Running a Marathon

Marathon Village offers great growth potential — and questions about that growth

Since its inception in 1986, Marathon Village has attracted dozens of creative start-ups and gotten its fair share of local, regional and national attention.

Photographers, filmmakers, painters, architects, ad agencies, jewelers and interior designers populate the small district and its vintage masonry buildings.

Though decidedly under the radar compared to high-profile districts such as 12South, Five Points and The Gulch, the quirky office and retail pocket on the western fringe of downtown — spanning no more than four blocks and with Clinton Street as its key artery — is now poised to step into a brighter spotlight, one that could be more associated with a boom than with the slow and steady growth that has long defined it.

One reason for a possible acceleration of Marathon Village growth is the relatively recent addition of music, restaurant and retail destinations to the area — and the hope that more will come. A prime example is Antique Archaeology, a retail store of collectibles, folk art and Americana oddities that has bolstered the district’s cache. The funky store — the brainchild of Mike Wolfe, creator and host of the hit cable TV show American Pickers — attracts antique and curiosity piece shoppers from all over the country.

But perhaps a more significant reason is Marathon Village’s close proximity to a 32-acre parcel in the North Gulch that has been tagged for redevelopment by Northwestern Mutual Real Estate Services and Boyle Investment Co. That multi-parcel site, which straddles both 11th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue, sits just across the inner interstate loop from Marathon Village.

The developer has been systematically clearing the site for redevelopment, working on a master plan and is in the process of gathering input from various stakeholders to find out what they’d like to see happen.

Jeff Haynes, managing partner of Boyle Nashville LLC, says that whatever ends up being built on the North Gulch land, it will be “vertical and dense.”

“We see our site in context of the return to the urban lifestyle,” Haynes says. “We see it as a dense, mixed-use area that will hopefully include retail, hotel, multi-family and parking.

“We like what’s happening at Marathon Village and don’t want it to disturb or encroach its character,” Haynes adds. “We want to see connectivity with the district. We’re committed to creating a walkable bridge so that you can walk from one place to the other.”

Barry Walker, who owns Marathon Village and about half of the other parcels located within the general confines of the district, admits to being singularly focused on preserving its historic character. When Walker bought the long-abandoned Marathon Motor Works auto factory for $52,000 in 1986, his vision was to preserve the area’s unique industrial history. He has never strayed from his original vision, preferring to renovate what had been a crumbling old factory building slowly over time rather than to sell to outside developers, who keep knocking on his door.

“Historical buildings give a sense of life to a place,” Walker says. “If I tear anything down, I’d build something that retains the history. I’m not really interested in development for development’s sake.”

Walker is happy enough that the Northwestern Mutual site will soon be developed, but doesn’t want Marathon Village to be anything like it.

For starters, he thinks residential development, which is almost certainly headed to the Northwestern Mutual land, would harm Marathon Village’s distinct character.

“Marathon Village is completely different, something you’ve never seen,” Walker says. “It’s this funky, arty commercial district with a wow factor. As far as a place to come to work, it’s totally unique.

“Everyone else is doing residential and condos,” Walker adds. “I think it’s great to have residential options downtown, but I want this area to continue along the same lines it’s been going for all these years. I’d just like to keep expanding on what we already have now, which is 95 percent commercial in a unique historical setting, a really friendly, cool place to come to work or shop.”

The visibility of Marathon Village has also seen a spike since the 2011 opening of Marathon Music Works. The concert and event venue created a bonafide nightlife vibe for the district and, in the process, helped to fill a local need for a mid-sized live music space.

“There’s a lot of room for growth here, maybe more than a lot of other pockets of town,” says Chris Cobb, Marathon Music Works owner. “There are empty lots, fields and dilapidated structures. We are like a mom and pop version of Cummins Station.

“I think there’s huge opportunity, and it’s not even close to peaking,” Cobb adds. “Even with all that’s already going on, it’s like Nashville’s best-kept secret. Still, I’d rather see it sit [without further development] rather than have development that would take away from our unique vibe.”

Cobb is using about 18,000 square feet of approximately 30,000 square feet of available space in the building home to his live music venue and owned by Nashville-based Vastland Realty Group.

Cobb is particularly high on the idea of more eateries in the area. He opened a bar and restaurant tethered to Marathon Music Works in June and he’d like to see similar additions.

“What we really need is a real sit-down restaurant,” Cobb says. “You have these few blocks with extremely creative and entrepreneurial folks. That’s a built-in customer base, but you also have more and more people coming here as a destination.”

Walker agrees and says he’s working on an automotive-themed restaurant, tentatively called Gearheads, with Mike Wolfe of American Pickers and Antique Archaeology.

Henry Menge, managing director and principal broker at XMi Commercial Real Estate, says Marathon Village holds a lot of promise. But he also sees barriers.

“Compared to the rest of the city, it’s still inexpensive,” Menge says. “It’s close to everything, and that’s definitely a big plus. But [compared] to other parts of town, it’s still relatively low on the totem pole.

“There’s a lot of potential for infill, but it’s tough since you still have some areas of significant blight,” Menge adds. “I think it’s likely going to remain an island until something else happens, particularly in the North Gulch.”

Menge also wonders companies would tackle developments in Marathon Village.

Walker, the largest single landowner in the general Marathon Village area with about 80 percent of the buildings and parcels under control, hasn’t shown a willingness to work with deep-pocket developers. He says he has about 14,000 square feet of undeveloped space at the factory site and would like to eventually raze some dilapidated structures and replace them with commercial spaces built in turn-of-the-century style.

Yet, Walker has no immediate plans to do so and will almost certainly continue to sit on his properties until that time comes. There are other property owners, including various individuals and Vastland Reality Group, that have shown no hints at future plans.

“The issue comes up of what it would really cost to do something that makes a bigger impact in Marathon Village,” Menge says. “There’s a lot of potential for some infill, just a lot of opportunity period. The market will tell us what it wants there in due time.”