Beneath the Surface of the Julietta Market Debate: Tracing the controversy’s roots

Bathed in the glare of the scorching July sun, Chad Needham takes a pause at the railroad tracks lining North Limestone. The neighborhood’s subtle trickle of midmorning traffic hums in the background as he squints at an old, boarded-up building. The relic, a hushed companion to the used car lot next door, has been a target of his interests for quite some time now.

“I’ve pestered him time and again,” Needham, his arms crossed, tells me, the faintest grin pulling at his lips. His eyes almost wishful, he imagines a bustling café or a vibrant shop taking over the dormant space. A breath of life, he muses, would certainly be more inviting than its current reality.

Revitalizing old buildings isn’t just a pastime for Needham; it’s a calling. He and companies linked to him own 33 properties on Lexington’s East End and Northside with a fair cash value of over $9 million, according to the Fayette PVA and state business records. His mark is etched across the street in the form of a new Mexican Restaurant, Mi Amor, housed within another of his successful restoration projects. This derelict building, he believes, holds similar potential – a chance to contribute another thread to his growing tapestry of Northside properties.

Interactive map showing properties owned by Chad Needham and his associated companies.

He makes a point to tell me he wouldn’t rent it out to a “predatory business”, offering up liquor stores, payday lenders, and vape shops as examples of establishments he would shun. “Something that adds to the neighborhood,” he trails off.

However, against a backdrop of rising rents on the Northside and Fayette County at large, Needham’s dreams aren’t met with unanimous applause. To some, he is just another ‘gentrifier,’ the controversial label tacked onto him despite his roots nearby — an alumnus of Bryan Station High School and a former Transylvania University soccer player. The label stings, but Needham finds solace in his convictions.

After graduating from Transy with a Business Marketing & Management degree in 1994, Needham took a job at a Lexington ad agency. From there he went to work out of town for a couple national brands before ending up in Fayetteville, Arkansas for a role with Wal-Mart. Needham didn’t provide details about his career there, but I got the impression he wasn’t fetching coffee. He leveraged connections made in Fayetteville when he moved back to Lexington and opened Eureka Pizza in Eastland shopping Center. He eventually opened another location on Reynolds Road. After a while, he tells me, he sold the pizza business and had some capital to invest. That’s when he started renovating old buildings for adaptive reuse, work that earned him the stinging title of ‘gentrifier’.

But even as he grapples with his position in Lexington’s changing real estate landscape, he himself is not immune to its pressures. Eyeing the deserted building, he sighs, “At this point he’d probably want a million dollars for it. Those numbers, they just wouldn’t add up for me.”

A boarded up building on North Limestone has been the target of Chad Needham’s interest for a while now. It sits across the street from his newest tenant, Mexican restaurant Mi Amor. (The Lexington Times)

The limelight recently turned across Loudon Avenue towards Needham’s Greyline Station, a topic of an illuminating Herald-Leader article penned by Janet Patton. In the piece, provocatively titled “Original signature tenant could be leaving North Lexington’s Greyline Station,” Patton dropped the bombshell that Julietta Market, an original tenant in Needham’s converted bus depot, might not renew its lease. The move would put a sizable hole in Greyline’s retail landscape, as Julietta currently occupies its 23,000-square-foot middle space with local micro-retail stalls.

Julietta Market currently occupies the 23,000-square-foot middle space in Greyline Station. (Greyline Station Vendor Map)

Needham confirmed Friday that Julietta Market’s last official day in Greyline Station would be October 31. He’s hired a consultant to redesign the space and will allow current Julietta vendors to stay in the interim, if they so choose.

What are the real reasons behind Julietta’s departure?

Yet, rumors and whispers didn’t stop at the market’s looming departure. Some online commentators speculated that tensions recently boiled over when a chef working in The Market Kitchen, a space for local food businesses and food trucks that are in need of a commercial kitchen, found his car towed. The incident sparked a widely shared social media post that turned many heads. Needham’s explanation painted a different picture — a tale of a shared loading dock, a violated rule, and a chair thrown in the heat of the moment.

