Maker of Places

The tracks of developer Cathy Sloss Jones run straight to the heart of downtown Birmingham and a long line of places rediscovered.

Cathy Sloss Jones // Photos by Art Meripol

Like so many children, Cathy Sloss Jones grew up listening to tales of adventurers and their grand accomplishments. But instead of stories about King Arthur or Paul Bunyan, young Cathy was treated to the exploits of Emil Hess with Parisian department store and with grocery chain developer Joseph Bruno.

These were the exemplars in the Sloss household, as Cathy’s grandfather and father often regaled the family with anecdotes about business leaders and their achievements. “They said these were the types of people and companies I needed to watch. That they were the ones taking on new frontiers,” Jones recalls.

It’s a message Jones has long embraced, from her childhood in Birmingham (where the historic Sloss Furnaces iron production facility was founded by her great-great-grandfather, James Withers Sloss) to her current role as president and chief executive officer of Sloss Real Estate, which was formed nearly a century ago, in 1920, by her grandfather, Arthur Page Sloss. In order to stay ahead you need to keep moving forward, sometimes by embarking on a path others are avoiding.

Arthur Page Sloss demonstrated that concept with Sloss Real Estate. Along with business partner Everett Shepherd Sr., Sloss was one of the first commercial developers in Birmingham to venture outside of downtown, creating the 24-acre Five Points West shopping center in 1940. In 1948, Sloss convinced a downtown butcher to move his operation to Five Points West, the initial step in what became the Western Supermarket chain.

“My grandfather was really a forward-thinker,” Jones says. “He was the idea guy, the visionary, and Everett Shepherd was the builder, the balance point. So they worked well together for a long time.”

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Arthur Page “Pete” Sloss Jr. joined his father at Sloss Real Estate in the 1950s, and Jones did the same shortly after graduating from Converse College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1975. By then, Sloss Real Estate had truly become a family business.

“It’s impossible to be in this family and not have the company be a part of you,” says Jones’ sister, Leigh Sloss-Corra, who is executive director of the Market at Pepper Place. “That’s what we talk about. It’s the passion of our family.

Shopping at the Pepper Place market, Jones joins Pardis Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt’s other Birmingham restaurants.

“Nearly every morning when I was growing up, my grandfather, my dad and Cathy would have a business debrief over coffee. What can we do with this building? How can we make this neighborhood more vibrant? It was problem-solving and dreaming time.”

For Jones, the dream in the 1980s once again involved taking a road less traveled. But this time it was in the opposite direction, back toward downtown Birmingham. She had watched in despair as suburban sprawl had eaten away at the surrounding countryside, while the heart of her hometown slowly deteriorated.

“My interest was to stop all this sprawl and start rebuilding the urban core,” Jones says. “I’ve always loved being in the wilderness. Our family would take canoe trips and ride horses and camp out. I saw that the woods and the farms were being cut down and built over.

“We have this gorgeous infrastructure right in front of us downtown. So why don’t we refocus on that? I became determined to try to shift the company focus and mission, and my dad said OK. That’s when we really started looking at how to convince people to come back downtown.”

Jones turned to the model designed by Main Street America for the revitalization of smaller cities — with an emphasis on historic preservation and community-based initiatives — and began using it as a guide for urban planning in Birmingham. She focused on the Lakeview District just southeast of the city center, near Sloss Furnaces, creating a new home base for such non-profits as the Cahaba River Society, the Alabama Environmental Council and Southern Danceworks.

“That area was pretty blighted,” Jones says. “We bought all these empty buildings and could provide inexpensive rent. So we moved our office over there and created a little community around non-profits. Then we started thinking about design and construction as our economic hook for revitalizing Lakeview.”

The first big step took place in 1988, when Sloss Real Estate purchased the old Dr. Pepper plant and the Martin Biscuit Building. Some of the buildings had been empty for nearly 20 years, and the entire two-block complex had been closed since 1982. Yet during a time when most developers were focused on the suburbs, Jones saw the potential to create more than 350,000 square feet of retail and office space — dubbed Pepper Place — in downtown.

“We started building a community in that building,” Jones says. “We were beating the drum for downtown, trying to convince people to come back. It felt a little lonely for a while.”

The second major step occurred in 2000, when Jones teamed up with local chefs Frank Stitt and Franklin Biggs to help start a weekly Saturday farmers market on the Pepper Place grounds. There were only seven vendors at the inaugural market (there are now more than 100), but an important seed had been planted. Slowly but steadily, people began coming downtown on the weekend for the market, and along the way rediscovered some of the joys of city life.

“People came to the market and went, ‘Wow, this is awesome. What else can we check out around here?’” Sloss-Corra says. “That’s the heart and spirit that Cathy brought to the market. She wanted it to be more than just a shopping place.”

Jones visits with Leonard Crocker, of Crocker Farms in Bryant.

Indeed, Jones often makes business projects sound more like community projects, which helps Sloss Real Estate attract national assistance for some of its developments. For example, urban design director Steven Lewis, from the Los Angeles offices of architecture firm ZGF, is working with Jones on a master plan for the proposed Sloss Industrial Arts District.

“It’s obvious how committed Cathy is to Birmingham,” Lewis says. “She’s interested in mixed-use, vibrant neighborhoods with diverse people from both ethnicity and income. Pepper Place fits into her bigger plan of connectivity for the city. She’s been putting these pieces together through her company’s holdings, as well as collaborations with other landowners. She’s been a champion of making a ‘there’ there.”

Tom Walker has come to a similar conclusion after just two years as Sloss Real Estate COO. “Cathy was way ahead of the crowd as far as the revitalization of Birmingham’s urban core,” says Walker, who joined Sloss from Bayer Properties in 2017. “I enjoy being around her because she is so passionate about this city. She has a strong desire in her heart for what she’s doing.”

That will continue in the coming years with a series of projects Sloss Real Estate plans to establish along the railroad tracks that run east-west through the heart of Birmingham. This includes the current renovation of the 120,000-square-foot Sloss Docks warehouses, which already is anchored by the second location of Gadsden-based Back Forty Beer Co.

“We don’t have a river in Birmingham, but we have a river of steel with the rail line. So let’s build along that,” Jones says. “We’ve worked very hard for a long time to try to convince people to come back, and now we’re seeing this resurgence. It feels wonderful to see all this positive momentum.”

In fact, it’s the type of thing people might tell stories about one day.

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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