Auburn is one of the fastest-growing cities in Alabama, but if you look not much further down the road, you’ll see another city that has rapidly changed over the last few decades into a community of it’s own.
Over the past three decades, Opelika has grown from a community where the coffee shop clientele are nothing but “a bunch of old ladies” to a thriving arts and small business community.
In this week’s episode of Suite 1111, Collins Keith spoke with Richard Patton and David Bizilia about Opelika’s journey from “the dark side of the tracks” to the community it is today.
CK: Hey, this is Collins Keith, podcast host for The Auburn Plainsman, and welcome back to Suite 1111. We’ve got a super interesting episode to kick us off for this semester. Auburn is one of the fastest growing cities in Alabama, attracting new residents with its high-quality school system, growing manufacturing sector and retirement culture, to name a few. But there’s another city just a short drive away that’s growing and attracting businesses and residents on its own merits. For this week’s episode, we’ll be taking a dive into the recent history of Opelika, looking to understand the steps that the city as a whole has taken, and how the atmosphere and environment of Opelika has changed in the past 30 years. Opelika’s story will be broken up into two parts; first, we’ll hear from Richard Patton, a city leader and a pioneer for re-imagining Opelika these past 30 years, and second, we’ll hear from David Bizilia, owner and creator of Side Track coffee, who opened his doors to the public in 2016. Stay with us.
CK: Opelika hasn’t always been the city that it is today. For many past graduates of Auburn, Opelika was considered the “dark side of the tracks,” but looking at it today, that description could not be farther from the truth. How did the city take such great strides to reshaping its identity in a comparatively short amount of time? It started small, and it comes in waves, according to Richard.
RP: There’s an ebb and flow to any kind of town, and I don’t want to take the credit from what I did, I had my small little part, but there were people — Opelika has kind of a deep history of wild and rough and tumble. So, it’s kind of ebb and flowed in and out of this cool place. So there have been people who’ve done stuff way before me and people doing stuff now, but that’s just what I was doing at the time.
CK: Richard, originally from Mobile, moved to Opelika with his family when he was 6 years old. After finishing college, he went to work in Birmingham in corporate health insurance. While he made great money, he was miserable, and moved back to Opelika in the late ‘90s to restore an old house in town, now called the Heritage House. It was one of the first buildings of its kind in town, he said, and may have even been a little pre-emptive.
RP: I came back and restored that house and opened a bed and breakfast. It’s the first thing I did when I came back. That’s what got me back to town. I was kind of too soon with a lot of the things I did. I opened the first coffee shop in Opelika in the back of the Heritage House, but that was before the culture was here, so my clientele was a bunch of old ladies. It was a flop. It was just too soon, but that was why I came back. I ran the hotel for about nine years. And during that time, my intent when I came back was I didn’t know if I was gonna be here for a long period of time. But when I got here, I started going, remembering some of the great things why Opelika is such a great little town and it does help that you’re next door to a university.
CK: While his initial idea may not have been as successful as he’d hoped, his time spent in Opelika working on this project helped Richard realize that Opelika was where he wanted to stay and commit his time to. He started a neighborhood social club soon after in ‘98, where he and 15 other guys from around town would host parties and enter into business ventures together, like restoring local buildings. It was a good thing at the time, but 15 guys owning property together was not a good idea, Richard said. At the time, there was nothing for any adult to do that was out of college or older, so one of the next things Richard did was buy out a building right across from the railroad tracks and start a bar called 8th and Rail, which is still there today.
RP: It’s a lot different than when I had it but I opened 8th and Rail and started bringing in national acts. There’s nothing else out there. We’d have this packed bar and nothing else was open. We wanted to do stuff that was attractive to adults but also attractive to the older college students, the graduate students. And that was the next thing we did was getting into the nightlife side doing something that an adult could do over here. The next logical step was anything artistic.
