Imagine an East Nashville without Margot Café, Bongo Java or Marché. No Ugly Mugs or Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams or even additions along Gallatin Pike like No. 308 or Edley’s Bar-B-Que and Fat Bottom Brewery, which gave new life to older buildings. These establishments weave a web of neighborhood life. They’re places we celebrate milestones over meals, work on business plans over laptops, take the kids for ice cream, connect with old friends at lunches, and meet new ones over cups of coffee.
While the owners of these businesses certainly play a crucial role in this mix, in this issue, we’re celebrating the guy behind the guy. Developer March Egerton had the vision to turn brick and cement into spaces with soul that have been instrumental in the revitalization of East Nashville.
At 49 years old, Egerton stands tall and lean, with a serious demeanor punctuated by sharp wit. Matter-of-fact, private, and driven, he keeps his balance as a husband and father of three along with a love for basketball at the YMCA. You might spot him at one of his properties like Ugly Mugs, but it will seem only for a second as he’s moving forward, always, toward the next task.
Egerton recently stopped by Edley’s—one of his newer developments— which sits just a few blocks from the first commercial property he ever purchased just after the tornado of 1998: the home that now holds PizzeReal.
“It was really obliterated. It got hammered, and I bought that from a labor union that had been there for a long time, and they just wanted to get rid of it,” he says. “They didn’t want to fix it up, and I bought it, and I knew nothing about construction.” He ended up renting it to a group that formed a Somali mosque. “Nobody remembers this. It was a trip. I got to know some of those guys pretty well,” he says. But leasing wasn’t so easy in East Nashville then, and it has hardly been smooth moving forward.
“Now it seems like every time you turn around there’s a restaurant opening, but it was a long grind,” says Egerton he first probably seven or eight years was really up and down, and then, of course, when the market tanked in 2000 . . . People forget, but Marché sat empty for years after I bought it. Jeni’s was empty for over two years before I got them in there. You gotta suck it up sometimes, or you have to just lease it to whoever, and I try not to do that . . . You gotta look at stuff long term.”
March Egerton grew up in Green Hills and had an interest in real estate, but he also never intended to settle in Nashville and didn’t expect development to be such a major part of his life.
After college, Egerton left Nashville in a VW bus headed for the West Coast. He first landed in Seattle during the grunge era. The weather began to wear on him the second year, so he applied to graduate school at the University of Hawaii.
“I moved out there and had never been there. I bought someone’s plane ticket—half of a plane ticket; you used to be able to do that,” he says. “I took some cardboard boxes of stuff and landed on the island of Oahu and slept in the car I rented on the first night.”
Though Egerton says he had a head for business, Egerton never took business classes or pursued an MBA. “I got a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, which is like a way to not drop out of college. And then I got a master’s degree in American Studies, which was an excuse to live in Hawaii and write a guidebook.”
The book covered cheap places to eat on the island. Egerton had no money, and no car for the first nine months of the three years he lived there. He then moved to Portland, Ore.—where he also stayed for about three years—with his girlfriend at the time, who was going to midwifery school.
“I had told myself I would never move back to Nashville,” he says, “and then, one day I decided I would.”
Back in town at age 33, Egerton knew parts of Nashville well as a native, but he didn’t know much about the East Side. “The first time I came over here I thought, ‘Man, what a shithole.’ And then the second time was like a week later, both by chance, and I thought, ‘Ah man, this is perfect.’ It was weird. That’s how stuff goes sometimes,” says Egerton. “The first time you see it, the negative parts are all you can see.”
He started out by buying a couple of houses. Commercial projects had occurred to him early on, but, “I didn’t have any real clue what I was doing,” he says.
The 1998 tornado, however, caused development to happen on this side of the river on a different timetable. Living in Portland, Egerton had been exposed to the mixed-use real estate he would eventually develop. “In retrospect the timing was good in a lot of ways. There was none of that going on.”
After his first commercial property, he bought the building that now holds Bongo Java (which he later sold to them) and the former gas station that became Margot Café.
