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VOL. 120 | NO. 238 | Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Harding Academy to Expand to Lakeland

Town attracts new commercial, residential development

By Andy Meek

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NEARBY AMENITIES: Harding Academy's new Lakeland campus will be located just outside Lakeland Green, a 1,200-acre New Urbanist community planned for the growing town. -- Rendering Courtesy Of Rudolph Jones

At the edge of Memphis' metropolitan expanse - in a bedroom community with no property taxes, soaring home values and acre upon acre of undeveloped land - a Memphis private school that has outgrown its urban setting has found a new home.

After years of hunting for a larger, easier-to-access space, the board of directors of Harding Academy of Memphis have chosen 100 acres of farmland in Lakeland as the future home of the school's planned new campus. Over the next five years, the school will develop the site, not far from Lakeland City Hall.

Long-term plan. The property ultimately will include a new middle school, high school, more athletic space than the school has now in East Memphis and an elementary school. Harding's current secondary school at 1100 Cherry Road is landlocked and - occupying only 28 acres - bursting at the seams. By 2010, it will be moved entirely to the newly acquired property in Lakeland.

Harding's purchase says something about the future of the fast-growing town, which was incorporated in 1977 and has so far resisted the cookie-cutter development prominent elsewhere in Shelby County.

"I think it's just a win-win-win all the way around," said Lakeland landowner Rudolph Jones.

Lakeland Green. For more than two years Jones lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the school to become part of a mixed-use, New Urbanist community he plans to build on a large patch of land that has been in his family since the 1830s. Harding won't lie within Jones' future 1,200-acre development, dubbed Lakeland Green, but it will be very near his property's outer fringe.

To him, it's not surprising that Lakeland proved attractive enough to lure Harding east.

"Lakeland's very big on having the connectivity of its different ingredients, so that they don't become little fiefdoms or individual, walled-off cells in the community," Jones said. "I'm very excited about (Harding) being here, and I have expressed to the president and to all the folks over there our great desire to work with them."

"The board spent a couple of years looking at all kinds of criteria, but one of the driving factors was where our demographics are. And we're highly concentrated in northeast Shelby County."
- Tonia Howell
executive assistant to the president, Harding Academy of Memphis

For Lakeland, the school's planned move is one more piece in its economic development puzzle that has fit neatly into place. City leaders are finishing up a comprehensive land use and zoning revision that encourages more additions to the town like Harding and Lakeland Green. Lakeland also saw the biggest percentage jump in property values in Shelby County from 2004 to 2005, according to figures from county Assessor of Property Rita Clark's office.

New development. Resident Shelly Cheng said new retail centers and small shops are sprouting up throughout the town.

"New developments are just popping up everywhere," she said. "There are a couple of chains I've heard are coming, but we're getting more small shops than anything.

"Sales prices are also going way up for homes. We've been here for about two and a half years - we got in pretty much before development boomed."

For his project, Jones envisions an "urban village" that's heavily landscaped, discourages cars, has a town center and offers a broad mix of housing choices. Former Lakeland commissioner Don Bennett called it "a real zinger of a happening."

"We're still interviewing developers who might have an interest in it," said Jones, who expects Harding to have a big effect on how the community turns out. "We've talked to three big local developers, but they have been reluctant to take on a project of this size. We're also still waiting for Jim Dugan's project (the land use plan revision) to be finished. We want our project to go hand-in-hand with that and we've worked very closely with him on that."

Harding project. Harding has no immediate plans to start construction in Lakeland, but school leaders are working to develop their vision for the project.

"The present site plan we're working with is in three phases," said Tonia Howell, executive assistant to the school's president, Tom Dickson. "The first phase is the middle school and upper school. The second phase expands the athletic facilities a bit more, and in the third phase - maybe 15 to 20 years down the road - we would put an early childhood and elementary campus out there on the same site."

The new school will be bordered to the south by U.S. Highway 70, to the north by Old Brownsville Road and to the west by Scott's Creek. Harding has a total student population of about 1,700 spread across its several campuses. Its Cherry Road campus, plus the additional classes, would bring about 700 students to Lakeland.

Lakeland growth. Other projects are in the works for the town. City officials this month agreed to apply for funding to help pay for a $1.6 million stretch of bicycle and walking trails along Canada Road, from Interstate 40 to U.S. Highway 64.

The town would be responsible for 20 percent of the cost of the project, which Jones said is a big commitment, especially for a town that doesn't have a property tax. But the project would have a big appeal, especially to families, which Howell said were one of the biggest deciding factors in Harding's move to the growing town.

"The board spent a couple of years looking at all kinds of criteria, but one of the driving factors was where our demographics are," she said. "And we're highly concentrated in northeast Shelby County.

"They also looked at population trends for the county, new housing starts and where families are moving, and they just determined that Lakeland would be a place where Harding Academy could grow for the next 50 years."

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