Developers' hunt hurt by bad economy

Friday, October 17, 2008

A local delegation has returned from a shopping center business convention in Atlanta where businessmen realized that some of America's economic facts of life had come home to roost.

"The economy has tightened up to where it would appear that they're not going into risky markets," Chapel Hill Town Administrator Mike Hatten said, adding that some businesses may want to look further into this market, but others won't.

He and others in a delegation led by Mike Wiles, executive director of the Marshall County Economic and Community Development Board, attended the annual southeastern convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers to recruit new businesses for this area.

"Some of the businessmen -- if you don't have 70,000 people in a five mile radius, they wouldn't talk with you," said Hatten, who declined to name businesses in conversations at the convention "because sometimes it just depends on the representative.

"For example," he said, "we spoke with a representative (at a similar convention he attended) in Las Vegas who wasn't interested in Chapel Hill, but in Atlanta, the next rep (for the same company) saw us as a strong contender."

By Halloween, a representative from the chain "eatery" may be scouting Chapel Hill and Marshall County, Hatten said.

By Thanksgiving, he may know whether it was more trick than treat.

"Southern hospitality" and a welcoming climate for business seemed to turn the trick when Lewisburg Industrial recruiter Terry Wallace was talking to an industrialist from Connecticut during a lunch provided for people attending the shopping center association's convention.

"He said if he had to have rezoning done in the north, he'd expect to have to wait a year or more, or just to get a site plan approved," Wallace reported. "The folks in the north are thinking they should come down for some southern hospitality.

"I told him that we'd have been able to accomplish it in a couple of months."

The widening of Mooresville Highway past the Lewisburg Business Park and onto Interstate 65 is one project Wallace described to people he met during the Atlanta conference.

Yet, sometimes the prospects are here in Tennessee, he said. A Brentwood developer may soon be examining the Mooresville Highway exit where a couple of convenience stores have been closed. Williams Market on the east side of I-65 was bought by the state to accommodate the wider road.

Nearby, Wallace continued, "There are 25 acres of prime property... The owner died early this year and his estate is trying to market it. It just makes sense when the four-lane gets in there. It will develop. There will have to be some commercial down there."

Information like that -- and much more, was made available to prospects on small, portable, electronic memory sticks that still had open memory available to the user who could also read about Marshall County, Wallace said, crediting Lewisburg employee Greg Lowe for arming the delegation with 100 $10 memory sticks.

Compact discs were distributed to contacts made during the Las Vegas convention.

JECDB Executive Director Wiles complimented "teamwork" among members of the delegation representing the county, Lewisburg, Chapel Hill and Cornersville.

"We had a good booth and displayed the county well," Wiles said. "We have a good location between Nashville and Birmingham."

Many of the retail businesses Wiles hopes to attract here "work through developers," he said. "So the retailers aren't all there (at the convention) themselves. There are some fast foods there like McDonald's. A lot had representatives but no booths, so we had to try to locate them."

Wiles said that a great deal of the work is finding the right person who's ready to receive this county's economic pitch, and then being available when they call back.

"One called me on the cell phone while we were on the way home," Wiles said. "Some just said 'Call later or send an e-mail.'"

As for the convention in Atlanta of the International Council of Shopping Centers this year, Wiles reports what he heard from others who've been there before, "They say it was a little bit bigger last year .... because of the economic state."

So, while it's impossible to know when this kind of recruiting trip will bear fruit, Wiles said, "I think we're going to have to do this kind of thing on a regular basis to keep it going, and continue to work on it."

Wallace put it this way, "You got to play to win. You've got to be there."