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October 17, 2013

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The Folk School of Chattanooga re-emerges livelier than ever

HUNKERING DOWN NEAR THE BASE OF SIGNAL MOUNTAIN, Four Squares Business Center might not look like a place with any sort of cultural relevance. It’s a repurposed ’80s retail-complex-turned- office-space. Just off Mountain Creek Road, Four Squares used to be home to the local dollar theatre and a few retail shops and restaurants. Now, it houses law offices and real estate centers. But one unlikely tenant has settled in recently following a strenuous summer: The Folk School of Chattanooga. 

The Folk School—Chattanooga’s first and only—has been a part of the community for more than three years. Its beginnings reach back to a store called Mountain Music on Dayton Boulevard. It was there that the first classes began, with three instructors, Christie Burns, an acclaimed hammered dulcimer player and currently director of programming, along with Matt Evans (banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin) and John Boulware (fiddle), under the name Mountain Music Folk School. Eventually, the store moved, but the school lived on. It moved into the first physical location of its own on Forest Avenue on the North Shore in 2010. 

The focus was simple, and is best summed up by their mission statement: “Cultivating a thriving community of musicians and music supporters in Chattanooga through educational programs and public events, with a primary focus on traditional music forms of our region.” In those early days, this manifested in the form of a wide variety of music classes, in both individual and group settings. This remains a key component of what happens at the Folk School, but activities have expanded to include organized performances, community jam sessions and much more. 

“It’s all about building community around music,” says Christie Burns. “I saw that I was in a position to really put music first—not just keep it on the sidelines like a hobby—but to really put it first and see what would happen, and I just haven’t turned back yet.”

Two years after branching out onto Forest Avenue, the school moved again, this time to Rossville Avenue on the Southside. The site had plenty of space and a large storefront with big windows, two things that were on the dream location checklist. It wasn’t perfect, but it promised to be a fine home. “The whole point of moving was to open things up and really put ourselves more out there for community access, and that’s exactly what it did,” said Burns. Yet that’s where the problems began.

“I don’t normally tell this story without a tall glass of beer,” Burns said when asked what happened, clearly still upset about the situation. She continued, “OK, it’s like this. We signed a three-year lease, and we were there for one year. So that’s how that went.” What followed was an exhaustive story of miscommunications and civic red tape—with a bit of bad luck thrown in for bad measure. 

“There were things about the space that were not exactly disclosed to us. There were controls on the space. There was already a sort of precarious chain of command, because we were leasing from people who were leasing from the actual property owner,” said Burns. “It became known that modifications were needed to the building in order for anyone to use it for any purpose other than manufacturing.” 

One of the major problems came down to a sprinkler system—and a city regulation that has been changing ever since. At the time, businesses of the Folk School’s size were required to have sprinkler systems installed. (Recently, the city has relaxed this regulation.) That might have saved the school from abandoning Rossville Avenue if it happened before the summer. But as bad luck would have it, the regulation was in place at the time, and though the problem was already present before the lease was signed, neither the owner nor the landlord were willing to invest more money to install sprinklers. The Folk School couldn’t afford to make modifications of that magnitude. “It wouldn’t have been responsible at all for us to do that,” said Burns. “The Folk School just doesn’t have that kind of resources, and it wasn’t our building to do that to in the first place.” 

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October 17, 2013

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