Saturday, March 1, 2014

Thompson’s Station Mayor, Corey Napier, on the Future of Real Estate and the Area

Desk Side Chats With Monte Mohr:  I’m here on a cold January morning with Corey Napier, the Mayor of Thompson’s Station, who has agreed to share his thoughts and insights on the future of Thompson’s Station.

corey 213x300 Thompsons Station Mayor, Corey Napier, on the Future of Real Estate and the Area
A Little Background on Thompson’s Station
Thank you for inviting me to have a chat. We have a number of really wonder things going on in our part of the world. We are blessed as a community, and we have good challenges and opportunities ahead of us. We are not wrestling with some of the negative aspects of communities that are not thriving, that are trying to figure out how to keep their young people living in their community and how to keep the infrastructure going without shrinking tax base.
So when you think about where Thompson’s Station and south Williamson County are really positioned in the heart of middle Tennessee, with all the good things that are goi
ng on in this larger community, Thompson’s Station is in the process of figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up. How do you create a sense of place?
Thompson’s Station has been around a long time; it was a land grant to a number of Revolutionary War heroes. And over time, Thompson’s Station grew into a crossroads with the railroad here, and you might have seen this if you’ve ever visited our little downtown area, it was one time known as the millet capital of the world.  Well millet kind of fell out of favor I suppose with other grains and wheat products and so forth over time, so it’s ironic that millet is once again being looked at as a grain to help with health and to feed the people in the poor areas of the globe. That’s a little unknown fact about Thompson’s Station, is that for years we had an agricultural base.
A Community at a Crossroads
Back to Thompson’s Station and where it sits now; it really is a crossroads community. We can go down  a couple of different paths: we can embrace rapid growth and probably the sprawl that goes with it, or we can try to control our destiny by creating a sense of place so people will want to choose to live here. And so I often ask folks, “What do you like in a small town?”  Because that’s what we want to be – we want to be a small town in a greater metropolitan area.
If you say, “What are the qualities that would encourage you to live in a small town?” you get a list of items. And if you ask, “What are some of the things you don’t like about a small town?” you start getting that kind of feedback, and what emerges is a community that has its own distinct personality and one that truly has a sense of community in so far as people are connected.  People get out of their houses, they interact with their neighbors, and they seek out opportunities to give back into their community. All of this is still very possible with Thompson’s Station because we’re still just a “white piece of paper.”
Planning Our Community
A lot has been invested in our comprehensive land use, planning, our zones and our codes to encourage a certain type of build out in our community; because we know growth is coming. So we’re naïve to think that if we just ignore it, it will go away. Spring Hill is not going away with all of its growth. Franklin with all of its growth is not going away. And here we sit between the two.  Hwy 840 is now open and you start to see the ramifications of the east/west traffic connecting to I-65 and highways 24 and 40. So that means we better say, “let’s get ahead of all of that as much as we can, figure out a way to control the growth, encourage growth to pay for itself and not bet on those who are coming to be good fiscal stewards of what we do have, as well as being good stewards of what is a beautiful part of the world.
And so when people say, “What draws you to Thompson’s Station? Why did you come here?” the emerging theme that comes to me from a lot of people, is that they are close to everything while being away from it all. We’ve been interviewing for new town administrators and one of the candidates actually said something along those lines. He said, “You’re close to everything, but you can get away from it all.” And I think that’s what a lot of folks are choosing when they buy into this part of Williamson County. You can choose Leiper’s Fork, you can choose Fairview, Nolensville, Brentwood, or Franklin; some of those have a very defined personality as a community, but others don’t.
Our community has articulated a vision of having lots of contiguous green space – green space that can be used by the entire community –not walled off behind a gated community.  We don’t want little slivers of green space that may or may not have practical functions for the community.  We want to create a gathering place where we can build on this mythology of a small town, and if we do it correctly, we’re going to have something amazing down the road.  We don’t want to wake up in 40 years and say, “We got it wrong. Now let’s go back and see if we can fix it.”
A Vision For Our Future
If we create the sense of a little vibrant, downtown area, and if we have this contiguous green space – we’re working really hard on a 400-500 acre contiguous park, it would be south Williamson’s Central Park, it would be our Percy Warner Park – that’s the vision we’re fighting for.
