By failing to get young professionals who work at local industries to live in Decatur, Jeff Parker believes, the city loses valuable long-term residents.
Parker, owner of Jeff Parker Real Estate and active in commercial and residential developments, has watched with frustration as high-paid young professionals working at Decatur industries locate in Madison apartments.
"Decatur needs some Class A apartments to house young professionals working at local industries," Parker said. "What happens is they're going over to Madison and leasing an apartment there. When they do that, even though they have a commute, it becomes too easy for them. Decatur loses them forever. They're going to drive here to work and take their money right back across the river."
Parker also is trying to sell a downtown property: the former Central Baptist Church at 400 Grant St. S.E. If he can market it as an upscale apartment building, he hopes to both make a sale and take a step in attracting young professionals to Decatur.
"People are not viewing it as a church," Parker said. "The construction is all concrete and steel between the floors and all brick on the outside, so it makes for a great conversion."
Parker is in the early stages of developing his plan, but already he has attracted the interest of out-of-town developers with experience in developing downtown residential properties.
"This is strictly lines on a paper right now, but we're doing some outside-the-box thinking," Parker said. "A developer would have to put a lot of skin in the game and invest in Decatur to do something like this."
Developers, he explained, just want to see a return on their investment. In pitching the Grant Street property, he is trying to convince them the risk is minimal.
His first step was meeting with executives at various industries. If he could provide up-scale apartment living in downtown Decatur, would their companies be interested in long-term leases?
It was an easy pitch.
"Our industries are the first to realize their people need a place to stay when they come here," Parker said. "I have people coming in here saying they want to rent an apartment, and I have nowhere to take them. I'm not going to take them to some place I wouldn't put my own family in."
Decatur companies pay lots of money housing new and short-term employees in local hotels or expensive Madison properties. If they could cut their costs and reduce the commute time, why not?
"If we can make the cash flow work and we've got it pre-leased from major companies, it pretty much takes the risk out of it for the developer," Parker said.
Parker's next step was to have an architect do a rough proposal on how to divide the old church into 20 apartments, ranging from three-bedroom units to lofts. The results were striking. The solid brick exterior of the building would be complemented with interior brick, aged wood and luxury accommodations. A building that will not sell as a church may have value to upscale tenants.
Rent for the apartments probably will be high for Decatur, but not for Madison.
"If I can rent them this freshly renovated three-bedroom unit for $150 less than they'd pay in Madison, it's a win-win. We win as a community. The developer wins by making a return on his investment, which means he'll want to come back and do it again," Parker said. "It's a win for everybody."
The city is paying attention to what it lacks in attracting housing developments, especially those that appeal to upper-income employees of Decatur industries. Parker's focus is on the benefits the city already has.
One of those benefits, for the first time in years, is an increasingly vibrant downtown.
"We invested in downtown with our office at the corner of Fourth and Grant," Parker said. "A variety of businesses have located downtown. You've got Mellow Mushroom. All these things are feeding on one another, and everybody's looking to get in on the action. It's building off other activity, which is a lot of how retail development works."
He recognizes the community has concerns about its schools, but he is pursuing young professionals less likely to have children.
"If we just had terrible schools it might factor into a development like this, but we don't," Parker said.
Parker's idea fills an important niche, and could accelerate ongoing downtown redevelopment efforts.
"High-end apartments are an important piece of the puzzle," said Stratton Orr. Orr, who has participated in residential developments, is president of Petroleum Sales Inc. and has been actively involved in Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce efforts to promote the city to new residents. "If we can get people living here early in their career — when they're single or newly married — I think they're more likely to want to stay here due to friendships, involvement with local churches and organizations and other ties. They'll want to buy or build a house and make Decatur their permanent home."
Get them early, Orr said, or not at all.
"If we have nowhere for them to live early, those relationships take root somewhere else and are difficult to dislodge," Orr said.
The long-term goal, in other words, is not to attract lots of high-income but short-term apartment dwellers. Decatur needs them to plant roots, so the community can benefit from their success. The city routinely loses out to neighboring communities when trying to convince executives to locate in Decatur. They prefer a lengthy commute to a Decatur home.
The focus on upscale housing is not elitist, just pragmatic. Decatur has existing homes that meet the incomes of most workers. By losing the executives with higher incomes, the city is exporting lots of disposable income — valuable both in expanding retail and in boosting the tax base — over the river.
The most important step, said Jack Fite of Fite Building Co., is "having public and private school systems that attract and retain families."
Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols is spearheading a drive to improve the appearance and effectiveness of a school system anchored by two high schools that are each more than a half century old. A strategic plan, under development, is scheduled for release in May.
Schools play an important role in attracting developers, said Decatur Community and Economic Development Director Wally Terry. North of the Tennessee River, he said, developments tend to cluster around new elementary schools.
"Schools will play a key role in attracting developers, builders and families to our community as they did in years past," Terry said.
In the course of community meetings on how to improve the school system, officials also asked how the city could be improved. With remarkable consistency, residents complained about the appearance of Sixth Avenue Southeast.
Business leaders agree.
"I think doing what we can regarding zoning on Sixth Avenue would make our city more appealing to potential residents," said Orr. "The west side of Sixth Avenue is showing signs of success. We need to examine what can be done on the east side of Sixth Avenue to continue this momentum. Otherwise, one side of Sixth Avenue will improve, while the other side will continue to deteriorate."
Just as Parker is trying to make it easy for developers to embrace downtown apartments, Terry believes the city needs to limit the challenges for developers considering subdivisions.
"We need to be more developer-friendly as a city in extending utilities and other infrastructure to compete with north-of-the-river developments to new subdivisions," Terry said.
Eric Fleischauer can be reached at 256-340-2435 or email@example.com.
A shortage of high-end housing has long hampered Decatur's ability to capitalize on its industrial base. High-income employees often work in Decatur, but live in neighboring communities.
Britt Sexton, chief executive officer of Sexton Inc., a developer of several riverfront condominiums and a member of Morgan County Industrial Park and Economic Development Cooperative District, compiled ideas from various business leaders.
Their wish list on increasing residential development:
Improve retail options, an effort which they say is progressing.
Improve the appearance of Sixth Avenue Southeast, which they say is slowly progressing.
Maintain easy access to Huntsville.
Work with local plants to encourage employees to live in Decatur.
Pay attention to schools.
Develop a sense of community within neighborhoods.
Pursue developers willing to build spec homes, because many people who are relocating want to move in immediately.
Provide infrastructure incentives to developers.
Continue improving downtown Decatur.
Not registered? Click here
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|