One day in the spring of 1910, a man took to the Montgomery skies for the first time in an engine powered biplane. Later, the Montgomery Advertiser would report that “a strange new bird soared over the cotton fields.” Flying what I imagine was a shaky ride a mere 50 feet over the ground, Orville Wright established the first civilian flight school where Maxwell Air Force base now stands.
On a clear-skied evening in Montgomery, I knock on the front door of the looming, gorgeous Goat Haus Biergarten in the Cottage Hill neighborhood. James Weddle and a friendly dog named Parker invite me into the building, a historic home that has been renovated and converted into lofts and a biergarten that serves craft beer and wine to the public. The space that houses the Goat Haus Biergarten is one of three adjacent lots that James owns, each one serving the community in a unique way. The second building is an interactive art gallery featuring work from various makers in the community, and the third building is a space for co-working and other offices. Collectively, these properties are called Airr at Cottage Hill and James Weddle is opening the doors to help others take flight.
Originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, James found his way to Montgomery two and half years ago after 15 years in Austin, TX. Before I can even ask, he pulls the words right from me and says, “So why Montgomery, right?” Right. Why here? “It’s kind of a finish up to my career. I’ve been doing start-ups since ’92. I’ve seen some of the things I’ve done come to fruition as an entrepreneur, and now I’m wondering ‘How can entrepreneurs impact communities?’”
To challenge the status quo of Montgomery life, you must view the bureaucracy of city life through the eyes of an entrepreneur; you must be willing to abandon the comfort of predictability and routine.You have no choice but to be a self-starter, to value your vulnerability enough to take risks. What James communicates to me about the city I live in makes me certain that Montgomery is fertile ground for social entrepreneurship.
James wants to be a part of making the pool of talent and opportunity in the city more accessible to people who have ideas. I ask him to tell me more about the concept of Airr. “At the core, what it’s designed to do is help people launch, to take flight. How can we, in 90 days, design, build, and launch something? Airr is built as a way not only to provide that process, but also provide resources. We’re collecting resources by trying to bring together like minded folks who not only need resources, but can be resources to each other.”
In this way, Airr seeks to be an incubator for business ideas at any stage of development; James wants to be able to take a concept to a detailed plan; a detailed plan to a prototype; and a prototype to a marketable item or service, all in the span of 90 days.
"Airr is built as a way not only to provide that process, but also provide resources. We’re collecting resources by trying to bring together like minded folks who not only need resources, but can be resources to each other.”
James tells me his method with the eager presentation of someone who has been waiting to unveil their plans for a long while. This is because the Airr development I am sitting in now has been a labor of time, love, and endless yards of carpeting ripped from the floorboards. The space is palpably warm – each fixture and furniture piece has been selected with care and placed intentionally in each room. Although a lot of work has gone into making old things new, the work done still honors the original design of the building. Renovating the historic property has taken two years, and now Airr is poised to wholly focus on helping people in the community see their brainchildren to fruition. As with any project, there will be setbacks. For James, the time spent on property development was more than worthwhile. This is distinct in every aspect of the Airr building I visited. “A lot of people draw affinity to creative places. We’re trying to create that here, the vibe and belief that this is the place where you can launch stuff, where you can meet people that can help you, have conversation and collaboration. We want this place to be open and accessible.” So open, in fact, that James invites Megan and I up on top of the roof to see the view.
Up on the roof, I feel the chill of the clear sky. The same chill Wright must have felt as he readied himself for take-off. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Montgomery skyline. (I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know we had one.) Montgomery is altogether starkly beautiful and intimidating from this high up.
When I see the city like this, I almost feel guilty for wanting to ask “Why Montgomery?” earlier in our conversation. In Montgomery, residents are so proximate to all of the decisions being made in the city, from government to the public sector, which James believes gives them a real opportunity to be part of the successes and to be instrumental in reversing the losses. “There’s talent here. There’s opportunity here. It’s just how big of a net you have to cast to find that.”
“Somebody at 6 years old should not have to pay their life waiting for somebody to get their act together on education. We need to say this is not acceptable. That’s why I’m passionate about this.”
Many of the people we talk to are natives to the South. James has spent time in cities all over, so I was curious to know how his perspective as someone from the midwest has changed his perception of Alabama and what our community needs to thrive. “People can say we need more education, more hotspots, more places to have a good time, things like that. Ultimately, I think we absolutely need a culture change. It’s a travesty that 50% of the population in the city isn’t involved like they should be.”
Travesty is the right word. Many Montgomery residents stand on a precipice with little to cushion them if they fall. In fact, 24.1% of Montgomery residents currently live in poverty. Montgomery’s black community make up 74% of the share of those in poverty. The outlook for economic development is slow-moving, as a quarter of the population is underemployed, meaning that they are having to settle for positions that underutilize their skills and qualifications. Education is another concern. In 2016, the list of failing schools in Montgomery increased from 12 to 23.
“Somebody at 6 years old should not have to pay their life waiting for somebody to get their act together on education. We need to say this is not acceptable. That’s why I’m passionate about this. I didn’t know I was an entrepreneur until I was in my 30s. There’s no reason we can’t pull some of those kids out of the situations they’re in. We want to hear what people are launching and tell that story. We want to hear about people taking risks.”
In the future, James hopes that neighborhoods like Cottage Hill can serve as beacons in the city. “[In 10 years,] I think there will be micro-places that have thrived. I hope we will have solved the educational problem. I see neighborhoods like Cottage Hill being shining examples of what’s possible. People care about their neighborhoods. Start there. I can’t worry about the rest of the city, but I can take care of this place.”
I see neighborhoods like Cottage Hill being shining examples of what’s possible. People care about their neighborhoods. Start there. I can’t worry about the rest of the city, but I can take care of this place.”
With the combined Airr Lofts, Goat Haus Biergarten, Airr Offices, and other exciting, yet to be released projects, James hopes to have an integral hand in making that future a reality for Cottage Hill. With the readiness and zeal of the biergarten’s goat mascot, James and his team have launched the Airr brand to success. Now, he hopes to do the same for entrepreneurs all over Montgomery, even the ones who don’t know they are entrepreneurs yet. But before that, James has responsibilities like anyone else. Responsibilities that remind me that the change agents in communities are regular people like me and you.
“First, I have to change the bedsheets.”
To find out more about Goat Haus Biergarten and the work being done at the Airr buildings, check out their Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/goathausbeer/