A New Light in Selma

Published 12:45 am Sunday, June 7, 2009

You’ve seen the posters by now. The sun rising over the Alabama River in rich hues of reds and oranges. And you’ve seen the words, “Sunrise Selma,” or even heard them spoken over the radio by elected officials and others. But what does this mean?

To understand Sunrise Selma, you have to understand a group of people who call themselves Bold Women of Selma. This klatch often spoke of its love for downtown Selma, how the Alabama River is so understated in the city’s makeup and its despair over the empty buildings left to the elements.

Fran Pearce is one of those women.

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“A.C. (Reeves), Molly (Gamble), Ann Thomas and myself started talking about buying property and refurbishing it on a smaller scale than this,” she said. “We started talking about bringing women together. I think we started looking at apartment buildings at first and then homes. Things that we could probably afford to buy as a small group.”

Pearce didn’t want to manage the project. Reeves, who owns The Real Estate Gallery in Selma, said she knew one or two people who could pitch in.

“I wanted to really see it happen,” Pearce said. “I think Molly did, too. We were hoping others would catch the spirit if we did something in that fashion and we wanted to do it right. We wanted to do a good job of refurbishing. And no telling how many pieces of property between all four of us we looked at.

“I think the more we looked, the more we saw the importance of saving, preserving and taking care of these treasures in Selma. Of course we started looking at the river and the excitement of what we did have here. The more we looked, the more we felt the momentum that it needed to be done.”

The women believed people in the community had become, in Pearce’s words, “nonchalant and numb” and weren’t looking anymore. So they decided to put a group together to help others see Selma through their eyes.

Gamble added, “I think A.C. took it to another level because she is the one who got in touch with Tom (Bolton).”

Reeves’ friends have dubbed her, “Selma’s Cheerleader.” Her list of community experiences shore up that sobriquet: co-founder of City Ceramic’s Art Camp, Little Friends School Board member, co-founder of Arts Revive, Selma Area Food Bank Board member, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church vestry member; Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce Board and Retail Committee chairperson and president-elect of Selma Board of Realtors.

Her business acumen matches her community activities. Reeves began in retail sales in Short Hill, N.J., but her work experience has run the gamut from assistant innkeeper, manager of a catering company, artist, director of a sheltered workshop for mentally handicapped adults, to yoga instructor to owning her own business in Selma.

Reeves’ partner in this endeavor, Bolton, is president and CEO of Cooper Brothers Construction Co. and has been since 1982. Some of his work includes Courtyard apartments, Homewood Selma and Homewood Greenville, Hampton Inn, Lincoln Place for the Count and the YMCA properties.

Bolton took Cooper Brothers from a $2 million company to “last year we signed contracts in excess of $24 million.” He uses technology to keep overhead costs down, so he can develop other things.

“I niche is what I do. That’s not a verb, but I make it one,” Bolton said.

Instead of meeting strong competitors head-on, Bolton opted for a negotiated designed building. The difference? The other guys took plans and went back to crunch numbers for bids.

“I like to negotiate with the owners, and did,” Bolton said. “I work with owners and solve problems. So we find niches to get into.”

Reeves recounted her first meeting with Bolton. “Tom and I just happened to fall together. He wanted me to list a property or sell a property and make mention of wanting to do something like big town homes as well, and I said, ‘Well, gosh, I would really loved to see mixed-use stuff,’ and we just kind of started brainstorming and that’s what happened.”

Another niche for Bolton. Another way for Reeves to cheer on Selma. Sunrise Selma.

Here’s the concept. Bolton and Reeves have created a for-profit development corporation in Sunrise Selma to unify and grow the community through economic opportunity, job creation and business development, focusing on new and existing businesses.

The key to this, these two partners believe, is to develop secure housing — town homes and apartments, top-end, medium and affordable housing — for singles, empty nesters and retirees. The other ingredient is to foster businesses in those areas as well.

The work has begun. Sunrise Selma posters are on two buildings in Selma — the Safety Glass building, also known as the Stribling Building on Water Avenue, and a boarded-up building once owned by a church across from Selma City Hall on Broad Street.

Reeves and Bolton want to make the location on Water Avenue, which is next door to the Arts Revive site, under rehabilitation. On street level in the building, Sunrise will develop retail and commercial space. “With the tax credit environment and a cooperative city government, we can offer creative packages to lure new and existing businesses downtown,” Reeves said.

Mayor George Evans has met with the partners and likes what he sees. “I think this will bring new life into Selma. We need this. We want to work with Sunrise as closely as possible to develop this.”

In the bottom portion of the building on Water Avenue, Bolton and Reeves plan two condominiums with state-of-the art appliances, private entrances and grand views of the Alabama River. These will be examples of high-end living along the riverfront.

The result of all this, say the partners, will be the removal of problem areas — blight — in downtown. “This would be a major actual and moral victory for law enforcement and the perception of the public,” Reeves said.

Sunrise Selma has taken the first steps. The partners have bought property. They are rounding up investors.

Initially, Cooper Brothers stepped hired Susan Wilder, a grants specialist, to coordinate efforts and bring the different aspects of the project together. Wilder is former executive director of Booneville/Owsley County Industrial Authority, Booneville, Ky. She has written and administered millions of dollars in grant funds for projects, including a Welfare-to-Work Program, the creation of Partnership Housing Corporation, and a number of coal severance tax projects that provided equipment and other needed services for three volunteer fire departments, the county sheriff’s department, the public library, the high school and the industrial authority.

The project also brings in Andrew Smith of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., an architect in private practice and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga Department of Interior Design, whose educational roots are from Auburn University’s Environmental Design Department.

While the partners have worked put the initial phases together, Reeves sees, “All of these things are just kind of falling in our lap and aligning.”

Other plans for development downtown include:

Designation and development of a new Federal Judiciary Center and Convention Center in a central location in Selma, which could result in spin-off businesses;

Development of a multi-story parking deck close to the Civil Rights Interpretive Center at the corner of Broad Street and Water Avenue, which the city would eventually own and receive revenue from;

Adaptive reuse of the old Federal Building, to approach Auburn University about setting up an adjunct campus of the School of Architecture that specializes in Historic Restoration.

Other plans include purchase of existing, vacant buildings that would become warehouses or distribution centers and sites for the manufacture of masonry and concrete units where architectural elements from buildings that are crumbling down could be reclaimed or salvaged.

It’s a big job.

“We’ve got to make it more profitable for someone to locate in downtown Selma than somewhere else,” Bolton said. “That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to make it profitable. If we don’t, they’re not coming. It’s real easy.”

Combine that with living comfortably, safely near those businesses.

“We need to get moving,” said Gamble.

“Right,” said Reeves. “We need to get moving.”