ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — With something missing from Abingdon’s burgeoning food scene, Nate Berg eventually realized he’d lit on just the place to fill that gap — 15,000 square feet of empty downtown space that housed the town’s first car dealership.
Before the end of this year, the space should house a large grocery focused on local products, a local cidery and the town’s first food hall.
“It sat vacant for a number of years, and the opportunity came along for us to purchase it,” Berg said as workers buzzed around the former Abingdon Motor Company, which was built in the early 1930s.
“Right now kind of with this emergence and renaissance that’s happening in Abingdon, it just seemed like the right time.”
Berg is a partner in Wallberg Construction and has led several downtown renovation projects. He said and his partners, including his brother, knew the building near the corner of Main and Cummings streets was at a great location.
“Then the opportunity to kind of transform it into this local grocery and food hall came about and so the rest is history,” Berg said.
That opportunity came through a connection with Blue Hills Market co-owner Dirk Moore. A longtime advocate of local agriculture and healthy communities, Moore directs Emory and Henry College’s McGlothlin Center of the Arts and spearheaded the development of Glade Spring’s farmers market and a business incubator there.
“What’s limited here is a real focus on local producers, especially that which comes directly from the farm and that’s what we’re really trying to expand into with this move,” Moore said.
Moore said local consumers want more options than farmers markets alone provide with their limited days and hours of operation. Blue Hills doesn’t have sufficient space to do that at its current location.
“There’s a growing demand for local produce, fresh produce,” Moore said. “They can come into our store and further take advantage of the produce these farmers are selling at the farmers market.”
Right behind the town’s farmers market, foodies and local restauranteurs should see a greater assortment of local farm fresh produce and other artisanal food when Blue Hills Market moves into a space currently called “The Market.”
Moore’s business will be surrounded in 10,000 open square feet by a bakery, coffee shop, and perhaps a wine vendor — the kind of one-stop experience craved by an ever-expanding audience.
“You’ll see everything you might need in terms of getting your groceries from produce to maybe getting a bottle of wine if you want to have a picnic later,” Berg said of the 10,000 square feet that once housed the dealership showroom.
Both Berg and Moore hope the space can be an incubator for small local businesses to either take root or, like Moore’s, grow larger.
“It serves our interest toward advancing our mission around community health,” Moore said. “Not just individuals as healthier people, but about entrepreneurship and expanding the possibilities for others and developing a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
One of those growing businesses is Tumbling Creek Cidery, which will anchor the rear 5,000 square feet that once housed Abingdon Motor Company’s garage.
“It’ll be somewhere where you can enjoy some local craft beer, sit back, enjoy some food, there’ll be kind of a green space out back and your kids can play around out there while you sit back and enjoy some good beverages and good food,” Berg said.
He said he expects at least three food vendors to occupy the backspace along with Tumbling Creek.
Surrounded by nearly century-old brick walls, with massive timbered roof trusses overhead, Berg talked about his desire to maintain the building’s architectural features.
“It’s a privilege, really, to be able to work on something like this where you can actually do it the way you really want to do it and you’re not bound by certain constraints put on you by other people,” Berg said.
That’s down to the project’s financial backers, including an Asheville-based developer. Berg said they’re willing to spend the capital up front for a project that will evoke a time when buildings were constructed with an expectation they could last centuries, not just decades.
“What’s interesting is, there’s not really that much difference in the overall cost of the project,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the partners couldn’t construct a metal building somewhere and try to do the same thing for a lower upfront cost.
“I think we’re all very much of the same mind about how this enterprise can support small business’s growth in this region,” Moore said. “In many ways, we’re going to be doing what we already do in my store, which is provide incubation for small businesses who haven’t got a lot of experience with brick and mortar or store frontage and to give them an ability to get their feet wet and grow with us.”
It could all be open by late this year – a communal space for a community linked by arts, food and the Creeper Trail in a flourishing town.
“Abingdon has, for a town its size, has a lot of amenities, has a lot going for it,” Berg said. “It’s somewhat undervalued for what it could potentially become.”
Berg and his financial backers are betting heavily on downtown Abingdon – they’re also renovating the former jail and the former Abingdon hotel into two separate boutique hotels. They’ll be calling the former jail lodgings “the Clink.”