Georgia-Based Developers Find Their Spot in Uptown

By Eric Smith

NEW DIGS ON MAIN STREET: Riverbend Place Apartments, at 668 N. Main St. in Uptown, is one of the largest minority-owned-and-led developments in Downtown. -- Photo By Eric Smith

Hurricane Katrina forced Verlyn and Harold Foley to leave their New Orleans home in 2005 and move to the Atlanta area.

But when the city of Memphis tried to file eminent domain rights on an Uptown property the husband and wife were eyeing for a multifamily building, this real estate development duo decided to stand their ground and fight.

Verlyn already had begun envisioning the project, and she wasn't about to pack her bags, so to speak, and let go of the perfect spot.

"I was determined," she said. "I thought it was a great location. This was my first development in Memphis, and I was really excited. I didn't even hear the words 'eminent domain' - we were building this project."

Enticing incentives

Verlyn and Harold's company, VOB Development LLC, based in Alpharetta, Ga., got its attorneys involved and eventually settled the matter.

"They (city officials) realized we were going to build the same stuff they were proposing to do, and that went away," said Verlyn, the company president and CEO.

By July 2006, VOB had secured the land, cleared it of two concrete slabs and begun preparing a $3.8 million, 30-unit apartment complex at 668 N. Main St., Riverbend Place Apartments.

It is one of the largest minority-owned-and- led developments Downtown, according to the Center City Commission (CCC).

The project is near Uptown's single-family homes and positioned just a few blocks north of the Main Street trolley line. The complex welcomed its first residents in late April, and last week the Foleys flew to Memphis for the grand opening.

VOB, which stands for Verlyn's maiden name - Verlyn O. Britton - received a 10-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) freeze on the complex last summer from the Center City Revenue Finance Corp.

Verlyn and Harold heaped tons of praise on Memphis, not only for granting the tax freeze, but also for pulling back the eminent domain claims and letting them see their vision through.

"Everyone was exceptionally professional," said Harold, vice president of VOB. "We found the city to be extremely cooperative."

Aside from their developmental interests, the couple feels at home in Memphis, whether it's taking their two sons to the zoo or checking out Beale Street.

"I just thought it was a great city," Verlyn said. "I like how the city has a lot of Downtown living. It reminds me of New Orleans. Other cities have tried it but they haven't quite gotten it. What really attracted me was the redevelopment in this area and all the incentives like the PILOT."

Creating crown jewels

Whether potential residents become equally enamored with the Foleys remains to be seen in the way of apartment occupancy, but the couple has built a loyal fan base at the CCC, where president Jeff Sanford lauded their development efforts.

"I am very excited about this project," he said. "This is exactly what we had hoped would happen as a result of the Uptown project that private developers and investors would become interested in the North Memphis area."

The fact it represents one of the largest minority-owned-and-led developments Downtown, something the CCC has been working hard to accomplish, has Sanford pleased.

"Part of our mission is bringing minorities into the Downtown development process, so this is great," he said. "This one's a crown jewel.

"This is a good example of the right people coming together at the right time, and these people need to be very proud of what they've brought to our city."

Family business on the grow

Apartment units at Riverbend are large - 800 square feet for a one-bedroom, 1,000 square feet for a two-bedroom and 1,150 square feet for a three-bedroom. Leasing is handled by Memphis-based LEDIC Management Group LLC.

Pricing ranges from $542 to $735 per month, but despite the affordability, Verlyn strived to make each unit nicer than what she considers typical affordable housing that often have drab colors and no pizzazz.

So she made small enhancements such as Formica countertops that resemble granite. Amenities include gated parking, onsite laundry, controlled access entrance, resident computer rooms and alarm systems.

"We want to make a place nice and affordable for those with lower incomes," she said. "We try to add a little bit of upscale touch, just a little bit."

VOB carries that philosophy throughout its portfolio, which has grown to about $160 million in the past 10 years with properties in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. In addition to Riverbend, the company is nearing completion on multifamily projects in Chattanooga.

VOB, which obtains its equity investor funding from Los Angeles-based SunAmerica Affordable Housing Partners Inc., a subsidiary of AIG Retirement Services Inc., also recently has completed a project in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The company operates as something of a family affair, with Verlyn's brother, Peter Britton, serving as property manager, and Verlyn's sister-in-law, June Britton, who handles public relations for VOB.

With a clear mission and tight-knit team, VOB develops projects for the long haul, and the company plans to own Riverbend for years to come. Additionally, Verlyn and Harold have begun visualizing more projects nearby.

"What we want to do, since we like this area, is another development in this region, definitely Downtown," Verlyn said. "We like this area."

It seems like nothing can stop them now.