On the two-year anniversary of what owner Michelle Hill said could have been a more devastating blaze, the Italian Village institution will raise funds for a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence
Two years ago, Michelle Hill awoke to several missed calls and a message that the bar she has owned for more than two decades, St. James Tavern in Italian Village, was on fire.
Hill, who had worked at the establishment until closing the evening before, raced to St. James from her home in the Old North, arriving maybe 10 minutes after receiving the call, and then spent an anxious hour standing outside as the fire department worked to quell the blaze. When authorities finally let Hill enter the building, she breathed a sigh of relief. The first thing she noticed was that artwork that had been hung in the south room of the bar was intact, and on further inspection she realized that a bulk of the space remained untouched by the flames, which had been largely contained to a utility room.
“It was this strange, simultaneous feeling of, ‘Oh, my God; this is awful,’ and also a weird sense of relief,” Hill said in an August interview at the bar.Get *THE* Alive delivered to your inbox each week (that’s right, OSU, *THE* Alive): Sign up for our daily newsletter
Things could have played out differently had the fire, which was caused by outdated wiring in the small backroom, occurred overnight rather than in the early morning hours, when a couple walking their dog noticed smoke streaming from the building sometime before 10 a.m. and called the fire department.
“The whole place would have been gone because it’s all wood in here,” Hill said. “If there’s a good time to have a fire, I guess it’s in broad daylight when people happen to be walking by.”
On the day of the 2017 fire, which led to the tavern being closed for nearly two months, St. James was scheduled to host a Strength to Survive benefit for CHOICES, a nonprofit that provides shelter for victims of domestic violence, as well as legal aid, counseling and a 24-hour phone hotline. In the years since, the bar has adopted the occasion as an anniversary, of sorts, celebrating the space’s survival by turning the CHOICES fundraiser into an annual event. This year’s version takes place tonight, Wednesday, Aug. 14, beginning at 6 p.m. Cincinnati-based brewery Rhinegeist will be on hand, and 20 percent of all bar sales will be donated to CHOICES (in addition, Rhinegeist will match the donation from St. James).
Hill and St. James Tavern are no strangers to hosting charitable events — a development Hill traced more than 10 years back to a point in time when she realized, “I can use my power” as a bar owner for good, she said.
“I just started having fundraisers, and being able to raise money for causes I care about is really what’s made me happy and fulfilled,” said Hill, who will celebrate her 23rd year owning the bar next month. “Women-focused [charities] have been my thing. In June we started Women’s Wednesdays, where we find different groups — like the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, Girls Who Code, just anything like that — to help young girls or women even out the playing field, since we’re still not there in 2019.
“People, I think, forget that. There are a lot of causes that are worthy of being championed right now, but sometimes I feel like women are pushed aside, like, ‘Oh, well. You guys are fine now.’ Actually, no. We still make 80 cents to the dollar, less if you’re Latino or black, and we still have a ways to go to get equal representation in government. … We’ve come a long way, but that progress for equality for women can sometimes feel like it got stunted somewhere a couple decades back.”