This piece was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
Entrepreneurs are sometimes the kind of people who come up with an idea and ruthlessly execute it. Others stumble into businesses ownership when their hobbies or passions lead them down a winding path of challenges and unexpected joys. Walt and Michelle James, the new owners of the Downtown Tavern, fall into the latter category. They are a pair of charitable entrepreneurs who were flung into the revitalization of downtown Jackson.
The Jackson natives have lived on a farm for twenty years, where inevitably stray animals began to show up on their land. They never saw it as an inconvenience, welcoming a new animal member into their family each time. Ten years ago when a dog had puppies under an abandoned home, they took them under their care. In the process, Michelle met a friend who was involved in animal rescue. She started volunteering with the dog rescue and learning more about it.
Three years later, in 2007, Michelle came together with a group of friends to do a fundraiser for special needs dogs, and Downtown Dogs Group was formed. The group continues with leadership from Michelle along with Cara Stegall and Emily Strope. The name comes from a time when a dog was roaming the streets downtown that no one could catch and animal control didn’t have responsibility for. He was referred to as just another “downtown dog” that couldn’t be dealt with. Determined to help the situation, they caught the dog, got him to the vet, and found a family to adopt him.
Since then, they have placed at least 100 dogs in families, and Downtown Dogs has grown, hosting popular fundraising events like the annual Bone Appétit dinner, which is held under the farmers’ market shed and features food from local chefs. They rescue and place dogs from all over Jackson in families and depend on a steady stream of volunteers to keep their efforts sustained.
Just as their efforts in dog rescue were developing, Walt started learning to cook barbecue with a friend and host fundraisers for various events. He started cooking meat to raise funds for charities and barbecue for Downtown Dogs fundraisers. They custom built a massive smoker and have shared it with people who want to cook for their own fundraisers, too. They have built generosity into the fabric of their life; their resources are naturally shared with others as they live and work.
Walt and Michelle had a dream of opening a barbecue place downtown, but when another one opened, they put that dream on hold. The dream took a twist as a friend informed them that they should buy the Tavern last fall. Molly Parker, the previous owner, approached them about buying it, but they rejected the proposal.
Owning a bar seemed like a daunting task they knew nothing about. They had a change of heart over a couple of months. After talking with Matt Altobell of Jackson Downtown Development Corporation and other downtown business owners, they decided it would be something that would be enjoyable, allow them to be a part of supporting downtown growth, and provide a unique way to tie in their charitable endeavors. “Rescue found us, and this bar found us. We weren’t looking for either one,” Michelle said of their unexpected entrepreneurial ventures.
Michelle and Walt resisted the tempation a new business owner might have to step in and make changes. Michelle said the Tavern has a history and a special formula that makes it work, and filling in the shoes of the previous owner, Molly, felt like a daunting task. They wanted to come in and be a part of what was already going on, keeping it authentic to its history and reputation. The Tavern has been a downtown staple since its opening in 2004; the original brick and ceilings from the building constructed in the late 1800s give the room a timeless feel. For many regulars, it is a place that feels like home.
“Everybody can feel comfortable here, people in their early twenties and people in their early sixties. There are so many demographics and people enjoying it,” Michelle said of the atmosphere.
They are hoping to carry the precedent the Tavern has set for providing a welcoming place for live music, whether it be Tuesday night open mic or Wednesday night original music, bringing in talented local and regional musicians for concerts, in addition to live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Walking into the establishment, past the stage and the bar, a wall lined with iconic show posters makes it clear that this place has built a reputation for investing in Jackson’s culture.
However, Walt and Michelle did want to expand on the business by incorporating their charitable endeavors such as the Downtown Dogs Group and have already begun to implement some of their passions. They hope to expand food offerings one event at a time, opening one or two days for lunch or brunch. Their house wines are One Hope Wines, which donate a portion of their proceeds to various charitable organizations including dog rescue, breast cancer awareness, and veterans organizations. Downtown Dogs planned a pub crawl where businesses were dog-friendly for a set evening.
“It’s exciting to be downtown, and with The LIFT [Wellness Center] and Jackson Walk taking off, we know that Jackson is on the verge of being something totally different and being something vibrant and thriving like in the 40s and 50s,” Michelle said. She believes it will become an entertainment destination as more and more people come downtown and stay for shopping, food, and entertainment.
Walt and Michelle agree that being business owners and running a non-profit has been one of the most difficult tasks, but it is clear that their love for people is what has kept them going forward.
“Business is just people. Making commitments, doing the best you can, working with people to help them and make experiences special for them and make the community better,” Michelle said.
Their charitableness and willingness to follow unexpected paths will inevitably better the downtown community, from keeping abandoned animals off the streets and placing them in families to providing a place for people to relax and enjoy all that the city has to offer.
The Downtown Tavern is located at 208 North Liberty Street in downtown Jackson. To learn more about the Tavern, visit their website, and make sure to follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Keep up with the Downtown Dogs Group via their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Call 731.424.1995 for more information.
Courtney Searcy likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. She currently works as a graphic design specialist at Union while continuing to make paper goods on the side via her business Fine Company. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.