That’s what a lot of folks want. How do you have a healthy, engaged community? Not only physically active with hiking, or jogging, or community gardens and those sorts of things that you can do on the park land, but also from a mental health standpoint. If folks know their neighbors, if they are engaged in seeing them at the local restaurant, or they’re engaged at a local ball game with their kids, or there’s a downtown festival at the park, I think that’s what a lot of folks are looking for, and they miss it because right now they come home, they don’t get out of their houses and they go stir crazy.
If we give folks the option to be a connected community, both physically, through the form of connected trail ways throughout our community as well as various venues and social activities, and volunteer charitable activities.  All of this is part of the “the stew” that becomes your community. We talk a lot about that in Thompson’s Station. What is it about us that is going to make us unique and special?
Future Growth and Development
If you have a choice of living anywhere in Tennessee, middle Tennessee, or Williamson County, you start to narrow it down; what are the attributes that you’re buying into? A lot of these things are foundational things that we have in place right now. We have dedicated trail ways, we just purchased 100 acres in the last year and we’re probably going to add to that in the next couple of months which will give us 200 contiguous acres. We are working with federal grant money, we’re working with the school system, we’re working with Spring Hill, we’re talking to Franklin about how to create this idea of multiple stakeholders where it’s not just one particular interest; it’s not just one developers interests.  They are here and they’re building and that’s great, then you have the homeowners who move in and they have their own interests.  You also have the land owners – people who are sitting on 5, 10, 20, 100, a couple hundred acres – who have a place in our community.
So how do you get all of these people to table? How do you get them to buy in? Because when they “buy in” to their community, then you get a lot done without a lot of money.  That’s another big thing, is this public/private collaboration. So for instance, if we take this park idea and say Thompson’s Station stands for contiguous green space and controlled density around our commercial roads; we keep this green core around our town, and then people will say, “I get it!” Then they’ll say, “Well what can you do at this park?”
You can put in trail ways, horse paths, community gardens, bird sanctuaries, or a learning laboratory where the kids from Heritage and Independent High School can gather and partner with corporations that are yet-to-come. Let’s just say Mars for example; if we partner with Mars or someone else who is working on dog health or human/dog health combined, and they are a zero landfill company, what can we learn from them? How can we partner with them? You’ll get people utilizing that park in ways we haven’t even thought about. Maybe we’d have a humungous compositing arrangement that allows for the food residue from the cafeterias of these schools to be taken there. Then we can create organic matter than can be put on the community yard. If we’re using a non-end point discharge sewer system, how do you use that water? How do you drip that on fields in an age when people are very worried about water?
So there are these opportunities towards sustainability and it really comes back to controlling our destiny. There’s a little bit of this “Field of Dreams” thing – build it and they will come! But once they come, you’ve got to get them engaged. You’ve got to say, “get out , participate, and be a part of this!”
Defining Our Priorities
Magic happens when you can define 2-3 priorities that everybody can get behind. So our priorities now are: What should we be doing with our little downtown area? Right now the government owns a lot of that land and the buildings in that downtown area. Maybe we need to free that up for private businesses to be able to open; things like small offices or other retail establishments. People will have a place to come on the weekends and there are things to do. If it’s right by that park they can spend 2-3 hours getting their exercise in, maybe see a few neighbors, maybe learn something while out on the trails and enjoy what is some of the prettiest topography in all of the country.
There are multiple “win” opportunities, but I keep calling Thompson’s Station “Tennessee’s Village Green.”  This is a concept that we are a village in the bigger and ever increasing metropolitan area of Nashville. We are a little green oasis where people can basically have it all; they can have their own community and they can have the type of things that lead to a very high quality of life. But it’s going to take a lot of us working for years to come – well after I’m gone. So for those of us who have been involved for a number of years have likened what we’ve been doing to putting foundational stones in place. Then as people come, you just add to that foundation.
