When Raymond DeBarge first looked at the vacant building off East Main Street, Paulownia trees were growing out of the back wall and water dripped steadily through the dank interior. Built in 1910, the space had been abandoned for 26 years.
But he decided to renovate and move DeBarge Vineyards and Winery into the building on Chattanooga's Southside anyway.
"It had great bones to it, and it looked better than a lot of other properties on Main Street itself -- which were basically like bombed out relics in Berlin," he said.
After a year of construction, all new electrical systems, reinforced walls and new plumbing, the top two floors of the building at 1716 Rossville Ave. now house residential condos, and the winery operates on the first floor. DeBarge opened his doors nine months ago, and said the Southside was the best spot.
"Right time, right place, right culture," he summed up.
DeBarge is one of a half-dozen alcohol-related businesses that plan to, or have already, set up shop in the Southside. The migration is being driven by shifting demand, the area's abundance of empty buildings and the Southside's hard-to-put-a-finger-on cool factor -- and the shift may point to a larger move away from Chattanooga's traditionally alcohol-shy attitude.
Ken Willis, minister of Ridgedale Church of Christ, said he does think drinking is becoming more socially acceptable in the region, but he wishes it wasn't.
"It's not healthy for our nation, our culture or our families," he said. "I see no good that can come from it."
Still, Joe Ledbetter and Tim Piersant hope to open a Chattanooga Whiskey Co. distillery at the corner of 14th and Fort streets in October, and the Southside is a good fit, Ledbetter said, because people and companies are moving into the area.
"As a tourist attraction and a distillery, obviously that's where I want to be too," Ledbetter said.
They plan to spend $2 million to renovate the old Turnbull Cone Machine Co. headquarters and expect 450 visitors a day.
"Logistically, it's just building prices," he added. "Although they're not cheap, you can get more building for your buck. There are enough buildings down there that still need a little bit of love that it makes it appealing to move down there and be part of it."
Chattanooga Brewing Co. is also aiming to make the move to the Southside. Brewer Mark Marcum said the switch is more about specific building requirements than the vibe of the area. The company initially wanted to stay on the North Shore, but couldn't find a building that could accommodate a brewery.
So the company will set up in a new 6,000-square-foot building at 1810 Chestnut St., and Marcum hopes to be moved in by September. These two newcomers will join The Terminal Brewhouse, which opened in 2009, DeBarge Vineyards and Winery, the new corporate headquarters of Craftworks Restaurants & Breweries and Carter Distributing Co., which has been on the Southside since 1959.
It's not unusual for one type of company to congregate in one area, said John Bridger, Regional Planning Agency executive director.
"You think of like car dealerships, located on the same street," he said. "They're going to go where the market is. I think the reason they're looking at that area is, I'd imagine, because they're seeing the demand."
He added that the new breweries, distillery and winery could add value to the neighborhood, if they're appropriately managed.
"Clearly we have to be careful about school locations to make sure there aren't any adverse impacts, but done right, I think it adds to the animation and quality of life in the area," he said.
Traditionally, the Chattanooga region has been a bit alcohol-shy. Chattanoogans consumed an average of only six alcoholic beverages a month in 2010, according to a study by Experian Marketing Services. That earned the Scenic City the distinction of being the least heavy alcohol-drinking city of the more than 100 cities surveyed, drinking less than half the number of brews tossed down in the No. 1 city, Boston.
Chattanooga Whiskey is distilled in Indiana because of a 2009 decision by state legislators to exclude Hamilton County from a bill that reversed Prohibition in 41 other Tennessee counties.
Ledbetter will only be able to open a distillery on the Southside if a bill allowing Hamilton County residents to distill spirits passes a final vote in the next couple weeks.
And just last week, state legislators voted down a bill that would have allowed grocery stores to sell wine.
But locally made, specialized alcohol is gaining ground in Chattanooga. DeBarge creates wine from grapes he grows at his vineyard in North Georgia. Chattanooga Brewing Co. and The Terminal Brewhouse both specialize in small batches of craft beer, and the city was recently named one of the nation's Top 10 Beer Cities by Livability.
Blair Carter, president of Carter Distributing, said he has seen a marked increase in demand for craft beer.
"People are experimenting more and not just going for the big names who've been around forever," he said. "There's a whole lot more interest in craft beers."
And while several alcohol-related businesses are drifting to the Southside, Carter said the shift is part of a bigger picture.
"I wouldn't say it's limited to the Southside, as far as alcohol in itself," he said. "I think the biggest part is tourism and the fact that newer generations are coming along who don't have that antiquated thinking when it comes to alcohol."
Marcum said he also thinks people's anti-alcohol attitudes tend to be a generational issue.
"There are definitely some attitudes about alcohol around here that are less than favorable," he said. "I'm in my 50s, and I've seen some negative attitudes about alcohol in my youth, and that to me that seems to be changing as related to the younger generation."
But Terminal partner Geoff Tarr said he hasn't noticed any shift in the number of alcohol drinkers in Chattanooga, just a boost in the interest in craft beer.
Willis said his congregation is opposed to all types of alcohol drinking, including social drinking. He would rather see other businesses, like antique shops, fill the vacant buildings in the Southside.
"Anything but alcohol," he said. "Anything."
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...