An APR News Feature
This is perhaps Selma at its busiest. This is the 55th Selma Jubilee, a citywide observance of Bloody Sunday. That’s when voting rights marchers were beaten and teargassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Reverend Michael Bowen is among those setting their vendor tents before people start piling in. We are standing in eye shot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But it’s the building a block and a half over that we’re here to talk about. Bowen says the St. James Hotel is closed down, but under renovation.
“It will be a slow process because it’s been closed for so long," he says. "It will take utterer probably jubilee or something big in the city of Selma to promote the St. James hotel. Again because St. James has been dead for a while.”
But, new life may be coming. Birmingham based Rhagland Hospitality bought the St. James and renovations are underway. For some Selma residents, the grand reopening can’t come too soon.
“This is Piltran McBride Drug Company,’’ said Brittany a pharmacist who works at the Piltran McBride company in downtown Selma.
She hopes a new St. James will offer up more to do downtown.
“I would say that downtown just like a lot of other small towns probably shuts down pretty early," she said. "We close at 6, most of the other shops usually close at 6 or a little before. The restaurant next door I think is open till 9 or 10.”
A few blocks from all of the festivities is the office of Selma attorney, Harry Gamble. He worked for the city to negotiate the sale and contract of the St. James Hotel to Rhaglhan Hospitality, a branch of Hilton Hotels.
“The whole focus of the St. James was to have a solid downtown facility that would attract people stop stay here but also be a focal point for other business to develop around it,” Gamble said.
Piltran McBride Drug Company opened in 1870, but it’s a youngster compared to the St James. Gamble said the hotel was built in 1837, and it once had a successful restaurant and inn, but that did not last.
“For various reasons primarily management issues it went downhill and got very far out of repair. So the city felt like this was the best hope of getting back where it should be by having it done where it is was right and not having it anything less than a first class place that is consistent with its history that goes way back,” Gamble said.
Brittany is especially excited for the dining service the hotel will offer.
“Especially this time of year we got a lot of people traveling in and there’s really not a lot to tell them to do restaurant-wise," she said. "There’s a great little diner on the corner but they just do breakfast and lunch. So it’d be nice to have a restaurant that’s open a little later it will definitely give people another option something to do.”
While she sees the hotel as a place that will be great to offer up to travelers for the Bloody Sunday anniversary weekend, Gamble sees the St. James as an ongoing economic shot in the arm for downtown Selma.
“It’ll be a year-round attraction both for the bridge and also for people wanting to stay a classic old hotel that goes back into the 1850’s that has a history of famous people staying there and that’s convenient to downtown more so than outline hotels motels that are father away," Gamble said.
For now, remembrances of Selma’s Civil Rights past may be the big drawing card for visitors to this city along the Alabama River. Gamble said the opening of the newly renovated St. James hotel will be happening in late May. And, if all goes well, the refurbished landmark may draw people year round, for a drink, maybe dinner, and something in addition to Selma’s place in Alabama’s fight for civil rights.