It’s worth noting that Northside Common Market, a new nonprofit organization, recently took over managing both Julietta Market and The Market Kitchen from North Limestone Community Development Corporation, an organization who helped secure a substantial amount of foundational grant money for the Market and Kitchen’s initial fit-up. Needham says Northside Common Market will continue to run The Market Kitchen out of Greyline even after Julietta Market departs, but insists that he and Greyline “didn’t see a dime” of the grant funding, which he says was spent at the discretion of Julietta Market.

When I challenge him, pointing out that much of it likely went to paying rent to Greyline Station, he just shrugs. “I don’t know what they spent it on.”

Richard Young, a former North Limestone CDC executive director who wrote the Knight Foundation grant application, did not respond to emailed questions relating to the grant’s stipulations and reporting period prior to publication, with an automated response stating that he was on an ‘extended work break through July 25,’ and would be responding to ‘most non-urgent’ matters after August 7, when his office reopened. On August 2, three days after this article’s July 30 publication, Young emailed to clarify that he had not seen the initial message and therefore could not be reached for comment prior to publication.

Northside Common Market’s “The Market Kitchen” will remain in Greyline Station even after the organization’s Julietta Market departs. (The Lexington Times)

Another controversy resurrected itself from the ashes. One vendor at Julietta Market — a registered sex offender named Jason ‘Dafri’ Thompson — found his past catching up with him. Again. Greyline tenants first discovered Thompson’s status in 2020, when the market opened, and expressed concerns about his presence there to Needham. Despite the concerns, Needham says his hands were tied; Thompson was Julietta’s tenant, not Greyline’s, and he had no control over who they sublet their stalls to.

The discord spiraled further in 2023, fueled by online posts, furtive bathroom flyers, and a sweeping petition demanding Thompson’s removal. Despite this, Julietta Market remained silent. A recent social media comment from a staffer’s personal account hinted at “misinformation” and potential legal consequences if they removed him.

Needham, however, was resolute on Friday — once Julietta departs, he told me, Thompson’s Dafri Studios would not be invited back. He said that the presence of a registered sex offender as a vendor in a family-friendly market, “limits a few other opportunities. It’s important that customers for all businesses don’t feel apprehension to come here. We want to cultivate a comfortable, inclusive environment, and for people to feel comfortable coming here.”

While Julietta Market has not publicly commented on the affair, the following ‘Statement of Compassion & Inclusivity’ on their website offers some insight to their position:

Our doors are open to all, and especially to our neighbors, including all marginalized groups – persons of color, women, disabled persons, previously incarcerated persons, veterans, and low income individuals. We do not pass judgement on any person’s background or past, and we ask that all vendors, participants, and customers do the same.

Excerpt for Julietta Market ‘Statement of Compassion & Inclusivity’
A neglected truck parked out back is the last remaining remnant of the AppHarvest brand at Greyline Station. (The Lexington Times)

Despite the disquiet surrounding these recent controversies, Needham is steadfast in his assertion that they were not the catalyst for Julietta Market’s farewell to Greyline Station. Instead, he hints at a complex interplay of factors simmering beneath the surface long before the current uproar.

“Back in January, we offered them a smaller footprint,” he tells me. Ag-tech startup AppHarvest, a now-former Greyline tenant, was grappling with financial challenges and the undercurrents were there, for anyone who cared to see. Needham’s proactive nature led him to proposal — a reshuffling of the pieces on Greyline’s chessboard.

His plan was simple: move Julietta into the space occupied by AppHarvest. He says the proposal came bundled with advantages — a reduction in rent, better security, and a much-needed air conditioning system.

The absence of the latter was glaringly apparent on the blistering 98-degree July day of my visit to Greyline, a persistent reminder of the stifling heat engulfing the central area of the market. But despite the seemingly benevolent intentions behind the offer, one cannot help but view it through a lens of skepticism.

On the surface, it may have been a lifeline thrown at a floundering tenant, but another interpretation looms in the shadows. Could it have been a calculated play, a subtle gambit to vacate Julietta from its prime central location, paving the way for a fresh, more profitable tenant in their old space?

Julietta did not accept Needham’s proposal, and a bottle shop for the property’s coming distillery is now planned to open in AppHarvest’s previous space.

