To the prospective ‘Hilton-affiliated’ buyer for Downtown Selma’s St. James Hotel: Do it!
For 180 years, the building at the corner of Water Avenue and Washington Street has been a fixture in Selma. It survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Era turmoil in Selma.
It was known a The Brantley throughout the 19th century, but that closed in the 1890s. Throughout the 1900s, it was used for commercial and industrial purposes, including as a tire shop in the 1980s.
In 1997, after millions of dollars in renovations and much fanfare, it reopened as the St. James Hotel. Unfortunately, it was mostly downhill after that. After a tumultuous 20 years, chronicled by The Selma Times-Journal, it was boarded up in 2017 and shopped by the city of Selma for a potential buyer.
According to a report from Alabama News Network’s George McDonald published Wednesday, a new buyer has emerged that is affiliated with Hilton Hotels.
This might be what the St. James Hotel needs to work: a company running this property that is in the business of hotels and has an idea of what is sustainable.
There is no shortage of abandoned buildings and blight in downtown Selma. That is a reflection of the city that as a whole consistently struggles with high unemployment, crime and an unnecessary saga of in-fighting at the local levels of government.
Conspicuously missing from Selma’s portfolio of business are the corporate brands that wear their progressive views as a badge of honor. They make commercials touting their dedication to sustainability, diversity, inclusion or [insert left-of-center feel-good buzzword here].
However, if you live in Selma and you want Starbucks, be prepared to drive to Prattville. Target? Prattville as well. The closest Apple Store? Birmingham. Subaru dealership? Montgomery.
Obviously, these are private companies that have to look out for their shareholders’ interests. But they don’t back up their virtue-signaling by putting money where their mouths are, at least when it comes to a place like Selma, Alabama – ground zero of the Civil Rights Movement.
They may take on some corporate sponsorship for Oprah Winfrey’s movie about Selma. They will give themselves awards for doing so.
But at the end of the day, Selma’s economy remains beleaguered. It has the highest unemployment rate among the state’s top 25 municipalities in excess of seven percent.
That is why it is a breath of fresh air to see an entity take an interest in the St. James Hotel property that is affiliated with the Hilton Hotel chain. (To be fair, there is a Hilton-affiliated Hampton Inn on the western edge of Selma out U.S. Highway 80 headed west toward Demopolis.)
The property has potential. It sits on the banks of the Alabama River and overlooks the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s also a place where the availability of hotel accommodations is severely lacking.
The revival of the St. James Hotel won’t by itself be what turns downtown Selma into a facsimile of New Orleans’ French Quarter, as was the hope of Selma City Councilman Michael Johnson when hotel FUBU flirted with the idea of investing in the property last year. Such a vision may be a little ambitious.
However, if Selma’s city leaders are realistic with this iteration of the St. James Hotel and can guarantee the city will do the things most people expect out of a city government – public safety, sanitation, utilities, etc. – then they can build upon that. It’s these small gestures that can be the foundation for a turnaround.
A satisfactory functional downtown hotel won’t be a cure-all for the city of Selma’s woes, but there is an upside for the city’s residents and this potential hotel proprietor.
To this “Hilton-affiliated” buyer: If circumstances allow for it, it is worth a gamble. Given that Selma is centrally located on the map of Alabama, it has the potential of someday serving as a venue that’s an alternative to Montgomery or Birmingham.
More importantly for Selma, the reemergence of the St. James Hotel means Selma won’t be thought of as just another place off the beaten path but as a destination.