CK: Richard, sometimes with the help of his friends, would take old buildings, restore them, and host art shows; anything they could do that would bring in “creatives,” they did, whether that be something they started directly or something they supported, he said. This renovation and revamping of Opelika began to catch some momentum with students at Auburn, who began to come to the city to intern, work, or visit the art shows and concerts.
RP: The things we did are not attractive to every student, but you want to first to try the, for lack of a better word, the weirdos. The people that don’t care what you think of them. They’ve got a creative thing about them, which we all do in some capacity, but they’ve got something to give to community that is unique. Like the perfect night out over here, when I used to go out at night, you walked out, and you knew everybody. That’s not good. You want to walk out at night, and know very few. And you also want to see an age demographic of 20 to 80. You want to see a population demographic of different people, which is where we are now. You don’t want just college students, you don’t want just middle age, you want everything in between that makes a fun night. That makes it fun.
CK: To clarify: Richard refers to himself as “weird,” and it has nothing but a positive connotation for him and is only intended as praise, he said. As momentum continued to increase, Richard moved on to different projects, selling 8th and Rail in 2012, and in 2013, he started a company called Cotton Seed Studios.
RP: And my partner in that, she’s an Academy Award-winning director. She just happened — she’s from Opelika — but she and her husband just happened to be here. She was having a baby. And they were here to have the child and then she moved back to LA. And while she was here, I was like, “Do you have to go back to LA to do what you do?” And she goes, “Well, no.” And she said, “I prefer not being in LA, it’s just not my scene.” And the movie business was changing. The film world is all about budgets, and Alabama actually has a very good film incentive, where if you film here and you follow certain rules, they will write you back a check for 30% of your film budget, which is big in the film world. So I said, “Well, let’s form a company. I’ll do the music side, you do the film side. Let’s do it here and let’s see what we can do.” The first thing we did is we got a bunch of students and we went out to get a huge bus. We took a bunch of us out to South by Southwest and we partnered with a bunch of record labels, and Georgia Theater in Athens and some other groups and we all went out there and hosted a bunch of big parties and bands out in South by Southwest and just threw ourselves out there. That was kind of another kickoff and that also made a bunch of the students connect to the area.
CK: One of the biggest struggles that Richard faced in his efforts to change Opelika was the exodus of creative talent to larger cities. Even though Opelika is comparatively small, it should be able to attract and host shows and talent that any city could, Richard said, and holding on to that creative population and attracting students from Auburn is something that he and the city have made conscious efforts to do.
RP: New York and LA don’t need us all. If your aspirations are to go to a big city and do some cool things there, great, but they don’t need what you’re gonna bring to the table. We need more of that here and other towns across the country need more people doing some cool things and giving to those communities, unlike some of these bigger cities that don’t really, they’ve got everything. Our goal was we should be able to have any program in the arts here, any band touring, any film premiere, we should be able to have everything that have in any major city, we should be able to have that here. Especially being next to a major university. But that was our next step with that company and really hosting the bigger things and also preaching to those students. Every year always has a bunch of students that graduate and if we could keep three to five of them here and they would do something, open something, do something cool here. That can really change the landscape.
CK: The next step after attracting the arts, Richard said, is attracting small businesses; going after hospitality driven businesses that create a community feel while providing artisan goods and products. Side Track Coffee, where we met to talk, was opened by David Bizilia in 2016, and according to Richard, is huge in terms of creating that sense of community. Richard again renovated and developed some of the old cotton warehouses near the city center, where Red Clay Brewery, Resting Pulse Brewery, 10,000 Hertz and Griff Goods are all located.
RP: And the next thing was going after businesses like that, that were hospitality driven, that were nightlife driven. So that was the next phase. And the first thing we got was John Emerald Distillery. So having a major distillery, putting those roots here was kind of the next step. Brining in other people that were entrepreneurs attracts more entrepreneurs doing some things. That was where it snowballed from there.
CK: What’s the next step?
