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VOL. 42 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 5, 2018

Fairgrounds-area market owners hoping to score with pro soccer

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Wedgehill Market, located a block from the west gate of the Nashville Fairgrounds, could be a leading beneficiary of the professional soccer stadium and redevelopment planned for the Fairgrounds property. Downside? Construction could make it even more difficult for customers to make their way to the store.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Abdul and Rahima Ata’s sons focus on the future as they toil to keep the family business operating at the corner of Benton and Bransford avenues – literally across the street and downhill from the State Fairgrounds gates nearest the planned Major League Soccer stadium.

“For me, as a business owner, it’s great,” says Wali (pronounced “Wally”) Ata, when I drop in for my second of three visits to Wedgehill Market, perhaps 100 yards from the proposed stadium site.

Wali, 38, says it will be a big victory for himself, 38, his brother Mike, 40, their clientele and the neighborhood in general if planners’ promises are realized.

And that optimism, the belief that the building of the stadium will dramatically, and for the better, alter this part of Nashville, is echoed by other citizens and merchants populating the Fairgrounds area.

Because of the proximity to the stadium, Wedgehill Market – that the brothers took over from papa Abdul, who founded it in 1996 – could well be the biggest winner if political and entrepreneurial promises to the public are kept.

Wali and Mike are watching developments closely, hoping to see a day, soon, when they will be able to transform their out-of-date Wedgehill Market into something more appealing to the anticipated gentry invasion; while, at the same time, they cheerfully continue their family mission of serving this hardscrabble neighborhood.

“It’s a dying business,” Wali says, adding that the stadium with its soccer games and perhaps its use as a concert venue – among other possibilities – could be the tonic to eradicate that bleak future.

“We need to make the market more welcoming,” Wali points out, adding that cosmetic changes are the very least of what could happen to his market once pro athletes start kicking the ball up the hill. There are other possibilities as well; and Wali, who studied business at MTSU, has some mighty big dreams for his corner of the neighborhood.

Dreams realized kind of depend on the success of the stadium that is planned to be built just past the Benton Avenue Fairgrounds entrance and to the right a bit, explains Wali, who places his finger on a map showing the location of the stadium. “Our store is right here,” he says, moving his finger just slightly while adding “here’s the stadium.”

Wali says expansion and/or transformation of Wedgehill Market depends on how the planners work out traffic patterns while also striving to make his neighborhood pedestrian-friendly and generally safer.

He laughs when I ask him how he, a native of Afghanistan and university graduate, found himself peddling smokes and Cokes on this ultra-urban corner.

“My father (Abdul) wanted to retire, and he said to us ‘why don’t you boys see what you can do with this place?’’’

Wali flashes an almost-constant bright smile as he warmly greets his customers, many of them from nearby public housing, others mostly shift workers at the Coca-Cola, Mrs. Grissom’s and other neighborhood workplaces, who pick up soft drinks and chips and other essentials. Staff and patients from the Vine Hill Medical Clinic, just across Benton Avenue, also are regulars.

“We also get a lot of people from the Board of Education,” Wali adds of that red-brick complex across the railroad tracks and a short distance up Bransford.

He robustly and happily hollers out the first names of most who step through the door and into the Ata family’s dark, wooden-floored anachronism.

The MLS expansion team opens up new opportunities for the store, as long as planners don’t botch it.

“If they build it and it’s done in way that brings traffic that’s phenomenal,” Wali says. “If it is a mess, a traffic jam, then it won’t be good, because people will stop coming through here.”

That would mean fewer potential customers driving past his market while en route to work or home. Some of them stop in to grab snacks, smokes, rolling papers, Cokes and donate at least $2 to the state by purchasing Powerball tickets, more if they also buy scratch-offs. Most do both.

“What’s up, boss?” asks a customer who is here to get some of those scratch-offs and a quart bottle of beer.

When Wali returns the greeting, and asks the man how he’s doing, the answer is a simple “same old, same old….”

“Give me a 23 and a 24,” the man adds, as he looks into the numbered compartments where scratch-offs are displayed. “See you tomorrow, Wali,” the confident player of state-sponsored gambling says as he steps out the door.

Douglas Clifton York Jr. hears the conversation I’m having with Wali about the soccer stadium’s value to the community and butts in, amiably enough, with a negative view.

