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Economic boom fizzles while Spring Hill waits

July 10, 2009

Economic boom fizzles while Spring Hill waits

Major new development, cinema on hold for now

By Jill Cecil Wiersma

SPRING HILL — Just a few years ago, Spring Hill celebrated its status as one of the country’s fastest-growing cities.

Things screeched to a halt last year, leaving some big plans to wither on the vine or at least be put off indefinitely.

Those plans include Phase II of The Crossings, which was to include a hotly desired movie theater; the nearly 1,000-acre development on the R.C. Alexander farm, where the sign "contract pending" has been up for more than a year; and a 400-acre development around Rippavilla, the historic mansion of the former plantation.

Two of those plans are probably being affected by the uncertain future of the General Motors manufacturing plant on the south end of the city.

And while the economy has deterred growth, it hasn’t wrecked plans for a 56-bed hospital off Kedron Road. Officials expect a decision on the HCA TriStar facility, delayed for the past three years by the appeals process, to be made Aug. 19 in Davidson County Chancery Court.

Tim Scarvey, vice president of strategic planning and development for TriStar, said TriStar still believes Spring Hill is a viable site for a new facility, regardless of the economy and a possible GM plant closing.

No movie theater yet

The city’s young families have been clamoring for more things to do locally, like the opportunity to take in a movie. A large chunk of the city’s population — 42 percent — is made up of people in their 30s and children 9 years old and younger, according to the city’s special census in 2007.

But plans for a movie theater have fallen by the wayside since Brentwood-based GBT Realty let its contract expire for the 50 acres adjacent to The Crossings, a 63-acre development GBT opened early last year.

"It didn’t make sense to hold onto that land," said Geren Moor, GBT’s chief financial officer. "It’s on hold until the environment changes in the economy and the retail world."

The second phase of The Crossings was to include a theater, hotels, more retailers and restaurants, plus medical office buildings. Moor said GBT is wary of taking on a second phase because the entities they would be leasing space to are waiting for the economy to improve before they take the risk of investing in new locations.

For all the city’s new businesses, there remains no nearby place to see a flick. A movie theater in Spring Hill would spare families a road trip, 15 miles to Shady Brook Cinemas in Columbia or 22 miles to Carmike Cinemas Thoroughbred 20 in Franklin. Many believe it would be a boon to the city.

Moor said people have said a theater would do well in Spring Hill, but he said it will take a stronger economy to lure one to town.

"They’re in the bunkers right now," he said of movie theaters nationwide.

It’s among the "Spring Hill wish list" items posted on Facebook members of the "I heart Spring Hill" group, where many of its 79 posts include mention of a movie theater.

Kory and Amanda Knipp told Williamson A.M. five years ago that they wanted a theater. They say they hope it’s still a possibility, even with the struggling economy.

"I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t go to it," he said, noting that they packed up their 4- and 6-year-olds the past two weekends to see Up and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinasaurs in Franklin.

It’s the only thing that keeps them going to Franklin, Kory Knipp said. He’s sure a theater in Spring Hill would be a regional draw, like the new stores at The Crossings.

"If we can support a huge Target and those other stores, I don’t think a movie theater would have any problem doing well here, even now," he said. "If we had one, we could just stay in Spring Hill and not have to travel out."

Rippavilla land

Mention of a movie theater also came up amid plans for the roughly 400 acres surrounding Rippavilla Plantation.

But since that land is owned by General Motors, it’s not yet known how the corporation’s bankruptcy would affect a deal that once was negotiated between GM and SLF Acquisitions.

A contract expired at the end of last year in which SLF was to buy (at an undisclosed price) the roughly 500 acres across the street from the manufacturing plant. In it, SLF agreed to donate 100 acres around the former plantation house to Rippavilla Inc.

Attorney Randy Hardison said his client is still interested in buying the land but is watching the situation cautiously.

"We’re going to have to wait and see who the owner of the property is going to be," he said. "We don’t really know the answer to that."