RP: We need more residential tied into downtown is just my opinions, where you have a lot of walkable people that are here to walk down to Side Track, walk down into restaurants, whatever. I still think we haven’t reached our capacity in the hospitality world. There’s some more food things that could happen. I think we need more Bizilias doing some stuff. We still need an influx of people putting out some roots here, doing some things. So even though we’ve come to here, where I think we should be is way higher. I think Opelika is a very cool town, but I still think there’s more that could happen.
EM: This is Evan Mealins, editor-in-chief of the Auburn Plainsman. Here’s what happened while you’ve been gone: City Councilmember Steven Dixon sued a dozen city staff — including his fellow councilmembers — in June after the Council passed a law placing more restrictions on short-term housing rentals such as Airbnb. Auburn now requires residents have a business license to rent out their properties. Dixon has rented out the basement of his home since 2018 but could not obtain a business license after the restrictions were placed due to the location of his home. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, questions the legality of the restrictions and seeks to overturn them. On June 11, Auburn University President Jay Gogue announced that he is seeking retirement. Gogue was appointed the 20th President of the University last year, after serving in an interim role in 2019. He had previously been the 18th President of the University from 2007-2017. After the NCAA Board of Governors approved a name, image and likeness policy on June 30, Auburn student athletes became eligible for compensation through company sponsorships. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has since been sponsored by Milo’s Sweet Tea and Bojangles. Now, back to the show.
CK: So now that we’ve gotten a little bit of the background on how Opelika has changed these past 30 years, we can take a look at a recent example of its changing culture: Side Track coffee, and its owner, David Bizilia. The middle of seven brothers and sisters, David was born in ‘96, and grew up in Opelika. When he graduated from high school in 2014, he bounced around for two years doing odd jobs, a semester of school here and there, and travelling out in the country.
DB: And then I worked out of various jobs. While I was doing that, I worked for a lumber company and a coffee shop at the same time. I felt like I was doing a billion different things and was into the college life. I think I can vividly remember my thoughts. Then everything interested in me, really everything, which can be a great thing. But to me, I was so sporadic, and really, I didn’t get very far with each interest. It felt like I was a jack-of-all-trades, you know. It’s what it felt like.
CK: In the middle of all that bouncing around, David happened to work at a place called Salud, a cafe and restaurant in Opelika that was the “center of community” for the town, and it’s there that his future plans began to take shape.
DB: Leading up to Side Track, I worked at a place called Salud in Opelika. Because Overall Company was … this is the pinnacle, the center of community there where I used to work and when they closed, Salud kind of replaced them because there was a need for community and a space for people to come to at any time during the day. That was my last stop before the shop
CK: What was Salud? What kind of a place was that, a coffee shop?
DB: Yeah, it was a café. They did breakfast and lunch. They were opened from seven to six, seven to seven every day. They served food until three, great food. Rob was the chef. The kitchen crew was so sick. Brad, David and Chris were the guys that were always there. The barista crew was sick, too. Oh my gosh, it was so rad. But I think the investor kind of lost interest. I think that’s why it closed, of the stories I hear. You know, small town talk. My thoughts were never set in stone with the future, like I didn’t think too far ahead. But I kind of noticed what everyone else was doing, kind of followed suit, according to what my interests were. I think it was around the time, around 2015, I started seeing more of the world, hearing more about what the world is about, because I’d never really traveled much in high school. I didn’t know that there was different trees other than, you know, pine and oak and things like that. So I was just thought this is the only place and around then I started traveling more and started realizing so much more out there. So I started to wonder what’s out there. And that’s where my ideal started to form probably there.
CK: When David graduated high school, pretty much everyone from his class moved to different places – Austin, Portland, LA, New York, Birmingham – away from Opelika. David was witnessing firsthand what Richard had noticed: Opelika was struggling to hold on to its creative population. To him, Opelika felt stagnant, comfortable with itself in its current state. So why didn’t he just leave too?
