When Fort McClellan was still open, the stretch of Alabama 21 that runs through Lenlock was a great place to operate a hotel, Harry Patel says.
The Army base, closed 20 years ago, once brought thousands of soldiers, and a steady stream of guests, to the area. Today, it's not so easy.
“People come to us when their power is out and they need a place to stay,” said Patel, owner of Knights Inn and McClellan Inn in Lenlock.
Patel and other hotel owners got an unexpected windfall last year when a tornado struck Jacksonville — a surge that's evident in budget numbers Anniston officials released last month.
The city collected $90,773 in lodging tax in 2016, according to budget figures city officials released last month. By 2017, that number surged to $140,703. In 2018, it climbed again to $170,190, nearly twice the total from two years earlier.
The numbers are only a small part of the $40 million city budget that the City Council must approve by October — but they tell a story of a surge in one sector of the city's economy.
The most obvious reason for that surge is the Hotel Finial, the Victorian-style hotel that stands as one of the most recognizable landmarks on Quintard Avenue. Once known as the Victoria, the hotel was closed in 2015, renovated and reopened in 2016 under the ownership of Anniston resident Del Marsh, who also represents Anniston as a Republican in the state Senate.
Marsh said Wednesday that occupancy rates for the hotel are good and the hotel has consistently been profitable. But the March 2018 tornado, which damaged hundreds of homes in Jacksonville, brought much more business than usual.
“We did see a boost from FEMA people who stayed with us,” said Marsh, referring to employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said the post-tornado boost was bigger than the boost the hotel saw during the filming of "The Devil All the Time," a Netflix movie shot partly in Anniston.
Longleaf Inn, on the former Fort McClellan, sees first responders regularly. The hotel is not far from the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a FEMA facility where police and other public officials train to prepare for disaster. Manager Mark Wilson said displaced local residents also lodged at the hotel in the wake of the storm
“We did see an increase in business because of the tornado,” Wilson said.
Patel, the Lenlock lodging owner, said both of his hotels were busy in the days after the storm.
"It was almost full, 30 or 40 rooms,” Patel said in an interview at Knights Inn on Wednesday. A handful of cars were parked in the lot of the hotel Wednesday.
Patel said the hotel business is sometimes difficult in Lenlock, because of Oxford hotels clustered near Interstate 20. He said the city needs to find a way to bring more commerce to his side of town.
"They need more business at the fort," he said.