HOT SPRINGS — Stacey Alexander received a frantic phone call from her husband, Jason.
The news was not good.
In exactly one week, the two planned to take a trip to one of their favorite resorts in the Dominican Republic — their first trip since the onset of the pandemic.
Jason Alexander had been organizing documents for the trip that evening while his wife was out.
When he pulled the couple’s passports from the fire safe, he discovered that while his was still valid, hers was not.
“It was just absolute shock,” Stacey Alexander said. “We had planned this trip for last summer and could not go because of covid. It did not occur to either one of us that our passports would have expired.”
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Panicked and frantic, the Alexanders all but declared their own state of emergency in their home in Dyersburg, a city about an hour outside Memphis.
They searched for solutions online, spent hours making dozens of calls that went unanswered to busy passport hotlines listed on the website of the State Department, which manages passport processing.
Almost out of options and facing the grim prospect of canceling their trip, the Alexanders finally found one possible solution: the Arkansas Passport Center in Hot Springs.
Three days later, at 8 on a muggy Wednesday morning, they arrived on the passport center’s doorstep, hoping, or quite literally praying, for a miracle.
The Alexanders were not alone.
As Americans emerge from covid-19 hibernation and begin traveling again, many people are dusting off passports unused during the pandemic only to discover that they had expired.
The State Department reduced passport processing last year during the pandemic, resulting in a national backlog and virtually no appointments available for weeks at the 23 passport agencies and five passport centers listed by the State Department where people can show up to obtain new travel documents.
Usually, obtaining a passport at an agency or center is for emergency or urgent travel situations.
These passport offices are mostly in major cities — Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle.
But there is one place a bit more off the beaten path that has had a handful of appointments in recent weeks: the Arkansas Passport Center in Hot Springs.
That means people from across the country, like the Alexanders, are suddenly making unexpected detours to the Spa City.
On Wednesday, the day the Alexanders arrived, license plates on cars outside the office were from an array of American states.
Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida.
Officials at Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport, a few minutes away from the passport center, confirmed that one passport-seeker had flown in on a private plane Wednesday from an airfield outside Dallas.
This is not uncommon, said Glen Barentine, the airport director.
“I heard there were people from New York here yesterday,” said Emily Corona, a Hot Springs resident who also was waiting for a new passport Wednesday for her trip to Cancun, Mexico, which was to start the next day at 6:30 a.m.
A few days before, Corona’s sister booked the surprise trip without realizing that her sibling did not have a passport.
“I did not even know we had a passport center here,” Corona said.
The Arkansas Passport Center opened in 2007.
Jay Chesshir helped land it.
Chesshir is president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
In the early 2000s, he held a similar post with the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Garland County Economic Development Corp.
Chesshir said he was trying to create a technology park near the Hot Springs airport.
He said the development corporation’s board got a loan of a little over $1 million to put up a building near the airport.
They had leaflets made to advertise the building to site-location companies.
“From that marketing work, I got contacted by one of the site-selection firms about a project that was potentially interested,” he said.
“We went through the process. Finally, after lots of work and negotiation and trips and conversations we were able to land the company there in Hot Springs and they’ve since been able to expand at least twice,” he said.
Chessir said the Hot Springs group didn’t know until fairly late in the negotiation process what the plan was for the site.
Chesshir said the group worked with Stanley Inc. to lease the building. Based in Arlington, Va., Stanley provided information-technology services to U.S. defense, intelligence and federal civilian government agencies.
Stanley had contracted with the State Department to do passport and visa work, said Chessir.
In 2010, CGI Group Inc. acquired Stanley Inc. for a little over $1 billion. CGI is one of the largest information-technology and business consulting services firms in the world, according to its website.
Originally, the Hot Springs site was just a processing center without a counter, said Chessir.
When it opened, there were three mega-processing centers for passports — Hot Springs, Charleston, S.C., and Portsmouth, N.H. — according to a 2007 article in the Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs.
At the time, Paul Peek of the State Department, the acting director of the Hot Springs passport center, said “It will be, by far, our largest passport production facility.”
The busiest passport facility in the country was producing 100,000 passports a week in 2007, according to the Sentinel-Record.
“This facility will do about as much in three days as the largest facility currently does in a week,” Peek was quoted as saying.
In 2010, the Arkansas Passport Center added public counters.
The nearest passport agency is 288 miles away in Dallas.
Chessir said the center has opened up a sort of “passport tourism” for the Spa City.
“It is a great way to introduce people to Hot Springs, and Central Arkansas for that matter,” Chessir said. “That passport center is as much of a magnet for tourists and potential new businesses as anything we do.”
ON WAY TO AFRICA
Early in June, a segment aired on NPR during which the broadcaster’s global health and development correspondent, Jason Beaubien, described how he unwittingly became a tourist in Hot Springs for a day.
