Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden (April 2017)
Veterans of the downtown Asheville business scene— Jimi Rentz, Danny McClinton, & Patrick Huss— team up to expand to the northern end of Asheville’s River Arts District, resulting in one of the area’s most unique event venues.
Looks can be deceiving. On the surface, three of the movers and shakers of Asheville’s beer, festival, and music scenes appear laid-back without a care in the world. In reality, they never stop moving, making new plans, or putting new twists on their current activities.
On an impossibly warm day in February, the three sunglasses-clad men—Jimi Rentz, Danny McClinton, Patrick Huss—sit around a picnic table situated beside the French Broad River, on the grounds of bar, restaurant, and music venue Salvage Station, to talk about their businesses.
“We set a toilet this morning,” Jimi says, with a laugh. “The first four hours of my day I was dealing with sewage.”
A testament to the fact that no job is too small or too dirty for the partners to tackle themselves.
You may already recognize Jimi’s name: He’s the longtime owner of Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria on Biltmore Avenue, now in its 23rd year. When he started, there were the three original owners of the bar; Highland Brewing was cranking out craft beer in the basement; and Jimi was running Universal Pizza Company, making wholesale pizzas in the kitchen. “Once they hit the kitchen door, Barley’s owned those pizzas and they paid me for those the next day,” he says.
Jimi became a full partner when a second Barley’s opened in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a decision that resulted in his taking a financial hit in the beginning. “[The owners] wanted to look at my books to see if I’d come in on the same arrangement or come in as a full partner. After one of the partners looked over the numbers, he says, ‘You’ve got to come in as a full partner.’” Jimi adds that he took a significant pay cut by doing that.
Jimi’s original Barley’s partners were bought out over time. Today, Jimi sits across the table from two of his newer partners. Patrick, for his part, started early on with Barley’s as a part-time dishwasher. “I was gifted a partnership with sweat equity,” he deadpans.
Danny, meanwhile, had been in college when Barley’s came on the scene, but ultimately he would buy out one of the original Barley’s partners. “He bugged me forever to get into Barley’s,” jokes Jimi. As it turns out, Danny has the most history in the Asheville area. He arrived in 1977 and grew up in nearby Fairview. Patrick moved to Asheville from Atlanta in 1991, and Jimi says he’s from Albany, gives a dramatic pause, and then adds, “Georgia.” He arrived from Athens in 1993.
In addition to Barley’s, they operate the annual events Brewgrass Festival and Beer City Festival. They opened Salvage Station on Riverside Drive on the northern end of the River Arts District last year, and they also own a small beefalo ranch in Marshall, north of Asheville. “Shane Clark was one of the original bartenders at Barley’s,” says Patrick. “It’s his family’s old property that was a dairy farm. We just converted to the beefalo project.” And yes, Beefalo is on the menu at Barley’s and at the Salvage Station.
A fourth partner—Matt Ragaller—joins them only on the Salvage Station project. He was Danny’s college roommate at Elon College. (Matt was occupied elsewhere on the day of the Capital at Play interview and photos.)
Today, talking about their endeavors, all three men banter back and forth easily and keep each other laughing. Danny and Pat stay seated, but Jimi can’t sit still for long. He gets up periodically and paces a bit—indicative of a man who isn’t used to relaxing too long.
“Danny has the artistic touch. He’s the design person and has very good vision,” said Jimi. “Pat and I try to fulfill his vision and we all work together to do that. Matt is also a visionary; he does most of the booking. He and Danny have had the idea of Salvage Station since college. I have the business sense, but so does Danny and Pat. We all work together. We sit down and talk about it and decide yes, we’ll do that, or no, we won’t do that.”
Creating a Fun Event Space
Danny was the driving force on creating the Salvage Station, and, like its owners, looks can be deceiving. Traveling along Riverside Drive amid a smattering of bland warehouses and nondescript businesses, it’s hard to imagine the magic of the Salvage Station unless one knows to turn in and explore. There are several visually striking buildings—among them, a quonset hut that resembles a giant Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can laying on its side, and a large walk-in freezer painted like an old Peaches Records record album crate (yes, that is indeed an oversized reproduction of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album poking out of one end)—on the site, which features a stage, restaurant, beers on tap, and plenty of outdoor space with a park-like setting right beside the river. They have 10,000-sq.-ft. of riverfront space.
