Dream on the riverfront

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 28, 2004

Picture it – a parking lot sits across the street from a large park next to the riverfront. Cars fill the lot and people cross Water Avenue to enjoy a bright, sunny day. An amphitheater waits for the next play and children dance before a boat about to dock at the pier. Visitors watch from the cover of a restaurant as balloons drift into a cool summer breeze.

Some drift toward the St. James Hotel or one the numerous antique shops and eateries lining Water Avenue. As the sun sets light begins to escape from the row of street lamps lining the brick sidewalks. Music starts to play from one of the restaurants. Night on Water Avenue has begun.

Is the image a pipe dream or a vision Selma can look forward to in the coming years?

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“They’re dreams, but they all start as dreams,” said Elizabeth Driggers, director of Selma’s community development office. “The hotel was a dream.”

It isn’t just Driggers’ dream. The City of Selma has a plan for the development of the riverfront and Water Avenue. Portions of the dream have already been realized. Brick sidewalks and aesthetic lighting greet the traveler as he walks down the south side of Water Avenue. Lamps and trees line the downtown portion of Broad Street.

The dream continues on the north side of Water Avenue from Broad Street to Franklin Street. A recent grant gained from the Alabama Department of Transportation will see that dream come true in just a few years. Driggers said she expected a mirror image of Water Avenue’s south side on its north side.

Grants from the federal government will enable the city to develop its riverfront and make the dream a reality.

“This is a very ambitious project, but the vision is clear and we simply need to stay the course,” Mayor James Perkins Jr. said. “I see an Interpretive Center, amphitheater, St. James Hotel expansion, another hotel, restaurants, hiking and biking trails and beautiful landscaping along the river topped with a conference center. As far as I’m concerned, this is no longer just a vision; it has become a project.”

Wayne Vardaman, president and CEO of the Selma-Dallas County Centre for Commerce, agreed. Vardaman said his vision of the riverfront resembled Savannah with its parks, beautiful buildings and antique stores. “It’s a destination, and I think they’re trying to make it a destination,” Vardaman said. “Tourism is such as big thing for us, and I think it can get bigger.”

When complete, the riverfront development will stretch from Franklin Street to the Worley Ditch, which is just north of Lil Mexico. The city gained a grant with the aid of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby to acquire the approximately 10 acres of land and will make an offer to property owners once an appraisal is complete.

A rendering of the park includes a river walk, aesthetic lighting, a comfort station and landscaping. Additional plans include an amphitheater, docking facilities and parking.

“We knew we had something to do with it and make it another asset for the community,” Driggers said. “Where people can walk, and they don’t have to worry about the traffic. It’s our long-range plan.”

The plan began in the early 1980’s when the city built the sidewalks and planted the trees on Broad Street. Shortly afterward, it gained a grant to assist property owners on Broad Street, which enabled them to bring their buildings up to code. Soon the Performing Arts Center took shape and the puzzle began to form.

“It’s all part of a puzzle,” said Patty Sexton, with Selma’s community development office. “It’s done in stages. It’s a slow process, but it will happen.”

The puzzle continued taking shape in the mid-1980’s when Water Avenue’s south side received brick sidewalks and lampposts. “We hope to continue to the Old Depot Museum as funds permit,” Driggers said.

The renovation of the St. James Hotel was a catalyst for further development. It came to fruition December 1997. “We can’t wait until the riverfront development becomes a reality,” said Brad Kendrick, sales and marketing director for the hotel. “We’ve already been renovated. We want everybody else to catch up. We can’t wait.”

Jeff Crawford, owner of the Riverfront Sports Bar, agreed. “It’s going to help area businesses,” he said. “It’s a positive for Water Avenue.”

According to Vardaman, the riverfront and Water Avenue developments are positives for everyone. “It brings more tourism and that means more lodgings tax,” Vardaman said. “It feeds on itself.”

Driggers added that the developments would also draw industries to the area. “We think these are the special things that will draw tourists and people who want to bring industry to Selma,” she said. “When you come across the bridge, the first thing you see is the downtown.”