VOL. 125 | NO. 129 | Tuesday, July 6, 2010
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
By Eric Smith
William Adair’s quad-cab, four-wheel-drive pickup truck is splattered with mud. The office where he parks it out back, a converted country home at the corner of Tenn. 196 and U.S. 72, is littered with maps.
Anyone looking for tangible signs of the next big economic development project in Fayette County should take a peek at that vehicle, which Adair calls his “old-man truck,” or the walls and desks of the modest WCA Land & Development headquarters, replete with a screen door that sometimes sticks.
Adair and his coterie of real estate professionals, engineers and construction managers have been working tirelessly to transform thousands of acres into a massive mixed-use development called Piperton Hills.
The daunting task requires daily drives through rain-soaked ranch land or poring over the dozens of aerial photos and renderings that display Adair’s vision, one of the most ambitious in Fayette County history.
Adair is a Piperton native who formed Direct General Insurance Co. and later sold it for more than $600 million. But the legacy he hopes to cement has little to do with the success of that company or the size of its sale.
Instead, the man who last year sold 500 acres of his land to Norfolk Southern Corp. for an intermodal facility wants to make an indelible mark on the community by bringing dozens of new businesses along with hundreds – perhaps thousands – of jobs to Fayette County.
As Adair prepares to complete the $5 million sewer plant he is donating to Piperton, launch Phase I of the Piperton Hills’ 6,500-home residential segment and ink contracts that will see distribution and manufacturing companies set up shop near the rail yard, his dream is becoming reality.
“This thing has really heated up,” Adair says as he navigates his truck along another muddied back road. “This thing has done 110 percent of what I thought it would be when I bought it (the land) two and a half years ago. I’m really happy with the response.”
Economic development is on the minds of many business and political leaders in Fayette County, whose population is about 40,000 and growing, and Adair isn’t the only one happy about it.
Although his large-scale project is being developed alongside the nearby $112 million Norfolk Southern intermodal terminal in Rossville, economic activity above the Wolf River – which slices through the county and serves as an unofficial dividing line between the county’s north and south – also is gaining steam.
North Fayette’s main corridor, U.S. 64, connects the county’s three largest towns: Oakland (population 5,035), county seat Somerville (2,935) and Hickory Withe (2,574).
Not only have these three towns along 64 seen the most population growth during the past decade, due in part to Shelby County residents moving into the area, but they have enjoyed the most prosperous commercial growth as well.
Developer Doug Swink of Renaissance Development recently developed the Renaissance Professional Park, 3157 U.S. 64.
Photo: Lance Murphey
Oakland is home to the county’s only Walmart, and it boasts the widest selection of restaurants, services and other shops in Fayette.
But business and political leaders see an opportunity for more homes, more people and more progress. As they are quick to point out, however, growth in Fayette County occurs at a slower pace and mindful of preventing urban sprawl or haphazard zoning, chief criticisms of their neighbors in Memphis.
“I believe West Fayette County will absolutely, completely, totally explode with a tidal wave of individuals wanting to locate into the area.”– Doug Swink
Many of them spoke on and off the record of the importance of keeping 64 from devolving into another Winchester Road or Germantown Parkway, streets they view as commercial free-for-alls that turned unsightly over time.
Doug Swink, a partner with Renaissance Development, one of Fayette County’s leading commercial and residential developers, said the goal for U.S. 64 is to land national big boxes and smaller retailers that will enhance the county’s overall commercial picture. But it must be done right.
“We discussed the need of – and we have the demographics to support – a Lowe’s or a Home Depot as well as much more of the service-related and neighborhood-related commercial,” Swink said. “You’re talking about your coffee shops, nice restaurants, hair salons, things of that nature. Of course, everybody in the world that wants to be out here wants to be on Highway 64 and our overall planning goals are to prevent strip commercial.”
Only in office since March 30, Oakland Mayor Scott Ferguson said one of his most important goals is cultivating economic development in his town, what many people would consider the commercial capital of Fayette County.
