The mogul and the maverick: Ryan Saunders joins Kotis team


Normally it wouldn’t be newsworthy that a big-time commercial developer hired a new realtor to join his team. But the budding relationship between Marty Kotis and social entrepreneur Ryan Saunders is anything but typical, and signals a shift in the dynamics of the Gate City.

The 28-year-old Ryan Saunders wore a stern look as he glanced down from the Eugene Street overpass onto a large barren lot, decorated with an old passenger bus and crumbling brick structures along the edges. A building with a series of entrances — most of them garage doors — lines the south side of the property and, not too far behind it, the soon-to-be-former Brooks Lumber complex along Gate City Boulevard.

In a matter of days, Saunders would be expected to recruit tenants and oversee some of the creative vision for these multi-acre projects, among others. His new boss, standing besides him in a full suit and a loosened tie, planned to inject millions into the sites, and Saunders — in his first real at-bat — wants to knock one out of the park.

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On Monday, developer Marty Kotis closed on the Brooks Lumber property near the southwest corner of downtown Greensboro, a sprawling three-acre site just a short walk from the building and lot he plans to convert to a beer garden. Kotis hired Saunders to start the same day.

Saunders is new to commercial real estate; he obtained his license just this February, and he’s been looking for serious work for a while. But while the High Point native might be a novice in this specific arena, Kotis is counting on him to pump fresh blood into several of his grittier, hipper projects.

And despite his inexperience in real estate, Saunders is a known entity with a considerable track record who’s launched or enabled a legion of creative projects.

To list them all would be tiresome. But in short, Saunders cut his teeth as an urbanist in High Point, fighting to bring culture into the Third City by creating Hopfest beer festival, recruiting muralists for public art projects and myriad other guerrilla-style interventions to make life more interesting and colorful. But after failed efforts to revitalize the Pit, a brutish-looking parking area, and a few other disappointments with the city’s leadership, Saunders shifted his efforts Greensboro. He would go on to co-lead No Blank Walls, a mural project, host a podcast, curate a newsletter and reconstitute Hopfest in the Boro, among other ventures.

Kotis is hoping that’s just the sort of self-starting energy and vision that will catalyze these two downtown projects and others. In part, his team needs more help anyway as the list of his company’s Greensboro investments blooms. But Kotis also knows that his personal drive for perfection can lead to projects with a more corporate feel, and that’s not what he wants from the Brooks Lumber or beer garden properties.

The beer garden property
The beer garden property

Just take a look at Pig Pounder, Kotis’ brewery in the heart of the Midtown neighborhood along Battleground Avenue that he named, or his restaurant concepts Burger Warfare and Marshall Free House across the street. Pig Pounder may be making good beer — the Boar Brown just won gold at the 2016 World Beer Cup — but some say it feels overly sanitized. Kotis recruited star bartender Mark Weddle and popular chef Jay Pierce to the Free House, and Burger Warfare seems to always be busy, but it’s hard to shake the observation that everything is decked to the nines.

You could argue that each evokes the feeling of a chain without actually being one.

That’s where Saunders comes in.

Saunders is nothing if not genuine, plucked from the grassroots-level push for urbanist causes like public transit and walkability but also for artistic expression. He’s spent the last few years as one of the few people fighting to create the sort of things that twentysomethings like him want from a city. And this is his big shot.

Kotis’ purchase of the Dorothy Bardolph building across from the depot downtown earlier this year stirred some dissent, as some residents worried about the displacement of a methadone clinic and other social services in the building. Saunders will help reconceptualize that property, too, and later recruit tenants. His first idea for the space: something that appeals to the needs of people arriving in the city off a train or bus at the depot, primarily a hostel. Kotis immediately latched onto the notion.

It’s not that Kotis doesn’t possess vision of his own; the beer garden idea is his, put into motion a year ago, and he easily rattles off a list of uses for the Brooks Lumber property including an outdoor music pavilion, a shaded farmers’ market and indoor businesses such as a bakery, chocolatier or distillery. Think West End Mill Works in Winston-Salem — home to Hoots brewery, the Porch Kitchen & Cantina and a glassblowing studio among other businesses — or a similar redeveloped complex in Saxapahaw, Kotis said.

Kotis didn’t invent these ideas or other hip ones he’s kicked around, such as a speakeasy with a secret entrance. And neither, exactly, has Saunders. Instead, both want to borrow the coolest ideas they’ve seen elsewhere, altering them to fit in Greensboro, and execute. And that’s where this unlikely partnership makes the most sense.

As Kotis walked around the still-active Brooks Lumber property with Saunders a few days ago, he said they’ll be looking for “funky” tenants who are part of “the creative class.” People like Saunders.

“He gets to go after all the fun tenants,” Kotis said.

Kotis adding that while he might incorporate a few businesses of his own into the expansive property, he knows he needs to “dial back” the “slick retail look” he’s pursued in Midtown.

There are still businesses operating on the lumberyard, and Kotis acknowledged that they aren’t happy with his purchase or plans. But this area is changing, including considerable investment from downtown developer Andy Zimmerman across Eugene Street. There, Zimmerman has talked about a Saxapahaw-style format at the former Lotus Lounge, and he purchased and redeveloped the former Flying Anvil building, which just reopened as the Forge makerspace within sight of Brooks Lumber. Given that, the Union Square campus at South Elm Street and Gate City Boulevard and UNCG’s expansion along the boulevard, Kotis said his newly acquired corner should be rebooted as something new.

“I know there are businesses here, but this is not the best use of the space for a gateway to Greensboro,” he said.

Kotis bought the site for around $1.1 million, he said, and plans to tear down some of the smaller structures on the property while maintaining and refurbishing most, especially a towering silo that adds to the area’s industrial feel. He’ll keep the gravel, saying it fits with the character and aesthetic, and expects to sink several million into upfitting the property. The nearby beer garden will likely take $2.5 million, he said, but rent down here will be cheaper for tenants than over in Midtown.

Looking onto the Brooks Lumber property
Looking onto the Brooks Lumber property

Standing at the back corner of the property, a few feet from a large, murky puddle and a deteriorating abandoned mattress, Kotis rattled off more ideas for an abandoned train track and an adjoining property that he said is owned by the state. Saunders, a few days shy of his official start date, remained quiet for the most part, taking it all in and walking a couple steps behind his new boss as they peered through the chain-link fence around Kotis’ new investment.

The beer garden, lumberyard and Bardolph buildings downtown won’t be the only things on Saunders’ plate. He’ll be expected to help with plans for a spur of greenway running behind his boss’ Midtown properties as well as some mixed-use, multi-family projects. Saunders will research, recruit and likely be asked to take on a host of other related responsibilities as part of the Kotis team.

Kotis is bullish on Saunders, saying he’ll help attract other local, young, independent and creative people just like him. And while Saunders is eager and excited to set to work, already proposing ideal tenants including a cheesemonger and a champagne bar, his facial expression on the overpass suggested that he grasps the enormity of the task at hand.

  • Al McMullin Walle

    Guess who’s getting railroaded?