The Future of Transportation
In 15-20 years we’re going to have a lot more people here so transportation is going to continue to be a biggie – there’s no way around it. But why can’t we work regionally – and we ARE with Spring Hill and Franklin – to try and be smart about ways we’re moving people around which may or may not involve people getting in a car. There’s been a lot of talk about a light rail coming north to south through middle Tennessee. My guess is there’s a good chance it will come through Thompson’s Station. As we think about where to direct growth, we say it’s probably good to have some higher density, so let’s put it where there’s a good chance the light rail could pick up those folks and bring them into Cool Springs or Nashville.
Our Long-Term Goals
So getting back to the planning aspect of things, let’s not think about today and what might mean dollar signs, or impact fees, or other things that a city might get immediately.  Rather, where is the right place for things to go? And for our town, the vision a number of years ago was that there was certain zoning areas based on a comprehensive land use plan that directs the conversation with developers, homeowners, and elected officials so they can have a better conversation. They can say, “Hey, that’s a good idea, but it would really be better over here.” Or, if they really want to develop this piece of property, and it lends itself to being better developed, then they have to give us at least 50% green space per our ordinance.  Or why don’t they go get us the cash and/or find us the green space that makes sense so everybody can use it as opposed to just trying to carve out an odd spot on a property to develop it.  We want to be mindful of that and it’s called transfer of development rights; where you can transfer some of you density to certain areas and in return you give cash or land. And, “oh by the way, that land might be good for our sewer system.”
And so when you start thinking about how you grow a town efficiently without slapping everybody with a tax increase, sometimes it’s just getting the right people around the table saying, “let’s not just look for one win, let’s look for 2 or 3 wins.” I think that’s been part of our ethos in Thompson’s Station. We’re an itty-bitty community with a 4 million dollar per year budget with a lot of tenant growth pressure. There’s pressure increase on our sewer system, and you know, as the sewer goes, so does the town go.
Dealing With the Demands of Growth
So how do you work with these developers who are interested in your area and say, “If you want to come here you have to be part of the solution, because we are not going to jack up our tax rate just to bring you a sewer.” There is a level of discipline that I think has served us well.  We’ve probably got 5-10 years worth of build out yet in the larger subdivisions in Thompson’s Station; places like Tollgate, Bridgemore, Canterbury, and a few other small ones.  As those fill out we’ll increase the tax base and so forth, and so on, but there’s this concept of stair step investment; at some point you just have to suck it up and make it a larger investment. But let’s not make that decision any sooner than we have to because we had a ring-side seat to learn some lessons during this last recession.
Lessons Learned
We sat here with subdivisions with 2%, 5%, 10% occupancy and there were homeowners that plopped down a lot of money for their home, only to see so much of their home equity evaporate. And on top of that, to add insult to injury, everything around them was going bankrupt; the builders were going bankrupt, there were snakes in the tall grass next their house, the infrastructure in the subdivision on the way into their house was crumbling.  So developers, homeowners, and the town all learned lessons about not getting so far down the path. Then what happened was we all got back around the table to ask how we could get started again.
So where we sit today from a build out standpoint is, we set a record in housing starts; we had about 180-190. In the dark days of recession (2008) we might have had 3-5, just to put that into perspective. We think we can do another 200-250 provided monetary policy and mortgages stay reasonable.  It’s good to see the trades working again and houses being built in the subdivisions. Some of the discussion for us as it relates to the housing product and stock relates to the build out and the concept of when they started x,y, or z subdivision the paradigm was a 3,000-4,000 square foot home at $200 a square foot build out. Well those weren’t really selling for a few years, but you could sell a house that was 2/3 the size and maybe $125-$150 per square foot, and the houses started moving. So there’s been this adjustment to the market; that’s helped some people and it’s hurt other folks, and there are folks sitting in our town that will probably have to be here a long time to get back some of their investment.
But I think that if we get it right from a quality of life standpoint, and you bring in the parks, then we continue to become a more and more desirable place, so those homeowners are going to come back just fine. And we can do so without speculative plays by consumers or developers; we can have a controlled and manageable, steady uptick in home prices.  Because Spring Hill is running out of land in Williamson County, which has been the preference for development, and Franklin is moving down the I-65 corridor with Berry Farms, and here’s Thompson’s Station that straddles 840 and basically controls 2-3 major interchanges on 840 and we’re going to continue to be in the sights of those that want to develop and/or invest, like Mars or Shelter, with a big commercial investment.
