Derrick Young leans out from the second-story scaffold, patiently prying decades-old metal siding to reveal gorgeous red Decatur brick. And, for just a second, he marvels at what he’s discovering.
“This building was a hospital, a cotton warehouse, a retail store,” said Young, an airline pilot and entrepreneur. “This is all about restoring the original beauty.”
Young flies internationally for American Airlines, based out of Dallas. But when he’s not in the air, he’s on the ground (or at least one story away) in his hometown of Athens, Alabama, where he played a part in the latest beautification of the historic town square.
Welcome to Merchant’s Alley.
“The alley used to be an eyesore,” Young explained. “I’d cut the grass and weed eat, but that was only temporary. It was a dead alley, as dead as the rotten wood under that metal sheeting.”
After a year-long rehab, Merchant’s Alley is scheduled for a grand opening ceremony Nov. 5. What once was blight is now full of color. There is an arch with the first bars to “Stars Fell on Alabama” and two murals that convey the town’s ties to music present and past. One wall, the Playing the Sound of the Wind, pays homage to the annual Tennessee Valley Fidler’s Convention held each fall in this North Alabama city. Across the alley is a portrait of Brittany Howard, a Limestone County native, Grammy winner, and former lead singer of the Alabama Shakes.
“Where we once had an eyesore, we now have a place for people to gather,” said Tere Richardson, executive director of Main Street Athens. Richardson spearheaded the plan and fund-raising while she “voluntold” her husband, Gary Van Wagnen, he would be the construction project manager.
In addition to the murals, the space includes furniture to sit a spell, plants, secret doors that lead to other artworks and Ispots for social media selfies. There is something for everyone to enjoy.
Richardson said fund-raising easily surpassed the original goal of $35,000, raising close to $100,000 more. Donors included Regions Bank, where Paul Carruthers serves as a Community Development manager. Carruthers is also past president of Main Street Alabama, a nonprofit organization that focuses on public-private partnerships, broad community engagement and strategies that create jobs, spark new investment, attract visitors, spurring growth across the state.
“I’m sending out a big thank you to Paul and Regions for their generous donation,” Richardson said. “We had a huge outpouring from people who thought this was a fantastic idea, and it took wings. As it picked up, professionals donated not only money and supplies but time.”
On a visit to see Merchant’s Alley before the grand unveiling, Carruthers takes it in with a grin.
“This was already a beautiful and vibrant town square,” Carruthers said. “But the work of Tere and her team has taken this to the next level. This is the place to be.”
Village Pizza sits across from the alley while Kreme Delight is on the adjacent block. Owners Laura and Josh Tarokh first purchased the pizza restaurant in 2008, adding the ice cream shop later. But the last year, thanks to the global pandemic, has been difficult for everyone.
Now, Laura sees a new era dawning thanks to the Main Street project.
“Tere has come in and made so much progress that we can focus on the day-to-day business because we know she’s fighting for everyone to bring more foot traffic to downtown thanks to this new aesthetic,” Laura said.
The vibrant downtown district centers around the Limestone County Courthouse, a neoclassical structure finished in 1918.
A block away, Roy and Bucky Patton operate Hendricks-Patton Co., a furniture store occupying the same location since 1945, when Roy’s grandfather established the business after building ships during World War II. At times, there have been four generations on the books working to grow the company business.
“We look at the square as a big outdoor mall, and Tere says we are one of the anchor stores,” Roy said. “We’re not a franchise and we don’t take orders from an office in Florida. Our decisions are based on what works and what doesn’t work.”
The alley, he added, is “a tangible asset. There are just so many opportunities, from night-time entertainment to just being the place everyone wants to go to during a busy day.”
Bucky Patton was 4 years old when his father started the business. Roy wasn’t much older when he joined his dad at the store.
“We’ve invested our whole lives here,” Roy said. “I remember going on deliveries as a kid. At 14, I’d deliver mattresses on Cambridge Lane in a 3-speed Chevrolet. I didn’t even have my license then.”
Next door, the Athens Art League has provided studio and gallery space to local artisans since 2015, and a fine arts festival for the prior seven years. To help raise funds for artists, Howard and the Alabama Shakes played a benefit concert, raising $40,000 in one evening.
A portrait inside the gallery shows Patti Malone in operatic attire, beaming. Born a slave in Limestone County, she attended the local Trinity School, then became part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in college before embarking on a professional career that made her the toast of Europe in the late 19th Century. The Athens Art League is converting an old community building into the Scout Music House, which will include meeting space with a sound studio and an area for receptions and in-house concerts.
“Our mission – to support artists, art education and bring culture to Limestone County – never changed,” said Diane Lehr, the organization’s vice president.
Gail Bergeron was a longtime Athens State art professor who remains active in the arts scene. As Young works on restoring his building, she focuses on completing one of the final murals in the alley. This is laborious work. It includes taking the original work from sketch to life on a rough surface that will test her patience in the days ahead.
Young knows about patience. He not only owns the building he’s working on, he also owns UG White Mercantile across the alley. Imagine a 1950s general store, then go back another two or three decades. With a wood-plank floor, a candy counter and 12-ounce bottles of soft drink pulled out of an old ice box, stepping into UG White takes you straight into an Andy Hardy movie.
“I bought it out of pure foolishness,” Young joked. “I bought my first pocketknife here. So, when the owner told me he was going to sell, I didn’t hesitate. I had such an affection for the store and these old-time smells.”
Now, he’s offering the chance for new generations to create similar experiences.
And the alley next door will ensure that visitors to the square stop and take a stroll to discover what’s new.
“We want you to feel you’re stepping back in time,” he said. “We now have a destination experience, whether you’re coming for the first time or the hundredth. Merchant’s Alley is the crowning achievement.”