Michelle Hill knows she got lucky, which isn’t something you typically hear from someone whose business just burned. St. James Tavern, which she’s run since 1996, caught fire the morning of Aug. 10. Hill says that because it was daytime and people were walking by the beloved Italian Village hangout, fire trucks were on the scene in about three minutes. She arrived about 10 minutes later. Once she got inside, she saw the damage mostly was contained to a storage room in the front of the building. Even the art on the walls was intact.
“In my life I’ve never experienced walking in, looking at the damage and feeling fear-stricken but yet at the same [time], 30 seconds later, feeling the most relief possible,” Hill says. “Because my thought was instantly, ‘OK, we could fix this.’ ”
The reaction from the community was less optimistic at first. People were freaking out, says Hill, who became the bar’s majority owner in 1999 and didn’t fully realize the importance the tavern held for longtime customers. They couldn’t see inside, Hill says, “So they of course assumed the worst and just thought the entire thing on the inside was wiped out.”
One patron, Colin Castore, started planning a benefit almost immediately. Castore is a co-founder of Seventh Son Brewing down the street, and Hill says that by the end of that day he’d lined up four breweries to donate beer for a fundraising event. The next day she got a text from him saying the number had swelled to 20 breweries, from Central Ohio and around the country.
“It still gets you emotional because even though you know you have these relationships, you don’t expect people to be that kind,” Hill says, choking up. On Aug. 21, the benefit at Seventh Son raised $5,000 to help pay for employees’ lost tips during the rebuilding process (insurance covered the actual rebuilding expense).
St. James Tavern passed its final city inspection Monday, Sept. 25, Hill says, and she’s welcoming back the thirsty crowds this Saturday, Sept. 30, for a grand reopening event, which starts at 6 p.m. Three weeks later, on Saturday, Oct. 21, the bar will hold another celebration, this time for its 21st anniversary, one that might not have come to pass had the fire started just a few hours earlier.
“I’m very grateful for the support from my patrons and the breweries and the community, the local [businesses] surrounding me,” Hill says. “So I’m really lucky to be a part of Italian Village.”