“I don’t think they need it,” he explains. “We have 100 people a day coming here (moving to Nashville), and we already have the NFL and hockey. The soccer stadium is more of a greedy plan.”

Wali lets the customer have his say and watches as York steps out into the biting cold.

York’s sentiments are shared by about half his customers, Wali points out. The others choose optimism; saying they believe the soccer stadium and the businesses it spawns will end the deterioration, change directions, lead to beautiful days in the neighborhood. “If it causes more foot traffic to come here, if, logistically it is done right, it will be great,” Wali continues.

“We keep (this market) going to serve the community,” he acknowledges. For a large swath of the Fairgrounds neighborhood, this convenience store is the only place folks can walk to get their Newports, Swisher Sweets, soda, candy bars, beer, chips, malt liquor and grocery store staples like milk, canned green beans, coffee, cheese, eggs and toilet paper.

“When my father opened it in 1996, he did it because he wanted to serve this community,” Wali says, noting that the Ata mercantile dynasty actually began in 1993 in a building just across Bransford before moving here three years later. That original market now is a low-slung office building.

“That’s really why we keep it open: To take care of the people around here.”

From 9-7 daily, Monday through Saturday, this is a neighborhood hangout and destination. Friendliness is part of what the Ata brothers peddle from behind the counter.

Left: Francisco Carrillo, who manages what he calls “a Hispanic variety store” on Nolensville Road says he enjoys soccer and may duck out of work if he’s bored to catch a game. Upper right: Clay Kottler, who does woodwork at the nearby Fort Houston cooperative, also owns rental property near the Fairgrounds and plans to move into one of them after tenants leave. Lower right: Mariel Swann, administrator of BW Gallery, very near the Fairgrounds on Nolensville Road, is excited but also worries the neighborhood will change too much.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Some of the regulars even run tabs, their IOU receipts planted on the wall above the cash register.

If things work out the way they are supposed to, if the soccer stadium scores its revitalization goals, it could feed the dreams of the Ata brothers.

“We’d like to have an ice cream shop and a coffee house here,” Wali explains. “Or if not, maybe we’ll just remodel,” bringing the market up to 21st Century convenience-store standards.

Enthusiasm seems to reside in much of this neighborhood. Wedgehill customer Gary Madry, 54, praises the plan and its resulting changes in this neighborhood where he lives.

“It’ll draw business. Big money,” says the construction worker. “And it’ll bring me work.”

“It’s hopping,” chirps Metro Councilman Colby Sledge.

I usually don’t quote government folks in my columns – they have plenty of other outlets – but Colby is an exception.

Colby, whose District 17 takes in the Fairgrounds area, is a former newspaper comrade and, in general, a nice guy.

In addition to the stadium and a green space with walking trail, dog park, youth soccer fields and more along the Craighead edge of the Fairgrounds, Colby’s district also includes the now-desolate Greer Stadium, home of the Nashville Sounds before they departed to take part in the gentrification of Germantown. Plans still are being tossed about for the Greer site, and perhaps, I’ll visit that decrepit field of broken dreams some other day.

One of Colby’s friends, Nashville native Clay Kottler, 42, grew up in Green Hills but has spent most of his professional life – after stints as a staff sergeant in the Air Force and Air Guard – living in the Fairgrounds area.

Now he’s talking about moving back, probably into one of the rental properties he owns “above the Fairgrounds” (on Southern Turf Drive) because he’s excited about the future.

“I’ve watched those neighborhoods evolve,” says Clay, who moved away from the Fairgrounds area three years ago to basically chill out as one of my neighbors in Crieve Hall, where he lives with “Mr. Fox, a rescue dog that looks like a fox, so that’s how he got the name.”

Clay, who also owns homes in neighborhoods along Nolensville Road, moved from the Fairgrounds area out to my neighborhood “because it reminds me of how Green Hills was when I was growing up there.”

His role as a member of a Fairgrounds neighborhood advisory council also drove him out when he reached his breaking point in debates about the noise level of Fairgrounds Speedway and other controversies.

“I needed a change. I wanted a quality neighborhood. And Crieve Hall seemed to have what I was looking for. Nice yards. Quiet.”