When asked how many buildings are on the property, Danny begins counting them off on his fingers: “1, 2, 3…” He pauses to glance around, then continues counting up to 13 and then stops. “It’s 12. No, it’s 13…14…” Patrick cuts in to say, “Just say over a dozen.”
They’ve been creative, using giant numbers to identify the buildings and add to their eclectic appeal. Picture the type of numerals used to mark a house and then exaggerate that—the numbers used at Salvage Station are funky and, in some cases, gigantic.
As Jimi mentioned, Danny and Matt originally conceived the idea of such an event space in college, but the search for property began in earnest in 2011. That’s when Danny started looking at warehouses on Riverside Drive. “That was even before Bywater opened,” he says, referring to another popular venue, located just a few blocks away and also benefiting from having the French Broad as one of its calling cards. “There was a warehouse beside them where the gymnastics place is now, but it didn’t make sense because of the parking, and what I really envisioned in having a piece of property in Asheville that sort of fits the scene of being an actual park, and being versatile, being able to have outdoor shows.
“I’ve been wanting to do it for many years. It was a salvage yard that belonged to friends of mine. I’d been bugging them. We just came to an agreement. The former owners still own the land, and we’ve leased the land for 20 years. They were ready to exit the business and turn it over to me. I get to treat this like my own little canvas.”
The property, once owned by Jerry Eury, operated as a salvage yard for 30 years. After his kids took over the business, they recycled cars, selling a good portion of the metal to China. Danny says it was important to them to keep the property true to its history and its name.
“All of these buildings were here,” he continues. “We up-fitted them, flood-proofed them, and raised one of them. We’ve tried to be real creative about how we keep the property and how it’s able to be really versatile. We’ve left it open so we can change it up for any event. There are not a lot of permanent fixtures and furniture. We can close down some areas and cater to 2,500 people or 100 people or 15 people. It was all well thought out. The concept has remained the same from the beginning of what we wanted to do. It’s turned into a wonderful place. It’s very kid/family friendly. We don’t allow dogs here; we’re dog-friendly people, but we figure there’s a balance between kids and dogs.” He says there’s no specific reason they opted to disallow dogs, and it was simply decided by a vote of employees: “We have so many kids here, we felt we had to choose one over the other.”
They do make exceptions at times when they host dog-related events. Coming up in September, Salvage Station will be the site of “Dog Day Afternoon hosted by Mix 96.5 in conjunction with the Asheville Humane Society and Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. Adoptable pets will be available along with doggie contests, a wiener dog race, and competition to see who is the fastest dog in Asheville. Plus, there will be beer, live music, and food trucks.
Timing, as they say, is everything, and the trio of owners believe they picked the perfect moment to launch the Salvage Station. According to most observers, the River Arts District (RAD) is set to explode, especially with last year’s opening of the New Belgium brewery; the dwindling supply of available property on Riverside Drive will likely continue to interest investors wanting a piece of the action.
“We timed it perfectly,” says Danny. “We feel like we’re on the front end of this whole area popping. It’s like Barley’s in the early ‘90s.”
He refers to a period in downtown Asheville’s history when it was trying to rebuild after years as a virtual ghost town. The opening of the Asheville Mall in 1973 pulled many of the department stores from downtown, and as a result, smaller stores and shops either followed them or went out of business. The late ‘70s, ‘80s, and even early ‘90s were pretty desolate in downtown, with Asheville only very slowly evolving into the thriving, must-see destination it’s become today and meriting national and even worldwide publicity. Barley’s was on the cutting edge of that growth, coming on the scene well before Biltmore Avenue boasted the Aloft Hotel, Wicked Weed Brewing, and many of the other shops and restaurants.
The RAD, likewise, saw decline from its heyday as an industrial center to abandoned warehouses that artists and craftspeople moved into because the rent was low enough to earn a living. Now that Asheville is popular, some RAD buildings have sold for millions of dollars and others are currently up for grabs. For example, in February of this year the Cotton Mill Studios, at 122 Riverside Drive, went on the market for $2.2 million dollars.