Leveraging Our Prime Location
So I really see our community developing out as a place that is a good option to Brentwood or Cool Springs, from an office complex standpoint.  Mars is probably a good example again, where you have might have manufacturing facilities throughout Tennessee, but Thompson’s Station is a good choice for your headquarters because of the ease of getting to those facilities for administration; put your headquarters here and you can get to the east or west parts of Tennessee, or the southern part of the state pretty quickly.
And conversely, people that live in Murfreesboro or Franklin and so forth, can get to this part of the world pretty quickly in reverse commute. So I see that the home prices have stabilized, they went up, and at one point last year Thompson’s Station had the highest increase in home values year-to-year. I don’t think that’s sustainable, but I do think that we’re in a growing corridor, and by us publicly articulating that we’re investing in our community and that we’re being good fiscal stewards of our money, I think people can count on having a stable tax base and buying into a good school system.  Hopefully they see a community with a sense of purpose that generally knows where it wants to go.  So for those whose home value is a big part of their retirement or their “nest egg”, if they are making a long term investment in Thompson’s Station, I want them to see the fruits of their investment down the road. But there might be more density in Thompson’s Station than some had originally anticipated in various areas, but all the while we maintain an atmosphere where chickens can cross the roads, we have cows as neighbors, and yet people can come together and have a good bluegrass jam downtown on a plaza that’s yet-to-be-built.
We have things going on in our community center and park year round so there’s some magic yet-to-be crafted for this community. As people from all over the world move here – it’s amazing – there are people from a variety of countries living here that have moved here with American companies or their foreign companies. You find a lot of folks that have purchased here have regional sales responsibilities for big companies. They could live anywhere, but they choose here for a reason.
Quality of Life In Our Community
And of course we have trailing grandparents whose kids and grandkids are in and around Williamson County, and this is a good spot. So from a housing stock standpoint, you’re probably going to see a mixture of things that have targeted seniors, but I think as we’re seeing with Franklin, you don’t have too many old folks in your community. They might not clog up your school system, and they might spend a lot of money, but it may not be creating quite what they expected when they thought about a good mix of ages, demographics, and incomes. And it becomes too much of an expensive place for young people to live.  I think that’s something we’re challenged with in Williamson County; how do we create a live, work, play community in Thompson’s Station where you’ve got the “20-somethings” jogging with their kids in the park, and yet grandma and grandpa are over there walking their dog, right?
So over time I would really love to see Thompson’s Station develop not only as a bedroom community to Nashville – because it will be, and it will inevitably be described as one – but also as  its own distinct community where people can choose to live here, work in a local company, and walk or ride their bike to work. They don’t have to go to Nashville unless they want to go see a Predators or Titans game or the symphony.
Thompson’s Station will appeal to a certain type of person; if you like the downtown, urban environment, then it’s a good thing that Nashville has that going on. There’s a process that’s distinct: you can live out in the country because we all like the small town country feel, but we’re going to have a number of the amenities that you like in progressive towns.
The Impact of Telecommunications
One other thing that has yet to be articulated, and we might get started on this year, is coming up with a better telecommunications mission statement for our town. Chattanooga has a “super wi-fi” thing going on; they wanted to have the biggest fiber optic pipe going into everybody’s home in Hamilton County. I think we can learn from that with our jobs in the future where we work from our homes. If we create an environment where people know they can do their work, and their kids can learn online, that’s one of those things that you might see from a tangible standpoint, but it will make a huge difference in the types of companies that will locate here. And parents are making choices about where they can educate their kids, and if they choose Williamson County, they can choose Thompson’s Station because we “get it” and we’re being progressive about telecommunications, and activity.  And we’re working with the school system on lots of hands-on learning things – not just theory, but things they can apply in some of these projects out in the park.
That could be huge and it will be something that helps create stability. Like I said, we’re still early with all of this in certain respects, but I think we’ve made some good progress we’ve got a comprehensive land use plan and that articulates a lot of the key values of our community and that open space, being involved, and volunteering, and connectivity with trail ways, and so forth. So if we can continue to honor that and build around it, I think we’re going to end up with something incredible

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