HOOVER, AL | MARCH 9, 2016 -A young newspaper reporter peppered James W. Wilson Jr. with questions as he sat at his desk in an office at the still-under-construction Riverchase Galleria in Hoover.
Distracted, Wilson turned around to a TV set on a shelf behind him. “Hold on,” he said. “I think something just happened.” The space shuttle Challenger had exploded, killing all seven crew members. That was Jan. 28, 1986.
A few weeks later, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1986, the $300 million mega-mall billed as the largest shopping center in the Southeast opened. Wilson predicted shopping shock waves would reverberate throughout the state and to Atlanta. “I think it will have more effect on Lennox Square,” Wilson said.
Wilson walked the marble and bronze-laden lobby with pride. It was a quarter-mile walk from the J.C. Penney store at one end of the mammoth mall to Rich’s at the other.
“There’s nowhere in Alabama that you can get the quality of goods and services you can get in the Galleria,” said Wilson, then president, chairman and chief executive officer of Jim Wilson & Associates, based in Montgomery. Wilson founded the company in 1975 and began building an average of four malls a year. At the end of 1984, National Mall Monitor had ranked his company 14th in the nation among the top 50 mall developers.
Market studies indicated that the new Riverchase Galleria would draw shoppers from Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, as well as all over Alabama. Wilson bought 58 acres and Harbert Corp., which did most of the Galleria construction, bought 78 acres. “As the thing evolved and as the market study came in, we saw the market share was much bigger than we anticipated,” Wilson said. “That’s when I decided to put it all under one roof.”
Wilson didn’t seem worried about how the Galleria would affect Eastwood Mall, Five Points West Shopping Center or the Montgomery Mall, all of which his company also owned and managed.
“It’s not going to do us any good,” said Dick Paulson, who was general manager of Century Plaza at the time. “But we think the effects will be minimal.”
Of course, three decades later, Century Plaza stands as an empty shell. The Riverchase Galleria is still going strong.
The Galleria at its opening provided 4,500 jobs, a major turning point for Birmingham in moving from an industrial to a service economy.
The Galleria when it opened was like a futuristic-looking self-contained city, unlike anything Alabama had seen. Wilson called it “Sleek, futuristic.”
About $8 million was spent on skylights alone. The 15-story, 330-room Wynfrey Hotel, Galleria shopping center and 17-store office tower were connected by a 10-story glass atrium with pink, white and blue neon tubes arcing down its ribs. The glass was custom-cut and installed by hand.
“There’s nothing in Atlanta to compare with it,” Wilson said then. “There’s not much in America to compare with it. I’ll put it up against the Trump Tower on 57th and 5th (in New York City) any day of the week.”
Article written March 9, 2016 by Greg Garrison of al.com.