Harry Connick, Jr.; NCAA Division-II Championships.
• Dierks Bentley; Miss Arkansas Pageant; Larry the Cable Guy; Peter Frampton; High School Graduations; Kelli Pickler; Point of Grace; Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; The Strongest Man Competition; Miss Arkansas Pageant; Royal Lipizzaner Stallions.
• Forrest Wood Cup; WWE Wrestling; BFL All-American Tournament; Sun Belt Basketball Championships; Cheerleading Events; Styx ; The Game (Lake Hamilton vs. Lakeside Basketball); Foreigner; Spa City Shootout Basketball Tournament; KC & the Sunshine Band; Arkansas Beta Clubs; The Village People.
• Alpaca Breeders of Arkansas; Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus; Sawyer Brown; Harlem Globetrotters; Steppenwolf; Miranda Lambert; Eddie Money; Lynyrd Skynyrd; Sammy Kershaw; Jamey Johnson; Trace Atkins; Randy Houser; Uncle Kracker; Joe Nichols; Bobby Bones; Clay Walker.
• Jerry Reed; Little Big Town; Three Dog Night; Mercy Me; Justin Moore; Casting Crowns; TNA Wrestling; A Prairie Home Companion; Garrison Keillor Rhubarb Tour; Billy Joe Shaver; Tracy Byrd; Montgomery Gentry.