The cover page of a 2020 North Limestone CDC report shows a photo of the December 2019 Christmas Market in Greyline Station. Greyline owner Chad Needham says the event encompassed his vision for the space well, but NoLi CDC quickly pivoted. (NoLi CDC)

The undercurrent of tension between Needham and Julietta Market’s management was always palpable. Kris Nonn of the North Limestone Community Development Corporation (NoLi CDC) had originally managed the Market upon its grand opening in 2020. Needham had envisioned an environment that would mirror the organization’s immensely popular Night Market – an open-air extravaganza that once brought together hundreds of vendors and thousands of visitors under the summer skies on Bryan Avenue.

Greyline’s inaugural event in December 2019, a Christmas Market co-hosted with NoLi CDC, had embodied Needham’s vision quite perfectly. “Kris and I had a – had a pretty good agreement that this was going to be the Night Market inside. Retail focused,” he confessed during an introductory phone call before our meeting. However, this shared vision began to crumble soon after the ink had dried on the lease.

North Limestone CDC’s Night Market on Bryan Avenue, undated photo. (NoLi CDC)

Their blueprint for Julietta Market soon took a different turn, a change of direction that seemed to rattle Needham. He paints a vivid picture of this departure, “They waited and waited to, to kind of build out. The build out was totally different than what we were told. And then the operation was totally different than what we were told.”

According to Needham, Julietta Market’s time as a tenant was marred by strife from the outset. The retail-focused, customer-friendly marketplace he had initially envisaged was rapidly metamorphosing into an incubator space to foster entrepreneurship. “Well, we had with Julietta a market [intended] to kind of be more retail, a forward focused customer experience, friendly and intent. And then, you know, it really turned into more, you know, it turned into an incubator…” he reflected.

A sign in Julietta Market explains the irregular hours of some stall vendors. (The Lexington Times)

As the divergence widened, communication between the parties seemed to wane. Julietta Market’s management stopped attending Greyline’s monthly tenant meetings, a decision that Needham found profoundly irritating. “They didn’t feel like they were retail,” he told me with incredulity marking his words, “They wanted to do their incubator concept… So it’s been, you know, it’s been a challenging three years…”

Competing visions for Julietta Market

Newspaper clipping from the March 31, 2015 Lexington Herald-Leader.

In 2015, NoLi CDC had secured a $550,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for setting up Julietta Market. With this generous grant came grand promises, but Needham alleges that the organization repeatedly fell short. One notable point of contention was The Market Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen meant for rising culinary stars. However, it wasn’t ready for Greyline’s 2020 opening, and even by 2021, its doors remained closed. This led to the fire marshal shutting down a food stall for cooking hot food without a proper ventilation hood and restricting hot food service at several other stalls. At the time, Needham told the Herald-Leader, “That’s why we leased the NoLi CDC more space to have a shared kitchen with a hood. We’ve been patiently waiting for them to finish that, we want food down there. I’m not sure why NoLi CDC is struggling.”

The delay left a sour taste with at least one of Julietta Market’s tenants, as well. Sabrina Booker, owner of Soul To Go, gave her perspective to the Herald-Leader. “I was just so excited to be a part of the market, then I was open for two days, and they came in and shut me down because of the ventilation. I felt like they should have figured that out before letting me open.” Finally, in 2022, the shared kitchen opened.

Sources familiar with operations at Greyline say vendor turnover at Julietta Market is high. The labyrinth of stalls stood eerily quiet just shy of noon on the Friday I dropped by, a stark contrast to the bustling promise of a lively marketplace. Desolate despite signs indicating an opening hour of 11 am on many stalls, the market was more ghost town than bazaar. However, I did manage to strike up a conversation with one proprietor. The man at Flourish, vendor of CBD health and wellness products, had a simple message for me. After processing my purchase, he leaned in with a comment, “Let Mr. Needham know, we’re not going anywhere.”

Editor’s note: It was later discovered, though not revealed by Needham at the time, that Julietta Market was officially closed on Friday due to the heat and lack of air-conditioning in the space.