Wali Ata says his family needs to make Wedgehill market more welcoming, if it is to survive. Development at the Fairgrounds, and the traffic that might bring to his store, could offer the right incentive for upgrades.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

His return to the Fairgrounds area has no strict timetable. “I’m working on that now. Probably (move) within the year. It depends on availability. I’ll probably move back into one of my rentals…. I’d love to possibly build. I think it’s going to be a great spot.”

He’s looking for the development of the MLS stadium, the park and the cleaning up of Brown’s Creek (which flows through the Fairgrounds) to spur this old neighborhood to new heights.

That means new restaurants and other urban amenities coming into the neighborhood. None too soon, according to Clay, who is a Realtor in addition to managing his properties.

“I’m friends with a lot of the businessmen on Nolensville Road. They’ve all been waiting (for the soccer team’s arrival), to financially justify” putting money into expanding existing businesses near the Fairgrounds.

“Because I am in real estate, I keep track of neighborhoods,” he continues, noting that while the Fairgrounds area “hasn’t gone down. It’s just not coming up.”

That “going up” part does offer some challenges, he says. “As long as the planning is good as far as ingress and egress, as long as they don’t allow too many concerts in that stadium and it doesn’t become the new Starwood (the long-lamented Lower Antioch amphitheater where Petty, Dylan, Hank Jr. and The Eagles were among the summer entertainment staples), it’s going to be great.

“Just like the new Sounds Stadium (First Tennessee Park) and how that has affected the real estate around it.”

Michael Hooper, who manages Volunteer Hose and Gasket at 1909 Nolensville Road, anticipates good things as well.

“I’m not a big soccer fan,” Michael, 41, acknowledges. “I like football. I’m American. I think Mexican and Hispanic people will like soccer more than I would.

“If it (the soccer franchise) does well, it feels like it can revamp the whole area,” says the self-professed fan of the Titans and the Nashville Predators hockey team (“I catch a few games a year).

“I was a Cowboys fan until the Titans came to Nashville,” he adds.

As far as the stadium impact on the store he manages and other stores around it in this gray, urban stretch, “I think it will help. They’ll want to revamp. Or they may leave it the same.

“I’ll be in good shape either way. I’m still going to be working here,” the Nashville native says.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” he adds of the MLS franchise and the stadium. ‘I worry about change, but that’s natural.”

The construction of the stadium itself should have positive impact on his store. Heavy equipment will need repairs. His store, which specializes in hydraulic hoses and fittings, is close to the action, a natural place to go for replacement parts.

He looks out the window and into the raw industrial surroundings. “The unknown is kind of the worry. But I think there will be condominiums and high-scale businesses,” he says, looking forward to new neighbors.

He adds that the whole city is changing, and it’s about time for his section to at least get a whiff of “It City” boomtown magic.

Each year lately has been better than the year before for Nashville, he says. Now it’s the Fairgrounds-area’s time.

Sharing the same parking lot, Dollar Club, at 1913 Nolensville, is described by its manager, Francisco Carrillo, 20, as “a Hispanic variety store – we sell kitchen ware, statues, clothes, we’ve got a little bit of everything.”

“This is our family business,” adds Francisco, who has commuted here from the family home in Shelbyville for a half-dozen years.

He also admits the game of soccer is something he likes and “maybe I’ll go (to games) when I’m bored” by workaday life.

Next door, at 1911, Mariel Swann, 27, administrator of BW Gallery, which specializes in all forms of art, including woodworking and painting, hadn’t known of the MLS plans until I walked in her door. But she lit up as I described the prospect.

“A part of me is excited about the development of this area,” she notes. “Working for a small business, this should bring in more foot traffic.”

Then she shakes her head, as she considers how this redevelopment of Nolensville Road could drive some people away.

“I guess I feel a little bit skeptical on that level,” she says, adding that gentrification is not always the “plus” city boosters beat their chests about.

“This is a unique neighborhood. I wouldn’t want it to be swallowed up by mainstream retail. I’m pretty torn.”

I head back to Wali’s store, downhill from the planned stadium, and he’s still smiling about the potential.

Noting that he played soccer in high school and in co-ed leagues, he can’t wait to see the good to come out of this plan.

He shrugs. “I love soccer. It will be great for the community. Not fantastic for everyone, but if they do it right it will be way big for the city.”

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