HUNTINGTON — At noon on a mid-week winter's day, Phil Nelson navigates through a bustling crowd at The Market and points to a yellow loveseat along the walk-through open market.
"Let's go into my office and talk," Nelson said with a laugh, plopping down right in the middle of the crowd.
The Market, the latest venture of Nelson, the son of former Huntington mayor Bobby Nelson, developed with his partner Jim Weiler of the downtown development firm Capitol Venture Corp., has been out in the open just like this and just the way he likes it.
For Nelson and Weiler, the $7 million project has included knocking down a building to create a walk-through connecting 3rd and 4th avenues, then one-by-one filling in The Market with local businesses with a fresh twist.
For the public, The Market started with the opening of the Wildflower Gift Gallery back in November 2017. Since then, developers Nelson and Weiler have been guiding their vision of The Market, watching it fill in like a giant community puzzle being constructed piece by piece with everyone watching and many hands helping.
Just before Christmas, Drew Hines, who owns Butter It Up, opened the final shop, Dang Good Cinnamon Rolls and Waffles, to complete the vibrant open-air retail market in the 800 block of 3rd Avenue in downtown Huntington.
Now full up, The Market features an eclectic and healthy mix of stores, shops, restaurants and other businesses that include: Butter It Up (farm to table cafe), Fuel Concept (fresh food fast), Austin's Homemade Ice Cream, Bottled Up (craft beer and wine), Tulsi (natural grocery and wellness), Hip Eagle (urban boutique), Wildflower Gift Gallery (gifts and home decor) and, on the second floor, the Greek restaurant Navarino Bay.
Nelson said he and Weiler felt that Huntington, which has been adding hip new locally owned businesses downtown since the Pullman Square development, was ready for the kind of market you see in other cities, such as North Market in Columbus, Capitol Market in Charleston, Findlay Market in Cincinnati and Reading Terminal Market in Philly.
"I think the single greatest thing about The Market I love is watching people enter and hearing them say 'I don't feel like I am in Huntington.' It has a different feel. It has this industrial feel and eclectic mix of food, restaurants and gifts shops that allow you to do a little bit of everything," Nelson said. "I have friends that come down and grab something to eat, do a little shopping and then grab a bottle of wine to take home for the evening. It is great to see how this has contributed to the quality of life in downtown. It is such a joy to Jim and I and we are only as successful as our tenants here."
Connecting the community downtown
The Market's common area operates as a food court that lines up with the businesses on the first floor of the building next door at 801 3rd Ave. Those businesses, some of which can be accessed not only from the street but also from The Market, include Charlie Graingers; The Lost: Huntington Escape Room; Peace, Love and Little Donuts; and Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes and Fries.
"That is a big part of The Market that we love is the ability to connect to Charlie Graingers, The Escape Room, and Peace and Love, and in a roundabout way Hwy 55. Having those folks here is a big plus and makes us synergistically a whole lot better," Nelson said.
In the food court area, which is along the main thoroughfare and then also between Tulsi and Fuel, The Market has a large-screen TV where they have been showing Marshall football and basketball games, and where lots of different folks meet up for lunch or to study or work since there is free WiFi in this section of downtown Huntington.
"We had hoped it would be like this," Nelson said of The Market, which uses the theme "Food, Friends and Finds." "We kind of feel the energy here and it is fun for us. It is a little like work — we do things like empty trash and facilitate improvements to the infrastructure, but it is fun to hang out here with so many diverse groups. Gentlemen have prayer groups in the morning, ladies meet for luncheons, and there are young kids who are here hanging out with our free WiFi."
Nathan Anderson, a senior in business marketing who graduates in the spring, was hanging out, catching up on some reading and sipping a craft beer from Bottled Up.
Anderson said he was excited that a place like The Market was developed here.
"I think Huntington is doing a lot better and it is doing what it needs to do it but it is still a lot slower than a lot of other places," Anderson said. "I definitely think they are going in the right direction for students, and making things more accessible to students. I know after class a whole bunch of us will come and eat at Fuel, and for me, as a craft beer drinker, I come from Richmond, Virginia, where there is beer galore and breweries galore, so anywhere I can find here where I can get a good beer at is super cool. Discovering that I can get beer here at The Market and it's pretty cheap has been really cool."
Nelson said he and Weiler love the fact that everyone feels welcome, whether they're out walking their dog or stopping in with a group for dinner.
"We just want you to come in and we want it to be a community center of sorts where you can just hang out," Nelson said. "We are fine if you get a cup of coffee and just hang. Stop by for a small purchase or for dinner. Spend some time and add to the quality conversation here."
Developing the outdoor space
Opened in July 2018, The Market's outdoor space, which is 25 feet wide, is accessible from inside The Market. Folks can take drinks out onto the patio, which has overhead strings of lights, plants, tables and chairs as well as in-season games, activities and live music.
"As the weather eases our outdoor space will really come alive," Nelson said of the space, which is between The Market and the building that houses Taste of Asia. "We call it the breezeway because where there is an opening the wind finds that space. We have built a stage so we will have music and activities at a much greater frequency."
Nelson said there will also be some artistic touches both in the patio area and around the building.
"We are going to do some interactive murals like 'Hello From Huntington.' When the weather warms we are going to paint this on the wall," Nelson said. "So we hope the outdoor space will be a bigger draw to the whole market experience."
Nelson said they are also planning a Market Fest that will expand out into the parking lot with bands and artists. Right now, they are just trying to figure out a good date that doesn't conflict with other festivities.
