"For now, it is what it is," Anthony Harper, a partner with new owner Hallister Development, said via email. "Our primary focus is to grow what we have already created."
That's not to say the group doesn't have any ideas for the 121-year-old property. Harper and Melhouse envision a creative community that could preserve the farm's organic roots — and add an interesting new concept to Atlanta's development community.
In between giving prospective tenants tours of the work studios, helping set up art installations, and tending to tenant requests, Harper and his partner Chris Melhouse answered questions — and discussed the firm's history with the Goat Farm — via email. After the jump, an all-encompassing interview with the Goat Farm's new owners. What you'll read about is something unlike most of the real-estate developments that often pop up in Atlanta.
To view a gallery of snapshots Joeff Davis and I took at the Goat Farm over the last week, click away.
Several firms have tried to purchase the property throughout the years. One source told me it was the most sought-after piece of infill property in Atlanta. Why did you want to purchase it?
We began working on this project in March of 2008. We were looking for our next real estate deal and another business partner of ours introduced us to the property. We had been buying other historic buildings in Atlanta with adaptive re-use potential so he thought it might be a good fit for us. At the time we were not familiar with The Murray Mill (the original name was E. Van Winkle Gin & Machine Works by the way). He informed us that it was for sale and that it was a notoriously difficult deal to structure and negotiate. The Seller had a reputation for being very unpredictable. Also, the price of the property was on the high side, which at the time, made a viable capital structure next to impossible. We had to come up with an unconventional redevelopment strategy. This is when the creative community concept was born. Revised is probably a more appropriate way to describe it.
Many artists & artisans have set up shop there over the years. The industrial character, narrow dirt roads and cross-axial layout of the buildings with their subtle details (corbelled and dentiled cornices, arched windows and doors & brick patterns) lent itself to the creative community in Atlanta. Those that knew the place existed anyway.
It was popular with artists but only 25% of the property was being used back then as work studios. The rest of the property was basically used as storage. Most of the buildings were occupied by vintage machines, trash, tools, lumber, vintage typewriters, strange archaic calculating devices, transit surveys, old office furniture, cotton gin parts, and junk. We saw it as a waste of usable space. In addition, the property had never been given an identity or any focus in terms of a creative community. Exhibition space did not exist. There were no spaces that promoted community lifestyle. There was no underlying force that made the previous generation want to meet each other or collaborate on projects together. In point of fact, not all of them were even artists.
The property was empty by the time we stumbled upon it. The previous tenants had all been cleared out due to the redevelopment plans of a different previous buyer. We structured a deal with the Seller that allowed us to basically take control of the property and ultimately turn it into our version of a creative complex first and then buy it later. By then we had cultivated a good relationship with the Seller and he believed we could pull it off. We even negotiated a lengthy timeline to get it done, which he surprisingly accepted. It was an unorthodox arrangement between a Buyer and Seller but these were strange economic times.
We started an advertising campaign (advertising specifically to artists) and filled the available spaces back up. We cleared out a few of the remaining buildings and began to develop more affordable work studios.
The idea was that we wanted to provide a line of products that supplied all different types of artists at all different levels.
A question we get a lot is, "do you have to qualify my art to join The Goat Farm"? Our philosophy is "just because you may not be accomplishing your artistic goals today doesn't mean you won't accomplish your artistic goals tomorrow". So now we have premium work space as well as smaller more affordable studios. Some areas we just keep raw to accommodate the likes of metal sculptors and stone sculptors. We've been finding artists and signing artists for two years now.
Each tour we give personally. Each tour encompasses walking the entire 12 acres. We do this to ensure that we can spend the time communicating exactly what is going on at The Goat Farm. It's difficult to understand what has now become the "soul" of this place by simply walking around looking at the exteriors of the buildings by yourself. Besides, it is still private property and we take that very seriously. We continue to prepare more buildings for use in the future. We have many more 12 acre tours to do.
If you spend enough time walking around that place, like we do day-in day-out, buildings and spaces begin to whisper what they want to be. We listen. With a little imagination & elbow grease the community has created various spaces for the artists to use.
We now have various different spaces used for private art exhibitions, fundraisers, private musical performances, music recitals and gallery space. We even set up a...well let's call it a "chat room" only it's not online. We filled an old carpenters space with vintage furniture that we found laying around the property. Threw a sound system in there. A bunch of vinyl. A few coffee machines and a coffee roaster. It's a beautiful space and it acts as our community crossroads. Our artists go there to see familiar faces, meet new ones, get online, unwind, listen to music, plot and plan and drink coffee. We roast beans right there in the space sometimes. We even started a library of donated books in there. It operates like an actual library. Checkout system and all. No Dewey Decimal Classification. We just started working on providing a live jazz listening room. We were also very lucky that some of our early members were urban farmers. So we now have a farm that is basically a neighborhood corner store of sorts. The community can go back there and buy fruit, vegetables, herbs and fresh laid eggs. We love The Goat Farm and we are very grateful for the opportunity.
