AVERETTE: The fall of the hotel of Selma

Published 10:33 pm Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ever since I moved to Selma three years ago, I’ve heard about how great the reopening of the St. James Hotel was.

I don’t necessarily mean the St. James operating as a hotel again, even though that was surely fantastic news.

I’m talking more about the actual gala that celebrated the reopening and how magical that one night was.

By all accounts, that winter night in 1997 was one to remember in Selma. What I’ve heard from people there and what I’ve read paint vivid pictures of men and women dressed in their finest, dining on wine and fine food, tapping along to jazz music inside a heated tent overlooking the Alabama River.

There were chocolate fountains for dipping strawberries and shrimp with cocktail sauce mounted in ice sculptures.

An editorial that week in the Times-Journal said, “To put it bluntly, Selma is now the envy of even the big towns for having the guts to pull of this monumental accomplishment.”

Former governor Jim Folsom Jr. was there and the then lieutenant governor Don Siegelman … and about 700 or 800 other people. Everyone talked about how beautiful the hotel was and how it rivaled anything offered in New Orleans or even Paris.

Those mental images are hard to comprehend when considering the state of the hotel today. A hotel that even when it was running had to close rooms due to water damage and mold. A hotel that as of this past week has been boarded up and closed indefinitely.

In just 20 years how did the St. James go from being the pride of the city to an albatross? It’s hard to not think about the people who raised the $6 million it took to renovate and reopen the hotel and how much heartbreak the current state of affairs must give them.

That question of how did this happen led to the story that is in today’s newspaper. It’s probably no surprise, but there are many explanations about the fall of Selma’s hotel.

Most of them tend to blame poor managers and service over the years and neglecting to keep the building in good shape. So much money was raised to renovate the hotel, but little was budgeted over the years for upkeep. The hotel is a big and old building and two decades of neglect has resulted in an appraisal that it would take — ironically — $6 million to bring the St. James up to flagship hotel standards.

What happened is discussed at length in today’s story by people who witnessed the last two decades, so there’s no need to rehash what they said in this column.

No doubt, it is a discouraging time concerning the hotel, but that doesn’t mean brighter days will never come. A group of citizens 20 years ago proved what sheer willpower could do.

As one of my favorite prayers goes, “What’s done is done.” We can’t go back in time, and it’s going to take a lot of willpower — and a lot of money from investors — but the St. James can be brought back to glory.