Working with the Mayor's Council on the Arts, and famed artist Don Pendleton, who also is designing the mural at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena, the developers plan to graphic-wrap the electric box outside along the sidewalk of their building.
"We will be one of the first two or three boxes that are done then hopefully other businesses will decide to sponsor one," Nelson said. "It really is a nice touch and adds a decorative flair to our already beautiful downtown."
An eye on developing 4th Avenue
For folks excited about the transformation of what was a couple empty eyesores on 3rd Avenue, note that Weiler and Nelson are not done in helping revive and reinvent spaces downtown.
About a year and a half ago they bought the building at 801 4th Ave. that sits across from the Cabell County Courthouse and is perhaps best known in recent years for housing "Windows," a project that placed colorful murals in the boarded upper story windows of the building.
It also recently housed the Cabell County Day Report Center.
"We have several interested parties there, some with ties to The Market in terms of market-related products and some new additions to downtown," Nelson said. "Our hope is to get that construction started within the next couple of months. We put a new roof on the building about a year ago. We have demoed all of the floors and I had it pressure washed a couple weeks ago and they are going to do tuck-point in about a month. The architect is drawing up plans now and we still start dropping people into those spaces and signing leases and get construction going in a couple of months."
Nelson said that will be about a six-month-long project with the hopes of having it come online in the first part of 2020.
"It will probably have residential on the top floor and the upper floors can be office type things and the first floor would be a retail type of component," Nelson said. "That is the goal. This whole downtown corridor of the business improvement district — it has to have retail draws to get people downtown and to keep people downtown. We have so many great shops and boutiques throughout the rest of downtown."
Nelson said they are excited to transform another major corner in downtown Huntington.
"We think that is such a landmark corner when you come into town and it needs to contribute to that. We weren't really looking to expand but that building is such an eyesore and those upper floors have been vacant or just storage for years. The Day Report Center was there and they needed improvement so they moved over to 6th Avenue and now this gives us a great opportunity to resurrect that corner."
Nelson said he and Weiler are just proud to be a part of what they feel is a new chapter in Huntington's history - a rebirth happening thanks to a lot of cooperation among many players.
"We couldn't be happier with the cooperation we get from our city, our county and our state representatives," Nelson said. "We have a lot of interaction with people who are willing to help and who are so proud of our community and what the citizens have done in here in terms of making this a spot. We are a firm believer that downtown Huntington has turned the corner and that it is an amazing destination. The world needs to know what we have here. Work will continue on certain streets and buildings that need to supplement our progress. I am sure the city is working as you can see by the very favorable crime and overdose numbers on our biggest scourge. Huntington is rediscovering itself and we are just proud to be a part of that."
Giving downtown Huntington a refreshing new face
Martha Evans, an Ohio University professor who helps her daughter and son-in-law a couple days a week run Bottled Up, said the openness of The Market has created a real neighborly feel from the fact that it is dog-friendly, the fact that folks can buy a beer and drink it out in The Market or out on the patio, and the fact that all the tenants are like a little neighborhood helping each other out.
She said the good feeling of what The Market has brought to downtown can't be understated. Evans said she and her husband Chreed were eating at Navarino Bay for brunch and were both marveling at the transformation.
"We were eating up at Georgio's (Georgio Alexandropoulas, the owner of Navarino Bay) for brunch today and ... you are kind of perched up there and you can kind of look over and we were just talking," Evans said. "Chreed grew up in Huntington also and it is like we saw Huntington in the '70s when it was vivacious. You came down that first week of August for Dollar Days and got your school clothes and it was an exciting and wonderful place to be. Then we saw it fade and become almost like — my perception of Detroit, abandoned and dark and dreary and nothing was here.
"Now we are seeing a revitalization. We were talking about that, and Chreed said these men (Weiler and Nelson) need to be sainted for their revitalization of this community. We can escape this opioid epidemic when people have hope. Nobody wants to be a drug addict but if you feel hopeless you look for something to fill the void. We can turn it around if we have hope. I think that is what Phil and Jim and others are giving."
Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said The Market has been an incredible and a unique venue that has brought renewed attention to the city's downtown mix.
"A vibrant scene had already come to life via Pullman Square and the buildings that were renovated by Dr. Touma and others on 3rd Avenue and The Market added a fresh, exciting aspect," Compton said. "I told developers Phil Nelson and Jim Weiler that they just made my job a lot easier. Not only did they take away an empty building on prime real estate that had seen better days and replace it with this vibrant concept, they filled it with complementary tenants that offer a little something for every taste. That gives us a great product to promote to visitors. And of course locals love it as well. We get positive comments at the CVB all the time about our downtown and how inviting and energetic it is. The open air concept is something you might expect to find in larger cities, but it fits perfectly in Huntington. And it works on a lot of different platforms."
Compton, who recently filmed one of his Tyson on the Town promotional videos at The Market, said its prime location is key since it sits diagonally across from the Big Sandy Superstore Arena.
In addition to packed crowds for a string of diverse regional events such as the West Virginia State Wrestling tournament and World of Wheels, the arena is also on a a hot streak with five consecutive sold-out concerts, each of which bring 6,000 to 7,000 people to downtown from all over the region.
"The Big Sandy Superstore Arena has been having record sell-out crowds for their performances. Along with other downtown options, The Market offers those concertgoers a variety of dining and shopping options in one location. And all of this works together to help us market Huntington and Cabell County. When we're working to book groups, meetings and youth sporting events in our area, this goes a long way in positioning us as a cool place to visit. And that adds to growing economic development with more dollars being spent in the community."