by Julian Rankin
Every good southern place has its landmarks. It’s how locals and visitors alike orient themselves and get to where they’re going. In the rural outskirts of a town, the landmark could be the old live oak split down the middle from the thunder storm back in ’92 (go right past that and we’re the next house on the right, someone might tell you). If you’re going to Fondren, there’s one unmistakable North Star:
“I hear people telling folks all the time,” says Mike Peters, the real estate developer who manages many of Fondren’s iconic structures. “You, know, the big blue building on the corner.”
In the early 2000s, Peters, along with friend and business partner Andrew Mattiace, purchased and renovated what would become Fondren Corner. Ten years later, that project has helped spawn much of the continued development of the neighborhood, including the Duling School retail spaces; Fondren Place, the building home to tenants like the Ramey Agency; and Sneaky Beans, the coffee shop/gallery/music venue run by Byron Knight, who grew up with Peters’ sons. Fondren Corner, along with being a diverse retail and business space, is the compass rose for the area and the anchor that has allowed so many other entrepreneurs to make their marks and find their own paths.
These Fondren spaces have brought a diverse, sometimes unexpected combination of people together. Peters first met Josh Hailey, for example, at a rooftop Halloween party when Hailey was dressed in little more than a diaper and a flashlight. “Where else would a middle aged, white, conservative guy be hanging out with all these people?” Peters asks rhetorically. “My friends don’t really understand all this. But it’s what makes Fondren work.”
The list of people who rent and use space managed and developed by Peters and his business partners is too long to cover in its entirety. But, it includes Arden Barnett, local music mogul and promotional machine behind Ardenland; the massively successful Babalu Tacos & Tapas; countless artists who create, show, and sell artwork in many of those spaces; Ron Chane, prodigious screen printer and owner of Swell-O-Phonic; and the Glenn family’s Rooster’s and Basil’s, a burger and sandwich shop, respectively, that have been in the building since day one, nearly ten years now. A new addition is Electric Dagger, a studio run by tattoo artist Jason Thomas, that has recently taken up residence on the ground level of Fondren Corner.
I ask Peters if having all of these energetic tenants keeps him young. “Sometimes,” he laughs. “Sometimes they wear me out.” He adds that he has developed trust and an open mind when being approached by young entrepreneurs.Â “They don’t all make it,” he says. “But guess what, all the old established guys, their plans don’t all come through either. All of mine don’t always come through.”
When he talks about his new tattooed tenants, he calls them a perfect fit. “They’re just another one of the creative community and I think they love it down there. You need to go and see how cool they’ve made their place,” he adds. “It’s fabulous.”
The properties managed by Peters are more than static, lifeless structures. The architecture of a community needs brick and mortar, but it also relies on relationships. In Fondren, a balance has been struck between the real world realities of good business and a cohesiveness that has allowed creative and motivated people of all types to stake their claim. And Fondren has changed Peters, too, making him more perceptive and open-minded to opportunities for collaboration. It’s why his office is still located in that big blue building on the corner.
“Things are different these days,” Peters tells me. “The way people act and make a living, it’s just different. But it’s good. And this neighborhood – I really consider it the best example of how the real economy, the new economy, can work – with young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight. It all comes together here and just works.”