St. James needs appeal to thrive

Published 12:48pm Friday, June 28, 2013

Cecil Williamson

Selma City Council — Ward 1


Professional management is essential for operating a boutique hotel such as the St. James. A national brand such as Hilton or Marriott is essential to the success of this property. The training, reservation index and advertising resources of a national brand make this necessary.

National brands such as Hilton or Marriott do not buy properties. Franchisees or ownership groups develop a plan for successful operations meeting franchise standards, have the plan approved and then implement the plan. The plan has to be profitable to support brand royalties and standards.

In its current configuration, the St. James is not large enough to attract a nationally recognized flag or a known ownership group that would consider a purchase. That was a basic flaw in the beginning and must be overcome if the property is going to be marketable.

While the supporting facilities (banquet facilities, meeting rooms, restaurant and bar) are more than adequate, the room count is not adequate to support or carry the costs of these facilities.

Any hotel consultant will tell you that a hotel of this caliber, with these amenities must be a minimum of 60 rooms or more. A health and fitness center is also essential and must be added in order to attract today’s typical guest for this type of hotel.

Fortunately, the city has acquired adjacent property, which could be utilized for expansion.

The city should commission a hospitality study by an industry-approved firm.

National chains, such as Hilton and Marriott, require one before they will even consider “flagging” or franchising a hotel. A firm certified and accepted by these franchises must perform it.

This is the first step the city needs to take to determine if the market is adequate to support a facility of this type and quality at rates completive to this area. These studies typically cost $15,000 to $20,000 and take from 30-45 days.

If the market study finds there is a place for a high-end hotel in this market it will still be a challenge for an investment group to acquire, upgrade and expand these facilities, while maintaining a rate competitive with the local markets on a day-to-day basis.

The substantial support facilities must be marketed aggressively and supported financially by local groups to drive revenue to the hotel.

The hotel is in need of extensive renovations before it can be considered for sale or redevelopment. The property has seen very little, if any, long-term maintenance or upgrades since its inception.

If the mayor and the majority of the city council do not want to sell the hotel, they should consider leasing the property on a long-term basis to a group that has exhibited capabilities and financial strength to develop, operate and manage the property on a long-term basis.

The city should afford the new ownership/operating group access to Downtown Development Authority bond financing to enable them to complete the necessary improvements and upgrades at competitive rates.

A financially stable ownership group experienced in hotel management could secure the national “flag” for the St. James and cause the hotel to be revenue producing, viable and nationally recognized anchor for the Water Avenue district, spawning and encouraging future improvements in the downtown area.

Finally, the perception in the community is that Water Avenue is not safe after dark. The city has to take aggressive action to eliminate this problem and commit to do so on an immediate and ongoing basis whatever it takes.

As long as the perception issue exists, people will not come, whether to eat, drink or stay at the hotel. This is a significant issue and must be addressed immediately by city government.

This is our final opportunity to get it right as far as the management and ownership of the St. James is concerned. City government needs to have a vision and think outside the box.

Let us do what is necessary to get a national “flag” on the St. James and make it a major attraction for our community, the tourism industry and future redevelopment of the riverfront.

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