“I think with Salvage Station being on the cusp of the RAD growth, we’re just adding to the area by giving it more business structure down this way,” says Danny. He does express concern, however, about the rising rent prices. “The RAD was built around artists being able to afford the rent. I hope they continue to be able to do that.”
Learning as They Grow
The annual autumn Brewgrass Festival, started by Jimi and one of his earlier partners, has evolved from a small event that didn’t make money in the beginning to a highly coveted happening that draws thousands each year. It’s been all over the downtown map in terms of venue—it’s spent time on the City-County Plaza, Pack Square, McCormick Field, and MLK Park, among others. It’s now firmly planted at Memorial Stadium, located just above McCormick Field.
The first Brewgrass took place in 1996 with a meager 300 in attendance. At that time, Asheville only had two breweries to its name—Highland Brewing and Green Man. Last year, more than 4,000 people showed up at the festival to sample craft beer from a wide variety of producers, eat food (including Barley’s pizza), listen to live music, and hang out with friends. It draws a large percentage of people every year from out-of-state.
“We started Brewgrass to educate people that there was good beer being made here,” says Jimi. “It’s designed as invitational. Not every brewery is invited. We’ve learned to keep it a little selective. The first couple years of Brewgrass were money losers. Actually, the first three to five years were money losers, but we kept going. On the first ones, you have to figure out your budget. You can put estimates in, but you have no idea how it will pan out. We saw the potential and as the years progressed, the loss got less and less. We knew it could be a good thing. We always made our donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters even when we made a loss—it was basically a donation from Barley’s.”
Getting people in the gates quicker at Brewgrass has taken years to evolve, but Jimi feels that’s one area they’ve perfected. “People start lining up at 10:30 in the morning for the gates to open at noon,” says Jimi. “We have scanners at the front gate now. That’s the biggest thing. Also, printing tickets online and having tickets on your phone really helps.”
The Beer City Festival came about when the Asheville Brewers Alliance asked Jimi to put on a springtime event: “We teamed up with them. That was the birth of the Beer City Festival. It coincided with the year Asheville won Beer City U.S.A. [annual national online poll, which ran from 2009 to 2014]. Beer City Festival is a little bit harder because of the space constraints. It’s held on Roger McGuire Green downtown.”
Tickets are capped at 2,200. “That got decided the first year,” says Jimi. “I saw the crowd and said, ‘That’s it! Don’t sell any more tickets.’ Overcrowding does not make for a good event—ever.”
2017 marks the eighth year of the Beer City Festival. It happens May 27. The 21st Annual Brewgrass Festival takes place this year on September 16.
“I feel fortunate to be able to make a little money on what we do,” says Jimi. “Both events raise money for the Asheville Brewers Alliance and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina. I think over the years we’ve donated $175,000 to $200,00 to Big Brothers Big Sisters. The Asheville Brewers Alliance has just come on recently, and so far we’ve given them about $50,000.” (The partners marvel at the fact that the Asheville Brewers Alliance now contains 51 breweries.)
“I credit Jimi with getting into events like Brewgrass and Beer City,” says Danny. “We run tight ships and have found out how to make them successful and make it a good experience.”
They are flexible, compromising, and very observant—vital components to running a festival, which can present interesting challenges depending on the year. Jimi recalls a port-a-john tipping incident one year when a couple of guys were trying to be funny. They’ve learned to never compromise on safety, and they also work to maintain a laid-back vibe at the festivals, paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t. “We observe the crowds and do next events based on what we saw,” says Patrick. “If we notice people standing around longer in one area, the next time we might drop another bar where they were.”
Running the beer festivals definitely helped prepare the three men for the Salvage Station, which Jimi says is like running an everyday Brewgrass. The venue almost has a festival-like quality to it, with a constant slate of live music, special events, weddings, private parties, and fundraisers for nonprofits, and, of course, beer and food.
“One thing we knew from Brewgrass was to have free water,” he adds. “It’s the little things. If people are out, especially when it’s hot, they’ve got to stay hydrated. That goes into the public safety thing. Having control over a crowd is also important and letting them know what the rules are.”