Flourish at Julietta Market. (The Lexington TImes)

Adina Tatum, Julietta Market’s fourth and current director, told the Herald-Leader they simply couldn’t afford to stay in the middle space at Greyline any longer. “We’re just in a transitional period. We’ll come back as something more sustainable.” Tatum was not available to be interviewed for this piece, as she was traveling at the time. In a WKYT report published Monday, it is revealed that, “the space brings in $19,500 a month in revenue, but [Tatum] says it costs $35,000 a month at Greyline Station to operate and she claims the insurance is too high.”

Tatum’s interview with WKYT reveals other problems, as well:

We’ve had a lot of issues with people not wanting to come in and shop because of the heat. We’ve had several business owners pass out because of the heat. When I first came in, there were some people who were not even paying rent.

Adina Tatum, Director of Julietta Market to WKYT

On its website, Julietta Market proudly states its mission as enhancing community life and driving equitable development. This innovative platform, “provides the necessary footing for local entrepreneurs to nurture their dreams, encourages community bonding, and makes sure everyone finds a place within the evolving neighborhood landscape,” they write. The Market, they say, aids in the growth of small businesses by offering affordable rents and creating opportunities for progressive expansion, thereby reducing risk.

‘The Steps of Small Business Growth’ from NoLi CDC’s ‘About the Julietta Market‘ page. (NoLi CDC)

In a broader perspective, Julietta Market says it also hopes to serves as a critical catalyst for social change, manifesting itself as a conduit for social entrepreneurship and a change instigator offering capacity-building services. Beyond just a marketplace, it strives to act as a mentor, the website says, providing invaluable programming and access to wider networks. According to the website, “Julietta Market continues to be a vital part of the community dialogue, fostering discussions on how equitable access to opportunities can drive personal prosperity and societal growth.”

A different perspective

Amid the neighborhood’s changing dynamics, one source familiar with both organizations offered a more skeptical take on the situation at Julietta and Greyline at large. This person questioned the underlying narrative, suggesting that these initiatives might be a veneer for gentrification, a method to whitewash the otherwise raw and glaring impacts. According to this source, the public embrace of multiculturalism and inclusion masks the increasingly dire housing predicament within the surrounding community.

The source highlighted a recurring pattern where businesses owned by people of color are uplifted, but in a way that “allows wealthier patrons to consume the diversity that’s simultaneously being scrubbed from the neighborhood.” There’s an alleged cynicism in how the operations at North Limestone CDC (now Northside Common Market) and Greyline Station are carried out.

In Julietta’s case, the source pointed out that after Nonn’s tumultuous time as director, a deliberate move was made to usher in a woman of color to helm the wavering Market. This maneuver, allegedly more a nod to public relations than a substantive shift, left her grappling with the Herculean task of tidying up the turmoil left by the white men who had been at the organization’s helm. Now, as the Market faces an uncertain future, this individual suggests that the blame may unfairly fall on the woman who was assigned an inherently challenging task of cleaning up the mess. This narrative gains weight considering the fleeting tenures of the first two directors who tried to fill Nonn’s shoes, their resignations leaving behind a trail of brief and turbulent leadership.

The middle portion of Julietta Market was still closed off just before noon on Friday. (The Lexington Times)

The source also speculated on Julietta’s next move, questioning if the Market might eventually relocate to a nearby location as a means of rebuking Greyline. However, they indicated that it might be unlikely anyone is that personally vested in taking such a step, underscoring the complex and occasionally contradictory dynamics at play in this evolving saga.

Amid the he-said-she-said of Greyline and Julietta’s various points of turmoil and dispute, a darker undercurrent runs through this source’s narrative. Presenting opportunities for local folks to peddle knick-knacks in a public market, under the pretense of fostering entrepreneurship and community spirit, may actually serve as a disingenuous veneer of penance. While the sights and sounds of a vibrant market can offer an illusion of diversity and inclusivity, the reality on the ground is often starkly different. Gentrification, frequently tagged along with such initiatives, tends to dilute genuine cultural diversity, displacing long-standing residents in favor of more affluent newcomers. Thus, the touted benefits of the market may serve as a bitter consolation for those grappling with the larger socio-economic upheavals playing out behind the scenes. It’s a dynamic that speaks volumes about the uneasy balance between development and preserving the essence of a neighborhood.