Egerton began leasing the Walden project, his only new construction to date, in 2008. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams joined Ugly Mugs, Silly Goose, and The Wild Cow by opening its first full store outside of Ohio in 2011. The East Nashville location of Jeni’s has since become the busiest of about 16 total. Two Ten Jack, an izakaya, is scheduled to open in January. It’s the first Nashville restaurant involving Jason McConnell, the successful Franklin chef and restaurateur behind Red Pony, 55 South, and Cork and Cow.
“Remember that only two of five phases are now completed [at Walden],” says Dan Heller, developer of Riverside Village and Egerton’s partner on the Fluffo redevelopment project. “So in terms of impact, imagine just one guy creating an entirely new commercial neighborhood at the intersection of three existing neighborhoods, literally from scratch. No overlays required. Just seven acres of vacant land and March Egerton.”
Chad Grout of Urban Grout Commercial Real Estate is working with Heller and Egerton on leasing the Fluffo redevelopment, and adds that Egerton has a talent in choosing the right tenant mix, even at all hours of the day, which is rare. “Perhaps more importantly,” says Grout, “Walden has demonstrated that East Nashville’s commercial growth is not defined by 5 Points.”
Egerton says he enjoys mixed-use properties partly because he’s “kind of a food person” and he enjoys bringing those types of businesses to the neighborhood and helping them work. “I enjoy knowing what this stuff used to look like and what it was,” he says. “One day it doesn’t exist, and a year later it does, and there are people who are employed there and people have met and gotten married at Ugly Mugs. I didn’t have a direct hand in any of it, but I had some involvement in it, and that’s kind of cool.”
Although Egerton insists he would rather look forward than back, he’s proud of the development on Main Street with Heller. “Nobody was doing anything on Main Street, and Dan and I got going on this and working out the deal with Fat Bottom. I had it in my head that a brewery would be a really nice addition over here and could be the kind of thing that could kickstart Main Street,” Egerton says.
“I try to choose carefully on commercial tenants, and I’ve had a lot of them that have done really well. I want them to succeed. I’m not just in it for the rent. In my mind, it takes orchestrating.”
Egerton plans to continue the Fluffo development with a $3 million, 45,000-squarefoot, mixed-use project in a building at 901 Woodland Street. Coming to compromise over development and growth is part of the job, but Egerton, who lives in Inglewood, is positive about East Nashville and its future—just not to the point of being overzealous.
Heller noted that Egerton doesn’t use spreadsheets. Rather, he’s building an empire on memory, basic calculations in his head, and notes scribbled on a yellow legal pad. Egerton doesn’t expect others to completely understand his way of working and thinking, which he said makes him open to the issues others face.
“I guess everyone wishes everyone could understand their whole deal in a flash, but that’s not a very practical wish. I understand how people perceive kind of what goes into this versus the reality of it. It probably does make me more cognisant of the reverse when I’m looking at other people’s stuff.
“I try to pick up on the nuance of what other people do, more because I know that it’s rarely as simple as, ‘I’m an attorney,’” says Egerton. “Everyone’s story is somewhat complicated, and I try to keep that in mind. You drive up and down Gallatin Road, and it’s hard to forget the breaks you’ve had in life and everything doesn’t just come down to hard work,” he says. “I like for my kids to see that, and I like to be reminded of that on a regular basis. When you get wrapped up in your own stuff sometimes you lose sight of that. I like that it still has some grit to it.”
At the same time, he praises the unique identity East Nashville has created, and its progress in the food and drink scene. “It’s long been my desire to make East Nashville sort of like the food and drink destination point in Nashville. I think that’s starting to happen. I like that I go into Jeni’s Ice Cream when it’s packed, and I don’t recognize a soul,” says Egerton, adding that he appreciates the size of the area, with its mix of housing types and rental properties.
“Like the Gulch,” he says, using it for comparison,“ everything is kind of the same age and the same kind of product, and that’s fine. I enjoy going down there, and it looks amazing. But it doesn’t feel like it feels over here. This feels like a real neighborhood. It’s got rough edges to it. It’s got people pushing strollers. It feels very dynamic that way. I don’t get tired of that.”