What makes the property special?
Aside from the obvious 19th century charm and historic importance of the site? Today? The Artists themselves. Because of them this is no ordinary place.
You mentioned earlier that you want to maintain the community's intimate nature. How would you describe the overall feel of the Goat Farm? What's helped foster this feeling or sense of community?
The people there are truly an amazing set. We don't dare take full credit for all that has developed there. No one does. If they do...they shouldn't. No single person is solely responsible for anything that gets created there. There is a core group of Goat Farm artists that have put a lot of their ideas and time into this concept.
We didn't start off with a fully developed concept. It is a process that has evolved over time. Sure, we were the catalyst for some ideas and just a helping hand for others. Either way the end result is much better because we stay open to everyone's opinions and past experiences. Once they get their hands on a proposed concept we always end up with something better than the original idea. There is so much brain power present there. There is an amazing amount of skill sets to pull from. Nobody asks to get paid. They do it because they love the process and the outcome. It would be ridiculous on our part to ignore it. Sometimes we feel like the most effective part of our job is to keep the communication lines open and make sure we listen to what our artists have to say.
People get to know one another much quicker if they have a common goal and project to work on together. We are constantly developing new ways to use the property. This creates reasons for people to work together. Working together creates a stronger bond than just meeting over a drink or throwing a party for everyone. Projects that foster working relationships is the main driver behind creating a sense of community at The Goat Farm. Just because an apartment complex puts in a community pool and a club house doesn't mean that a true community has been created. Have that same community band together and build that pool and clubhouse as a unit and see what happens. No, we don't have a pool.
Many of the artists form their own alliances as well and work together on their own projects. They pick up business from each other, refer clients, buyers and sellers to each other. It's a really convenient place to get things done.
For example, we wanted to put together an old fashioned medicine show but in the form of an actual play. I think we made roughly two phone calls and had one meeting. We now have the actors, writers, producers and the team to build the actual medicine wagon and stage lined up. We even have donated elixir bottles (some period correct). The script is being written now. It's a tale of revenge and the promiscuous wife of a snake oil salesman. It's also a comedy.
What are your plans for the property? What would you like to do with it (or what could you see it become) in the short- and long-term?
We have a lot riding on this purchase. We also have a long way to go before the constantly changing vision is realized. We like to think it will never stop evolving and improving. Our plans for the property are to use it to push culture forward through comprehensive support of the arts.
We already provide space to create visual art, creative office space, music rehearsal space and recording studio space. It's always been a popular place for filming movies and music videos. It still is. We now provide channels to exhibit or perform. We provide an environment that promotes professional connections. The one thing that we do not provide yet is financial support to the creative community at large. At least not in any significant way. We are working on that now. We do not depend on public funds or donations to survive. We are not a non-profit. We don't have to worry as much about public funding cuts. We like it this way. It's an arts organization structure that we feel comfortable with.
We are working on being able to provide and award artist grants internally through a for profit model. Rather than raising grants we want to take a portion of our profits and create grants on our own. We will award them to our community members and Atlanta artists in general. We believe that more of the funds will actually reach the recipients this way. Although, we recognize it to be a necessary part of the overall grant distribution system we won't have to send our funds through an organization that needs to cut an operating percentage off the top. We know "for profit" and "arts organization" don't often get mentioned in the same sentence but we think we can do more positive things for Atlanta's creative scene with this model. It's more stable, makes the financial future more transparent and more easily provides the resources needed to make what contributions we think we can make in this segment.
Hallister Development is ultimately in the business of real estate development. Many seem to wonder whether we will scrap the creative complex concept and go to full redevelopment. The way we see it is that the creative concept simply tees the property up for a little of both. There is no reason why some traditional redevelopment could not coexist with what we are creating today. We have so much space to work with. We think a restaurant (maybe even two), coffee shop, galleries and/or furniture concept would be a great fit for example.
When the timing is right we think we can find a way to marry the two without losing what makes The Goat Farm such a unique place today. You don't have to scrap one concept to fit the other. It's a complex property and it needs to be slow roasted. The creative concept not only gives this place its identity but also will allow us the time to give the property the attention it deserves. We can be surgical in our approach now.
For now, it is what it is. Our primary focus is to grow what we have already created. We have many ideas in the pot for the future. My favorites being a 3 story non soil based vertical farm with a market and restaurant attached, a shipping container village of creative studios and an organized curriculum of classes for creative related skills that might not be offered at more traditional institutions. These are only conversations right now. We'll see.
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