‘Artist Housing’ – Gentrification and its Impact on Lexington’s Northside

The landscape of Lexington’s Northside, particularly in the area surrounding Greyline Station, has seen substantial shifts in recent years. This transformation has been characterized by increasing rents and demographic changes, and it has raised questions about the effects of gentrification on the neighborhood.

On average, rents are still rising on the Northside and in Lexington as a whole, but nevertheless other areas have already started to cool off. According to RentHub, rents in the 40507 area code, where Greyline Station is located, have seen an 11% increase from June 2022 to June 2023, with a median rent of $1500. This trend starkly contrasts with the surrounding area codes, where rents have seen a decline over the same time-period. For example, the adjacent 40508 area code has seen a 9.5% decrease, while 40502 has experienced a 15% decrease. As such, Northside appears to be diverging from a wider cooling trend in rental prices downtown.

Lexington-Fayette census tracts 2, 3, 13, and 14 converge at Greyline Station. (US Census Bureau)

Moreover, demographic data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey highlight shifts in the area’s population. The four census tracts that meet at Greyline Station — Lexington-Fayette tracts 2, 3, 13, and 14 — have seen increases in the proportion of white population and a bump in the 25-34 age demographic often referred to as ‘young professionals’ or, more pejoratively, ‘yuppies.’ This suggests an influx of younger, more affluent individuals into the neighborhood.

These changes coincide with and may in part be a result of the activities of organizations such as the NoLi CDC, which originally formed the Julietta Market. NoLi CDC’s inaugural project in the early 2010s was sparked by what Kris Nonn and Richard Young saw as “a need in Lexington for artist housing.” This initiative came as the neighborhood was already undergoing transformation, marked by the rise of trendy establishments like Al’s Bar. While some have viewed this as an innocent drive to foster artistic development, critics interpret it as a stepping stone towards gentrification.

Nonn, Julietta Market’s original manager, final executive director of NoLi CDC, and a prolific writer on the subject, provides an insightful perspective on these changes. In the NoLi CDC blog, he discusses his own role in neighborhood development projects and the potential implications of gentrification. Acknowledging that he fits many definitions of a gentrifier — not being local, college-educated, white, and male — Nonn writes that he seeks to be “part of the solution,” focusing his efforts on improving the neighborhood, its housing, and cultural value through innovative and responsible design.

York Street, undated NoLi CDC photo.

However, the recent trends in rents and demographics suggest that Nonn’s well-intentioned efforts and those of others may be contributing to the gentrification of the area. As more ‘young professionals’ move in and rental prices rise, there is a risk that the Northside’s original inhabitants might be pushed out due to increased living costs, changing the character of the neighborhood significantly.

These changes in the Northside neighborhood have been driven not only by market forces but also through the actions of local civic institutions and individuals such as Kris Nonn and Richard Young. Nonn and Young collaborated on the development of the Julietta Market, a project that garnered a substantial $550,000 grant in 2015 under Young’s leadership.

Their partnership extended to another significant project in the neighborhood — the previously referenced Artist Housing project on York Street. This endeavor was particularly notable due to its partial financial backing from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG). As stated by Nonn, the project received a total of $322,000 in funding, comprised of a $163,000 grant and a $159,000 construction loan.

York Street during the installation of NoLi CDC ‘Artist Housing’ (NoLi CDC photo)

The York Street project came during a period when real estate investors, including Needham, former District 11 council candidate Rock Daniels, Griffin Van Meter, Marty Clifford, and Broken Fork Design, had been purchasing more and more property in the Northside neighborhood, as detailed by advocacy blog Housing LEX at the time. The map below illustrates the state of concentrated property ownership in Northeast Lexington in October 2015.

