Manufacturing a travel bag and building a fence made from recycled metal may seem miles apart, but in Jim Markel’s mind the two align. “It’s just part of my personality,” said Markel, who co-owns the manufacturing company Red Oxx. “I like making things.”
Markel, with his business partner Perry Jones, is in the middle of redeveloping two acres of property they purchased in 2001 in east Billings. The property currently houses Red Oxx’s storefront at 310 N. 13th St., and they’ve slowly been shaping the lot, tearing down blighted buildings and fixing up others.
Looking out over the graveled parking lot that slopes down toward the east, it’s difficult to picture the duo’s vision, but they’ve already begun fencing the area in preparation for an events space that will include grassy slopes, 20-plus shade trees, and a permanent stage.
“If anyone ever wants to tear this down, I feel so bad for them,” Jones said. “There are 10 bags of cement in those front posts each. We want something that will last.”
Along Fourth Avenue North, reclaimed oil field drill pipes line the property. Markel and Jones plan on welding sheets of thick metal recycled from Pacific Steel to the pipes, which act as posts, to form an ornamental fence. These “drops” they’ve reclaimed are what remains after metal has been punched out of them.
“As a manufacturer, you are always using every bit of material,” Markel said. “There is very little waste that comes out of the factory.”
Markel describes this as an ongoing project and plans to show it off to the community during the fourth annual Oxxfest on Saturday.
Now in its fourth year, Oxxfest has expanded from a customer appreciation party to a community event. A temporary stage will be set up on the northeast corner of the parking lot, where eventually the permanent stage will be constructed.
“Rather than getting paralyzed by thinking it has to be perfect and complete, we are inviting people to come down and enjoy it being under construction,” Markel said.
The land sits in three different districts within the the East Billings Urban Renewal District (EBURD), which has been a challenge because of variations in restrictions. “It did dictate what we were going to do. You have to harmonize all the code,” Markel said.
This hasn’t deterred redevelopment for the growing company. As Red Oxx expanded, so did their need for space. The original plan was to build a new factory on the land that is currently awaiting an events space makeover. But the numbers just didn’t add up, so in 2010 Markel and Jones purchased a building a few blocks to the east, where they relocated the Red Oxx factory.
Jones recalls the building, originally built in the 1950s, being in such poor shape that it rained inside. “We walked into this flat-out nasty building. I’m looking at Jim, asking, ‘Are you sure, man?’ Jim saw potential. I did not. I saw a money pit.”
Jones said he avoided the building’s remodel, popping in occasionally, but for the most part left Markel alone to “do his thing.” The finished product is a polished achievement in an area that has been slow to redevelop, and the two businessmen estimate it cost half of a new construction project.
Both men are veterans and are carrying on a company founded by Markel’s father, who was a Green Beret and served in two branches of the military. Jim Markel Sr. started Red Oxx Mfg. in 1986 and made materials for fitness companies such as Nordictrack and Universal Athletics. In 1992, his son Jim Markel Jr. and Jones purchased the business and shifted the focus to rugged travel bags.
The company sells bags and gear across the globe through its online store, and has been operating out of the east end of downtown Billings for nearly 30 years.
“The event side of it is us reaching back into the local community,” said Markel. “This is our base. This is our community. We do what we can to be engaged. We have this asset and need to develop it.”