He and the Oakland Regional Chamber of Commerce are developing a comprehensive “smart growth” plan that will span the next five to 10 to 20 years. The focus will be who can build, what they can build and where they can build.
The idea, he said, is to “protect the Highway 64 corridor when you come into Oakland to maintain that rural feel. That’s going to be vital in our plan.”
Ferguson said the town is establishing aesthetic standards for its strategic growth plan, but is careful not to copy other municipalities where the rules are too rigid and seen as anti-development.
“We want to have our own feel and our own look,” he said.
The town also wants to have its own slogan. A key component of Oakland’s plan is marketing the town, and city leaders have adopted the tagline “Oakland: Don’t You Belong.” The two-year branding campaign that begins this month will see $100,000 annually pumped into television, radio, Internet and billboard advertising.
Jim Gallagher, a Memphis attorney who lives in Hickory Withe and also serves as a Fayette judge, said the campaign will shed light on Oakland’s myriad attributes, from low crime to low property taxes, with hopes of bringing more residents and businesses to town.
“This may be one of the biggest things to hit Fayette County in a few years on economic development,” Gallagher said.
Fayette Struggles With Own Government Issues
Tainted elections, corruption, insider deals, suburban mayors, old guard politics vs. new guard politics, turf wars.
Fayette County politics has featured all of the above and more in recent years.
The county’s growth in recent decades has thickened an already rich political atmosphere.
There are 10 town mayors and a county mayor in Fayette. Two more and the mayors would be a group the size of the Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Commission.
They do get together in a group that governs the county’s growth plan. And the talk makes the discussion about Shelby County’s relatively stable growth plan look tame by comparison.
In the very first issue of The Memphis News just more than two years ago, Fayette County Mayor Rhea “Skip” Taylor talked about the competition among the city and town mayors for the right to annex unincorporated territory and the competing population estimates that each brought to the table.
Meanwhile, Oakland has become the eye of a political storm.
Scott Ferguson was elected mayor of Oakland in March, defeating incumbent Bill Mullins by a better than 2-1 margin.
Days before the election, Mullins was convicted of three counts of official misconduct and removed from office.
Mullins was sentenced to probation for a deal in which he made $9,300 from the city for repairing police cars at a shop at his home. The shop was not a licensed business.
Mullins had been mayor since 1993, a period in which Oakland began its transformation from rural area to a growing suburban area.
His indictment came two years after another scandal involving the Oakland police department. The town’s police chief and two officers pleaded guilty to faking the death of a police dog to collect on a $5,000 insurance policy.
Ferguson’s victory came two years after he lost to Mullins by 15 votes.
The 2008 election was ordered voided by Chancellor Martha Brasfield after she ruled 23 people voted in the election who lived outside Oakland. That set the stage for the 2010 mayor’s race.
Ferguson did what few other politicians on the losing end of a close election in Tennessee have succeeded in doing – using the state’s law for overturning the results of a close election.
Unlike other states, Tennessee’s law does not provide for an automatic recount if the results are close. A losing candidate must not only prove that some votes are in question. The candidate must prove that enough votes are questionable to put the results back in play.
Ferguson lost the 2008 race by 15 votes. The 23 ineligible votes more than met the standard for a new election.
– Bill Dries
Bruce Doane, owner of American Granite & Marble LLC in Oakland, serves as chairman of the town chamber’s economic development committee.
He said he truly understood the need to spread the word about Oakland when his company recently ran a newspaper ad. Someone called to find out where American Granite & Marble was located, and after Doane said the company was in Oakland, there was a lengthy, confused pause on the other end.
“We might as well have been right outside of Nashville,” he said. “It’s perceived to be a long, long ways away. It isn’t a long, long ways away.”
All of western Fayette County, not just Oakland, is indeed getting closer to Memphis as new roads get built. The largest highway project is Tenn. 385, which will eventually be renamed Interstate 269 and parallel the Shelby-Fayette border as part of big loop around the metropolitan area.
Although many Fayette residents speak ill of Memphis – some have referred to U.S. 64 as the “Herenton Highway” because the city’s former Mayor Willie Herenton apparently drove many citizens eastward – the fortunes of both communities are closely linked.
