Selma native Peterson has grand vision for St. James Hotel

Published 8:31 pm Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Selma native and Atlanta businessman Mark Peterson wants to buy the St. James Hotel. He’s working on a proposal to submit to the Selma City Council this week.

Selma native and Atlanta businessman Mark Peterson wants to buy the St. James Hotel. He’s working on a proposal to submit to the Selma City Council this week.

Selma native and businessman Mark Peterson continues to work on a proposal to buy the St. James Hotel from the city of Selma.

Peterson expects to submit his letter of intent to the Selma City Council this week and has been working at the St. James accessing what needs to be done at the hotel to modernize it and make repairs to the facility.

“Once we have that figured out that’s what we will use to finalize our agreement with the city,” Peterson said.

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Terms of that deal have not been completed and would still have to be approved by the city council, but Peterson is confident everything will be ironed out.

“If everybody is on the same page in terms of the dealmakers, we’ll make it happen from outside,” Peterson said. “Nothing about the property or market scares me away.”

The negotiations have included clauses outlining how the city could take back ownership if certain upgrades by Peterson aren’t made or if the building ceases to be a hotel, according to Peterson.

“We want to be held accountable,” Peterson said. “If you get in and don’t do what you say you will do, everything rolls back to the city.”

His proposal also calls for little payment upfront, but instead the city would be paid based on earnings in years eight, nine and 10. Peterson estimated the eventual payout to the city could be $1.5 to $2 million.

“I love the city. I want to see the city prosper and when this plan is fully executed for us to pay additional payments,” Peterson said. “We tried to create a deal that we think is best for the city. It’s a win-win.”

Peterson grew up in Selma and graduated from Selma High School in 1987 after being named the Paul. M. Grist Boy of the Year.

After high school, Peterson attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, earning a bachelor’s degree and eventually an MBA from the Tuck School of Business.

He has worked for several companies, including General Mills and Accenture, where he did consultant work for companies like Hyatt, Best Buy, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart as well as large utilities.

He later created his own company, Pride Rock Holdings, a biometrics firm that specialized in fingerprint and data management technology. After selling that business, he created a consulting company, Ceyero Consulting, and wrote a book, “Guerrillapreneur.”

Writing his book on his life and business philosophy brought Peterson back to Selma.

“I credit a lot of what I learned about small business strategy from my time in Selma,” Peterson said. “I wanted to get back here and find some of the people that helped form those initial concepts.”

Coming home, Peterson decided to get involved in the community. He joined the Selma Rotary Club and asked Mayor George Evans and the Selma and Dallas County Economic Development Authority what he could do to help.

He started teaching business classes at Concordia College Alabama and volunteered with the EDA.

“That got me looking around for opportunities where I could really put a stake in the ground. I think this St. James opportunity is one of those that is potentially a game changer,” Peterson said. “It has to be the envy of the region, not just Selma. This hotel can be a destination in and of itself.”

Though Peterson has no experience of running a hotel or restaurant, he said he’s ready to bring on talented staff and is consulting with hospitality firms. He said his interest in the St. James is for the long-term.

“I see myself getting buried somewhere in the back of this building,” he said. “I’m completely bought in for this being the cornerstone of the revitalization of Selma and downtown.”

But the transformation won’t happen overnight. Peterson said improvements would have to be made in incremental phases.

The first phase is fixing basic issues like broken air conditioning and repairing the hotel’s image in the community. Those renovations and repairs alone could cost up to $1.2 million, according to Peterson, who’s working to find investors.

“We have to fix basic stuff just to get us back in the game,” Peterson said.

Later phases would include improving the hotel’s technology and making it a conference center destination.

Peterson also plans to work with Wallace Community College Selma and Trenholm State Technical College in Montgomery to involve their students. Wallace currently doesn’t have a culinary or hospitality program in Selma.

On Monday, representatives from the Auburn Hotel and Conference Center talked with several members of the city council about their interest in the hotel but made no offers.

Councilwoman Susan Keith, who is heading the committee working to find a solution for the St. James, said the city has no other proposal for the St. James.

She has said a deal with Peterson would include a transitional period through Feb. 29, with the city continuing to operate the hotel.

The city is putting approximately $20,00 a month into St. James to keep the doors open. Councilman Cecil Williamson estimates the council has spent $500,000 on the hotel since the contract with Gourmet Services was terminated in the summer of 2013.