2015 Map showing concentrated property ownership in Northeast Lexington

In a landscape where investors had already laid claim to substantial Northside property, including several units on York Street bought by Marty Clifford mere months before the Artist Housing project was made public, organizations like NoLi CDC became an inadvertent vanguard for change. These organizations, however well-intentioned, ultimately shaped an environment primed for making these investments lucrative. Despite operating as a nonprofit, underpinned by foundational grants and supplemented with public funds from the city, their objective to revitalize and enhance living conditions in the neighborhood may have had unintended consequences. The long-term impact of these endeavors inadvertently fattened the wallets of private investors while potentially displacing long-term residents, unable to keep up with the financial demands of NoLi CDC’s ‘new-and-improved’ Northside.

After his successful grant writing for Julietta Market and the York Street Artist Housing project, Young left NoLi CDC under circumstances that are not public. He later established the nonprofit organization CivicLex. As an organization focusing on ‘civic education,’ CivicLex often partners with LFUCG for its programming.

The ability of Young to secure substantial public funding for the Julietta Market and Artist Housing project, and his later establishment of CivicLex programming with LFUCG, suggests a successful leveraging of connections within city hall to navigate and influence the civic landscape.

The roles of individuals like Nonn and Young, and institutions such as NoLi CDC in the transformation of Northside Lexington highlight the impact of civic involvement and public-private partnerships in urban development. However, it also underscores the need for careful scrutiny and balanced decision-making to ensure such developments are inclusive and beneficial to all community members. The infusion of public resources into private initiatives, especially in the face of rising rents and demographic changes in the area, raises critical questions about the equitable distribution of these resources.

Chad Needham poses in front of Greyline Station’s streetscape on North Limestone. (The Lexington Times)

As pleasant as our chat has been thus far, I begin pose the thorny question of gentrification to Chad Needham as the late morning sun approaches its noon crest. Unlike Nonn, Needham appears less eager to delve into the complexities of the topic. “I’m not displacing anyone,” he asserts, alluding to his function as a commercial developer.

I begin to challenge him on this, pointing out that the new businesses his projects attract to the area foster an environment that lures in ‘young professionals,’ often accelerating housing demand and inflating rents. This can have the unintended consequence of displacing long-term residents, who are disproportionately people of color. Needham prefers instead to accentuate the positive aspects of his work: the revitalization of dilapidated buildings, “putting them back online,” and “adapting them to be useful again.”

As he speaks, in the distance, an unhoused person shuffles past, a poignant contrast to the energetic vision of development Needham outlines. The disparity serves as a reminder of the delicate balance between urban rejuvenation and the risk of inadvertently amplifying economic and racial disparities.

Needham points out a practical example of his work’s benefit to the neighborhood, referencing a Stormwater Quality Projects Incentive Grant that Greyline received and executed. Before Needham took the reins, the 65,000-square-foot buildings’ drainpipes emptied into the street, triggering flash floods during storms and directing pollutants into local waterways through the storm sewer system. Under his leadership, the drainpipes have been rerouted to a retention basin and tank on the property. Now, only when these massive containers reach capacity does any stormwater overflow into storm sewers during storm events, effectively reducing flash flooding and the release of street pollutants into local waterways.

Greyline Station’s stormwater retention and rainwater harvesting system. (Photo by The Lexington Times)

$5 million, Needham tells me, is what he’s put into Greyline Station, all financed through a local bank (county property records confirm this,) and he used local labor for its renovation. He’d previously told me the site would probably have been used to store RVs for a nearby dealership had he not purchased the building, but now he musingly poses another alternative. What if a national developer had taken up the project and turned it into ‘Northside Fritz Farm’?

“They would’ve spent $40 million to renovate it, and no local business could even afford to be here,” he says, reiterating what he classifies as Greyline’s commitment to supporting local businesses. “You won’t ever see ‘Lululemon’ or ‘The Gap’ here.”

As the conversation draws to a close, the echo of our discussion around gentrification lingers in the air. It’s a debate that will undoubtedly persist as the neighborhood continues to evolve, just like the unhoused person in the distance, a constant reminder of those who may be left in the shadows of progress.

“If that’s gentrification,” Needham tells me, gesturing to the stormwater mitigation work, a note of defiance in his voice, “I think that’s a good thing.”

“Before” photo of North Limestone and West Loudon Avenue. (Google Street View)

Top photo credit: The Lexington Times

This article was updated on August 2, 2023 to add additional information.