Unable to book an appointment elsewhere, Beaubien was forced to make a last-minute trip to Hot Springs for a new passport ahead of a reporting trip to Africa.
Beaubien is based in Washington, D.C., home to the Washington Passport Agency.
Apparently it had no appointments.
“When I get to the [Hot Springs] office, the security guards are mentioning that people are coming from all over the country to Arkansas,” Beaubien said during the NPR program, which aired on June 3. “They’re even recommending barbecue places that they can go nearby while you’re waiting.”
The NPR correspondent confirmed in an email to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that he had lunch down the road at Smokin’ in Style BBQ, the guards’ top choice.
He said he also had time to walk around downtown Hot Springs where the National Park and historic bathhouses are. He said everyone he met in the passport office “was incredibly friendly and helpful.”
But having to fly to Arkansas to get a passport to go to Africa seemed a little unusual to him.
“In all honesty, I think it’s insane that people are flying all over the country to get their passports renewed,” Beaubien said in an email. “We can do better than this as a government. We’ve had systems in place in the past that worked. Clearly it’s time to get those systems up and running again.”
In another email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a State Department official said the government agency is “working to resume routine passport processing, while protecting both our staff and our customers.”
“While our dedicated team of passport professionals has returned to our facilities in substantial numbers,” the official said, “we have generally restricted appointments at Department of State public passport agencies to cases involving life-or-death emergencies and offer very limited appointments for non-essential travel within 72 hours.”
One crucial detail of the Alexanders’ trip to the Arkansas Passport Center was that they did not have an appointment, instead gambling that if they waited around long enough, staff members might take pity on Stacey Alexander and let her in the door.
Passport center employees strongly discourage people showing up unannounced.
Around noon, Stacey Alexander was still waiting outside on a bench in scorching heat while her husband Jason went back to the hotel.
Jason Alexander showed back up around 1 p.m., describing the passport situation as a “goat rodeo.”
According to Dictionary.com, a goat rodeo “is a slang term for something going totally, unbelievably, disastrously wrong, and there’s nothing left to do but sit back and watch the train wreck.”
As the clock ticked closer to 3, when the center stops taking applications for the day, suddenly it was not the heat that was oppressive but rather the slow crystallization of the prospect of losing potentially thousands of dollars in airline tickets and other travel costs should no one step out to call Stacey Alexander’s name.
People who had actual appointments began to return around 2, anxiously waiting for their names to be called to receive their newly minted, crisp little blue book, their golden ticket to globetrotting transit.
Maya Hadley arrived the day before from Dallas, spending the night in a Red Roof Inn on the outskirts of town.
Several days before, a family medical emergency required a last-minute trip to Mexico.
She was scheduled to leave the next day, Thursday.
This was Hadley’s first trip to Hot Springs.
“I was conceived here,” Hadley said. “So that is a random little fun fact, but otherwise this is my first time.”
“So far, I have liked it,” Hadley said. “I would not mind coming back.”
She said she made more than three-dozen phone calls to passport hotlines before finally landing an appointment in Hot Springs.
“Just over and over and over,” Hadley said. “It took forever.”
It was the middle of the night when, out of nowhere, Richard Hammond woke up with a start, thinking he “better check that passport.”
Of course it had expired, and, of course, he’d already booked his trip to go diving on the Mexican island of Cozumel.
Departure date: June 12.
Hammond secured an appointment at noon Wednesday, driving almost seven hours from his home outside Birmingham, Ala., to Hot Springs.
“I had to start scrambling to try to figure out how to do something,” Hammond said as he waited outside the office, hopeful to pick up his new booklet before another seven-hour drive back. “If I got to the airport, and they said, ‘Sir, you can’t go, your passport is expired,’ that would have been no good.”
It was now 2:30.
One guy had been sitting quietly and despondently on the grass all day.
“I think he has been waiting there a long time,” Hadley said.
Suddenly total strangers, thrown together in a town they never expected to visit, became intertwined in one another’s lives, the drama heightening as the temperature only continued to rise — in more ways than one.
“Did you get it?” Hammond asked one man who emerged from the office.
The man held up a little booklet and nodded a confirmation.
Entire SUVs full of families with children pulled up.
A white Porsche with Oklahoma plates returned.
Finally, a woman emerged and walked up to the Alexanders’ car where Stacey Alexander was now waiting with her husband.
Stacey Alexander followed her inside the building.
The next day, now back in Tennessee, Stacey Alexander confirmed that she did, indeed, secure a new passport that day about 4:30, half an hour before the center closed.
“Hallelujah,” Stacey Alexander said on the phone. “I am just relieved we are going on this trip. This was our only chance to get to do anything this summer.”
“I will never, never let my passport expire again,” she said.