Hardison speculates that the firm that’s handling the bankruptcy proceedings could liquidate that acreage.

"Assuming that happens, do we want it until we know what happens to the land across the street?" he said of the plant itself. "We’re in a holding pattern right now."

He also said GM could sell off the land to help pay its bondholders. Another option is that the state will buy the land and use it to attract new industry.

"The worst thing that could happen is that GM passes that plant onto the ‘new GM’ and they leave that plant idle," he said. "Surely they’ll say they’ve got way too much money invested in that plant to do that."

SLF’s plans have includedresidential areas, apartments, a hotel, a theater, restaurants and retail and office space. According to SLF’s figures, the development would generate an estimated $1.9 million in adequate facilities taxes for Spring Hill and would annually generate nearly $1.4 million in property taxes and $5.9 million in sales taxes.

Hardison said it was hoped that a first phase could start in the next three to five years. When the economy turned, that got pushed back to more like 10 years. Now, he said, he wouldn’t venture a guess. At this point, his client is hoping to get the land at a lower price with a cautious wait-and-see attitude.

"But what retailer is going to come in right now?" Hardison said. "Retailers aren’t doing anything. They had wanted to build some big-box retailers, a grocery store and some other things, like a movie theater, but it’s going to be a lot slower now. And without the plant, I don’t know if they’ll be willing to take that risk."

Alexander farm

It’s been a year and three months since the words "contract pending" appeared on the signs posted along the 907-acre R.C. Alexander farm.

The prospective buyer, Franklin developer Robert N. Moore, said he is still under contract with the auto dealer but noted "the economy hasn’t helped any" in furthering his plans for "a major commercial shopping center" including retail, restaurants, hotels and a mixture of other uses including office, apartments and homes.

Moore also indicated that plans for the city’s GM plant could factor into a final decision on whether to close on the land. The plant’s roughly 2,500 employees have no work to return to in November, when the Chevy Traverse production line moves to Lansing, Mich.

"We’re concerned about it," Moore said about that impact on the city. "Obviously, when you want to have a commercial center, you need people who are gainfully employed. The more people you’ve got employed, the better."

Moore said he considers himself still in the "homework and planning stage" with this purchase. He said he’s grateful that Alexander has been "very understanding and flexible" in allowing him time.

"It’s a beautiful tract of land," he said. "We’re not in a hurry, but we’re not sitting back resting either. This is such a large tract of land, we never thought it would be an overnight development."

Just across Buckner Lane, some homeowners in the Cameron Farms subdivision have been wondering what happened to Moore’s plans. He had promised to seek community input after he buys the property and starts on those plans.

"I just assumed it was the economy," said Mary Wunderlin, who hopes Moore preserves some of the land’s rural character.

"It’s kind of nice because it’s not all dirt hills right now," she said. "But it’s not nice to have a hurting economy. I still think it’s pretty the way it is."

The property could become a key corridor for city growth because the city’s major thoroughfare identifies part of it, cutting across from Buckner Road, as a future interchange at Interstate 65 by the year 2025.

Hospital date nears

The city’s future looked a lot different four years ago when city officials asked HCA’s TriStar Health Systems to consider building a hospital in the city.

It was the city’s biggest year for growth, with 1,451 building permits issued, compared with the roughly 400 that were issued last year.

Nonetheless, TriStar continues to battle officials with Williamson Medical Center and Maury Regional Hospital, who have tied up TriStar’s plans for nearly three years.

Originally, TriStar leaders hoped to open the hospital in early 2010, but at this point, it could be sometime next year before the appeals process is exhausted and it’s known if the hospital will be built.

TriStar’s Scarvey says the company expects Spring Hill hospital to result in an approximately $115 million investment, for the hospital and a medical office building. He said they expect to fill approximately 300 full-time jobs with $28 million annually in salaries and associated benefits.

"It’s a great location," he said. "We think that Spring Hill, having its own hospital will bring it even more attention."


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