That will become more apparent once I-269 is completed in 2011 and once Norfolk Southern trains begin sending cargo containers to Memphis distribution centers in 2012.
As president of the Bank of Fayette County, a financial institution that has benefited from population growth in the county, McCall Wilson understands the need for a strong Memphis.
“Fayette County lives or dies by how well Memphis does,” Wilson said. “We’re not an island to ourselves and if Memphis doesn’t do well, Fayette County will not do well. We have to have a strong Memphis to have a strong Fayette County.”
If anything, Wilson sees Fayette County’s towns continuing to serve as bedroom communities for Memphis until – or unless – the county finds a way to improve its schools and also attract a wide variety of places for its residents to work.
“You can’t build a county or a city off the backs of homeowners,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to have retail businesses, you’ve got to have commercial businesses for taxes, you’ve got to bring those in. But that’s a gradual process that happens over a lifetime. You don’t turn a switch and all of sudden businesses start coming in.”
Still, the Fayette County leadership remains confident that the businesses will come with the right combination of its chief attributes – quality of life and economic incentives that could lure everything from more rooftops to retail offerings.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to look back to see what was accomplished over the last 10 years and then to look forward and see what the next 10 years will be,” Swink said. “I believe West Fayette County will absolutely, completely, totally explode with a tidal wave of individuals wanting to locate into the area.”
‘Emerging industrial submarket’
For all that’s happening with PR campaigns up north, a ride with Adair across his sprawling acreage offers a glimpse of what could be an even larger tidal wave sweeping the county’s southwestern corner.
Jon Albright, a partner at the Memphis commercial real estate firm of Investec Realty Services LLC, is working with Adair and Ronnie Lee, a broker with Keller-Williams Realty, on developing, marketing and selling Piperton Hills.
Albright, immediate past president of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, said the potential for commercial and industrial development in the Piperton community and its surrounding area is “significant” because of proximity to the rail yard, busy highways and even Memphis International Airport, just 25 miles away.
“It’s got a lot of infrastructure in terms of highways in a very convenient fashion, so that’s going to be ideal for companies, logistics-wise, that are looking for access,” he said.
Albright went so far as to call Southwest Fayette County and North Marshall County, Miss. – where Adair also has large swaths of land and plans to develop a megasite – an “emerging industrial submarket” in the next 18 to 36 months.
In other words, it could see build-to-suit and speculative buildings sprout as companies look to establish manufacturing or distribution centers in the area.
Albright said the team also is courting office clients, which would fit in with Piperton Hills’ overall plan of single-family homes, condominiums, playgrounds, ball fields and even charter schools.
Of course, they also are aware that a new community – both the housing and commercial sectors – could be slow to develop, especially as the economy struggles to rebound. The estimate is eight to 10 years for the full buildout.
Shifting front row?
If there is an arms race for economic development among Fayette towns – and no one would say directly that there is – Adair’s Piperton Hills has a key advantage. Simply put, he is bankrolling the development with no need for financial assistance.
“We’re not dependant on a nickel’s worth of money coming from any bank, so we’re fine,” Adair said. “The problem today is if you owe the bank and you’ve got to pay interest. We don’t. We’re very fortunate that we’re in a position to where we can go ahead and develop and probably get a lot of these sites ready for a customer to come in. That’s not a concern for us.”
Already, his sewer plant is almost done. A four-lane road between the Norfolk Southern intermodal terminal site and U.S. 72 will be finished by September. And 208 lots will be ready for builders.
“It’s mind-boggling how much is going on out here,” said Lee, who has been described as Adair’s lieutenant on the project.
Lee said there’s no reason why Oakland and Piperton – or any other town – can’t each succeed with a vision for making Fayette County a residential and commercial destination. But thanks to a rail yard, improved road infrastructure and the robust bank account of the man dreaming it all up, a new commercial hub appears to be rising.
“Oakland is going to be fine,” Lee said. “It just won’t be on the front row for a while.”