North of West 7th Street In Fort Worth, identical twin sisters Susan Gruppi and Jessica Miller, 32, have taken an industrial area full of old warehouses and turned it into The Foundry District. With an emphasis on supporting creative communities, the neighborhood is quickly becoming a hotspot with an interesting mix of non-chain restaurants and retail businesses, manufacturing and distribution centers, and offices.
Instead of tearing down old buildings, the twins prefer to renovate them and “tell their stories.”
“We love buildings,” Miller says. “Here’s what this is and how do you improve it in its current form? That’s just how we look at real estate. In a weird way, we believe that buildings have a soul.”
They grew up in an entrepreneurial household in East Texas. “Our parents did everything from multi-family apartment complexes to shopping centers,” Miller says. “Our dad would always bring us into deals. We’d group around the kitchen table talking about it.”
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In their late teens, Miller and Gruppi started investing in family deals before coming to Fort Worth and earning finance degrees at TCU. Their real estate and development company, M2G Ventures, was formed in 2014. Preferring not to build from the ground up, they naturally focused on commercial space.
“We think as a consumer,” Miller says. “We try to think about how someone is going to use the space.
After flipping a few properties, they were inspired by warehouse districts across the country like the Meatpacking District in Manhattan and the West Bottoms in Kansas City. The two started looking for a place in Fort Worth with existing buildings that could be improved.
“When a building has an older exterior and the inside is something new and repurposed, there’s something interesting about that,” Gruppi says.
In 2015, they bought an industrial-area building that contained M&O Station Grill and Leonard’s Museum. The twins were surprised by the location near the Fort Worth Cultural District and West 7th Street.
“We drove past a bunch of these buildings every single day,” Miller says. “Nothing was happening to them, but they were always on our way to work or one of our favorite restaurants.”
They quickly rebranded the area as The Foundry District to signal that the old warehouses would be kept as they were. Then they started gathering as many buildings as they could.
“Doing new development was never a part of our business plan,” Gruppi says. “This was the first place where there was good real estate with good bones that needed to be exposed.”
In 2016 they bought one of Fort Worth’s oldest buildings, the O.B. Macaroni Building just south of downtown, and now own 14 properties with dozens of tenants over six acres. The Foundry District quickly attracted popular local businesses and interesting new brands. Doc’s Records & Vintage is an enormous record store with a bizarre antique mall and frequent live music events and Craftwork Coffee Co. opened a third location in The Foundry.
“There’s this weird cultural revolution happening in Fort Worth,” Miller says. “It’s bringing in this class of people who are very entrepreneurial. Even if they haven’t figured out what they want their brand to be yet, they want to do something in Fort Worth.”
Some developers seem to have no interest in preserving culture that helped neighborhoods thrive, but Miller and Gruppi have set themselves apart with a clear understanding of the value of the arts.
“We always do development backwards,” Gruppi says. “A mural on the side of a building can be an afterthought, but we like to make those things the foundation.”
Indeed, they showed their commitment to large-scale public art by turning an alley full of dumpsters and loading areas into a community space. M2G commissioned ten murals and the spot is called Inspiration Alley, an outdoor gallery that was created before the twins were even sure what to do with the buildings they were renovating. It’s now a cornerstone of the development and they plan on adding five more murals.
“Everything flows from Inspiration Alley,” Miller says. “It’s the crux of our identity. We knew that art and people would create the place and we’re just showcasing that.”
In addition to regular live music at Doc’s, The Foundry District has small festivals and community events like Thursday on the Rocks, which debuted this summer with music, arts and crafts and beer. The Grand Berry Theater will bring art house films to the neighborhood when it opens later this year.
“We see The Foundry District as an avenue for legit creatives,” says Miller “We want people to create something new with a unique point of view.”
“There is this feeling of potential here and an infectious energy around it,” Gruppi says.
Their rise has been swift, but the sisters admit that there have been challenges in an industry dominated by older men.
“There have been times when we put ourselves in situations where people maybe didn’t think we deserved a seat at the table,” Miller says. “But I think they would’ve done the same to young men. We tend to think intuitively as females and that has helped with attracting talent. There isn’t a black-and-white formula to figuring out what to do with these buildings.”
“We try to avoid talking to any gatekeeper,” Gruppi adds.