They stress that in addition to safety concerns, a priority at Salvage Station is keeping an open feel. For example, to alleviate congestion in the bar area, it’s as easy as lighting a fire pit. Once it’s lit, people will just naturally start congregating around it. “I can’t stand being cramped,” says Danny. “The beauty of this place is that we set limits [on how many people are allowed in for any given event]. We’re big about giving people space. A lot of bands are picking us now because of the atmosphere and the sound. It’s sort of like being at home in the backyard. They are able to mingle with the audience. We basically have the capacity to have four different stages throughout the property, but we will never run them simultaneously. We don’t want sound fighting each other.”
And it’s not just the adults who love to hang out at Salvage Station. “There are children in this town who ask friends to meet them here after school,” says Patrick. “After 4PM on a pretty day, boom, there will be many here.”
“We also allow tubers to come,” says Danny. “We will let people unload here and park here in the summer for a small fee.” He notes that the midtown Asheville location of Zen Tubing is just a short drive away on Riverside Drive.
Weddings are another big draw, as well as private parties. A number of area schools hold their recitals at Salvage Station, benefiting from the professional stage and sound systems. The venue also boasts 400 parking spaces, and they’ve acquired some overflow parking availability at nearby locations on Riverside Drive—among them, Shady Grove Landscaping, which sub-leases property from the Salvage Station owners, while several others (that Danny didn’t want to disclose) allow some after-hours parking when the venue needs it.
Making It All Come Together
The trio admits they are in a unique position to help others host their own successful festivals. They provide the space at the Salvage Station for events, and they also offer expertise and advice on how to do it right. They know the best configurations for different types of gatherings, and can advise the best placement for tables, booths, bars, etc. “We’ll step in and help people and guide them in the right direction. We’ll help look at the numbers, ask the questions, and come up with solutions,” says Danny.
The building that hosts the stage opens up completely. In winter, they have heat. In summer, they can open it. “It’s like hanging out in a really nice garage,” says Danny, who notes they already have plenty of ticketed music shows, but that outdoor ticketed music shows “are where we see ourselves in the future. In summer, we’re trying to push shows to later (10PM) so families can be here until dark.”
For those outdoor concerts, they will open up the space to more than 2,500 people, and they acknowledge this will automatically make parking the biggest challenge. Danny says they will work closely with the city and with Jon Spillman, who has done a lot of events for downtown Asheville, to come up with a safe, satisfactory plan. (Danny: “[Jon has] been a good resource for many, many years.”)
Some of the events that have already taken place at the Salvage Station include the CiderFest NC, WNC Battle of the Burger, River Valley Blues Fest, the Beer City opener, and the Brewgrass opening dinner. Just recently, in mid-March, the Outdoor Gear Builders association put on their 3rd Annual Get In Gear Fest, a family-friendly event featuring equipment demonstrations and entertainment. The partners are also taking over the monthly RiverLink RiverMusic series, which happens each year starting in May and wrapping in October.
While the trio is extremely hands-on and involved, they also credit their staff for moving their endeavors forward. They have up to 40 employees in the summer at Salvage Station and 45 to 50 at Barley’s.
“Most of our staff has been with us five, ten, fifteen years,” notes Patrick. “They are a lot like family. We look for [their] ideas and inspiration for upcoming events and enjoy finding their talents. One of our bartenders—Lauren Kazmarek—she’s organizing a spring arts festival right now. She does bicycle seat art and includes the handlebars; she makes faux taxidermy animal heads from these bike parts. She started putting it up as decoration in the bar and immediately started selling them. It’s inspired her to get in touch with other artists to put together an art festival.
“Same with musicians. We have three on staff who are running a very non-traditional open mic on Sundays. It’s not what you would expect of having to sit and endure someone’s cover of Billy Joel. They’ve opened up to all types of performances—slam poetry, dance, etc. It’s a unique stage opportunity. They are a month and a half into that, and we’ve watched the three of them grow as to how comfortable they are on stage.”
Regarding what’s next for the men, there are always new ideas spinning in their heads. “I have my eyes on a couple of things,” says Danny. He won’t reveal the plans just yet, but he will say that his heart is in the local area and that’s where he’s focusing his ideas.
“Well…” Jimi pauses for emphasis. “Let’s get this finished first.”
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