DB: and I had all these complaints about how it wasn’t progressing in any sort of sense. Everything always felt the same. There’s always these niche little groups that were so cool: music, art, style, even conversations about things that were bigger than just football and baseball and basketball, and, you know, things like that, politics. It was hearing more seeing that, but all those people left because Opelika and Auburn was so comfortable and very simple minded, in a way, kind of a checklist life. Not saying that it’s bad at all. But there are so many again to the realization that there’s so much out there. The world is a beautiful, beautiful place. Magical, sacred too. I think, with a lot of the way that society is today, and I just felt this I didn’t even necessarily know this couldn’t even put a finger on I just knew that something didn’t feel right. And so seeing everyone leave all these people that were so wise, so cool, so open minded leave, you know, because it wasn’t for them because there’s not any other open minded people around. I realized like this is probably why Opelika is this way because everyone’s not satisfied and they want something that is easy for them. They think like minded and I think I said I think someone needs to stay and build a community and I think not give up. It was even before Side Track started was my decision to stay and it wasn’t this concrete, easy, like, “I’m staying and this is right.” All my buddies in LA and Austin, Portland and New York, like I could be anywhere else. And everyone would think like me and drink like me and eat like me and listen to the same stuff I do and my life would be great. But I think that’s a really selfish way of thinking. So Opelika is a perfect place. Perfect.
CK: Even though Sidetrack has been around since 2016, David didn’t intend for it to be permanent. It was initially a pop-up shop that was only going to be open for a few months, but once he got it started, he realized there was a lot more to learn running the coffee shop. It was a different type of education.
DB: Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s still a project. I’m still in school. It was just intended to be a pop up, because Opelika didn’t have a community center, which I consider cafes and coffee shops to be, if people so choose. There was nothing, you know, there was no community center there, there was no place for people to recenter, to start their days, to end their days and come back together as a people. That’s why it started and I got a great group of friends to help and support and be a part of that journey to start. And that’s why it’s still here today. It’s good. That same core group of people are still here. That’s what’s so magical about it. They’re all different shapes and sizes, and, you know, listen to different music. But that’s what a community is. And I think, I think that’s why I like it so much where I am, it’s not everyone doesn’t look the same, do the same things.
CK: Sidetrack has become so special to David exactly because of its differences, he said; it hasn’t looked like he wanted it to and it’s gone so far beyond what he could envision. While it might not have always been easy in the beginning, there’s progress every single day.
DB: In the beginning, it was like, I would throw up my hands each day and be like, “Oh my gosh, why is this so hard for people to understand that you gotta have faith in a place.” And that’s what came from my selfish inventories. But dude, oh my gosh, every single day, I’m so grateful for the people that have moved and stayed and invested here in Opelika and even Auburn. Calling a place home, I’ve seen that so many times. And kind of the changes I’ve seen I’ve been so grateful for because they don’t look like the way that I wanted it to be, it’s better and more pure, because my way back in the day was it’s got to be a cool shop, selling cool things, doing cool things, wearing cool clothes, listening to cool music, you know, kind of like the early 20s dream. This is what my community looks like. And it hasn’t looked like I wanted to which is so much better and so far beyond what I could ever dream of. And I think that’s where the purity comes into play. So yeah, truly, I’ve seen it, and it’s at the perfect pace. And I’m so grateful for what I’ve seen kind of bloom over the past five years, six years. I wish with the podcast, I could transport any listener behind my eyes to see what I see have the ears to hear the conversation thought here each day that are oh my gosh, really magical. I mean, oh my gosh, I feel like I’m on a treadmill when I’m talking about the transformation in Opelika. It’s great. It’s magical. From what I remember when I’m seeing my own eyes a long time ago, and like “This place is done for,” but there is not only me, but there’s been people that have said, “This is where I’m gonna make my home. I’m gonna pour into it and have hope.” It’s cool to see that. When enough people, and it might just even be one, hammer some stakes in a place.
CK: From the Auburn Plainsman, this has been Suite 1111. I’m Collins Keith, signing off. See you next week.