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Front Page - Friday, October 25, 2019

A long-term bet on South Willow

Brick beauty in emerging area will soon be home to restaurant

Chattanooga Realtor Matthew Ballard and his wife were driving to Nashville when a friend called. The news was not good.

“Your house is on fire,” the woman said.

They thought she was referring to their home in the city’s Southside community. But that was not the case. Instead, she had passed an old South Willow Street house the Ballards had purchased as an investment and saw it was in flames.

The Ballards say they later learned children had broken in and started the blaze.

Matthew and his wife, Daisy Maurya-Ballard, were speechless. They had purchased the 3,000-square-foot house for $50,000 and were planning to convert it into residential rental units. But with the place looking and smelling like an ashtray, they threw those plans out the front window – or at least what was left of the window after the fire – and mulled their options.

Their first instinct was to return the house to its seller, which they now realize had a snowball’s chance in hell of happening.

“We acquired the house through an IRS foreclosure,” Matthew says. “When we tried to back out of the deal, the government said no.”

The only option available to the Ballards involved taking the IRS to court, which they were unwilling to do. So, they cleaned the house, boarded it up and sat on it.

Willow Street woes

Some might say the Ballards were asking for trouble by purchasing a house on South Willow Street. Located in an historically derelict segment of Highland Park, the corridor has been the site of regular prostitution stings by the Chattanooga Police Department for at least the last decade.

The problem was severe enough in 2017 to spur a local ministry, Cry for the Broken, to go door-to-door speaking with residents about how to address it, according to a story News Channel 9 aired Jan. 16 of that year.

But Matthew and Daisy had removed the shroud of the neighborhood’s reputation and seen its potential. Instead of prostitution, crime and rundown houses, they had seen soil being fertilized and turned and new growth breaking ground.

“We knew the house would be a good long-term investment,” Ballard explains.

Built in 1930, the house still had strong bones. Eighteen-inch thick brick walls had allowed the three-story structure to hold its blockish shape over the years, its hard pine floors still didn’t creak, and its poured concrete ground floor was intact and as solid as ever.

The Ballards also liked the artfully detailed wooden handrails that ran along the stairs to the second and third floors, the large windows that fronted the house and the expansive front porch, among other features. “I thought it was beautiful,” Daisy says.

The house was also, Matthew says, “immaculate.”

Despite that, he filled a 30-yard dumpster with old files and other refuse after purchasing the place. Daisy explains this emptied the house of the fuel that would have inflamed the conflagration and possibly burned the structure to the ground.

Revival on Willow Street

Two years after boarding up 1302 S. Willow St., Matthew was eating at Main Street Meats on the Southside when someone told him its chef, Chris Greer, was looking for a space for his own restaurant. Since Matthew was in the business of connecting people to spaces, he offered to show Greer the house.

Before the tour, Matthew warned Greer about its condition. “I said, ‘It’s well-done. You have to have vision,’” he recalls.

But as Greer, a tall, thin, tattoo-covered transplant from Nashville, toured the structure, he loved what he saw. “I told him it could be awesome,” Greer says.

Greer was already sold on the neighborhood. When he and his wife, Kelsey Urban, moved from Nashville to Chattanooga in 2016, they, too, had seen potential for growth along Willow Street and purchased a home there.

“We wanted to buy into the neighborhood before it hit the peak we wouldn’t be able to afford,” Greer acknowledges.

Despite the optimism both sides felt about the location, everyone involved realized the inherent risks in the venture. For starters, restaurants operate on thin margins, and although Greer had graduated from culinary school and then learned under chefs at Jonathan Waxman’s Adele’s in Nashville, he’d never been on his own.

Moreover, Matthew and Daisy would be tailoring the main floor of their property to match Greer’s vision. They had earmarked the second and third stories for turn-key office space, but bringing a restaurant into the ground floor would complicate their lives and inconvenience their other tenants if Greer’s restaurant folded.

But both parties were as comfortable with the other side as they were with the location. Greer had watched several conversations with other Realtors and investors fizzle because of his lack of experience and capital, and he was impressed Matthew would even consider bringing in his restaurant as a tenant.

And Matthew was encouraged by the steps Greer was taking to learn the ropes of the restaurant business.

Greer is currently operating his eatery, Lil Oso (lilosochx.com), out of the newly launched restaurant incubator at Five Wits Brewing Company in the old Enzo’s Market building on Market Street.

There, Greer is learning how to run a restaurant, including dealing with the hard knocks that bury many newcomers. “It’s preparing us to go into the world and be a restaurateur,” he says. “Even though it’s a tiny kitchen, we’ve encountered things we weren’t expecting. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn to avoid the super dumb decisions that would plummet us, especially the financial ones.”

“When we move to Willow Street, we’ll be ready to go,” Urban adds. “We’ve already overcome the things we’re going to run into in the front and back of the house. There won’t be as much of a learning curve.”

Greer also is developing a following he hopes will seek him out on Willow Street.

“This is our third week at the test kitchen, and we’re already seeing familiar faces,” he points out.

Plus, it helped that Matthew and Daisy are fans of Greer’s cooking and his concept for Lil Oso. “We’re going to keep it casual and let you focus on the food,” Greer says. “I want everyone to be able to walk in and feel like they belong there.”

Today, the faith everyone had in Willow Street seems almost prescient, as the new growth they envisioned is finally happening. More investors like Matthew and Daisy are building out the area with rentals and retail space, and Matthew says the price per square foot in the neighborhood is up from a year ago.

Plus, in May, Blue Cross Blue Shield announced plans to build a $5 million fitness complex within walking distance of South Willow Street. And there are plans in motion to open a grocery store in the community and convert a church into an event space. “You’re going to see a lot of action here,” Greer says.

Even if fans of Lil Oso don’t follow Greer to Willow Street, he’s expecting to make a lot of new friends. “There are plenty of people here who could use a nice evening restaurant,” he says.

While Greer is eyeing a March opening for Lil Oso, Matthew plans to have the office space at 1302 S. Willow St. ready by the end of this year.

Both Matthew and Daisy are looking forward to closing this chapter of their Willow Street venture and beginning a new one. But even though the path has been marked with pitfalls, they say every step of their journey has held purpose.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Daisy says. “Our hearts dropped when we learned the house was on fire, but now we’re seeing why that happened; now we have Lil Oso coming to our building. How amazing is that?

“We’re excited to be here and to be a part of the growth in this community.”