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Development wave hits
Mar 19, 2004 12:00 am
MT. JULIET — From plans for gigantic commercial developments to equally massive residential building projects, this once small city is preparing to change the business and commerical identity of Wilson County.
On Thursday, city planners formally reviewed for the first time plans for more than 1,000,000-square-feet of retail projects and for the first phase of the 3,100-home Providence development (See Related Story).
Site plans included Providence Marketplace – a large retail shopping center being developed in conjunction with the Providence residential development – and Mt. Juliet Crossings, a smaller retail center just across South Mt. Juliet Road developed by South Mt. Juliet Holdings.
Planning documents indicate both projects will bring a new business wave to the city, including "big box retailers," a movie theater, doctors' offices and numerous restaurants.
In approving the plans, Mt. Juliet planners likely took the first steps toward transforming the entire county, according to a wide cross section of leaders from across Wilson County.
And while officials were quick to note the influx of new businesses and residents will certainly be accompanied by a host of "growing pains," most agreed the growth should improve the quality of life in Wilson County.
Changing the 'flavor' of the city
Richard Miller, owner of Wilson Tractor and Turf, has overseen day-to-day operations at the Mt. Juliet business for nearly a decade. Miller, president of the Mt. Juliet Rotary Club, said Thursday he expects the wave of new development to reshape the City of Mt. Juliet as well as its citizens.
"I'm hoping it will change the habits of people – that they'll pull out of their driveways and not turn toward Davidson County," Miller said.
Miller was not alone in that respect, as a number of officials contacted by The Lebanon Democrat expressed hope that the unprecedented growth will generate more sales tax revenue for Mt. Juliet and Wilson County.
"It's going to give people options that they didn't have. We've been preaching 'buy Mt. Juliet first' (and) 'buy Wilson County first,' but the sad truth of the matter is that we were preaching something that wasn't quite possible," District 1 City Commissioner Ray Justice commented. "We didn't have any place to buy it. We had hopes and dreams, but that was about it.
"Now, those hopes and dreams are starting to become a reality."
Along with the realization of those dreams will come a greater level of convenience for Mt. Juliet residents and an increased likelihood for more retail establishments in the future, Miller and Coldwell Banker Managing Broker Jeff Rowlett noted.
"I think the biggest thing is just the convenience and the options that we have," Rowlett said. "Having worked here in Mt. Juliet for the last 20 years … it's nice to have different options. I think convenience is going to be the biggest thing in that it will save a trip to Hickory Hollow or Rivergate."
While Rowlett described the business climate in West Wilson as "healthy," he said the incoming retailers will improve the market by serving as a catalyst and fueling additional economic development.
Coupled with the Providence residential development, Rowlett said the commercial development wave will also secure a bright future for the real estate industry in Mt. Juliet.
"With interest rates at 40-year lows and the availability of land, I think the potential for the real estate industry in general – both residential and commercial – is quite good for the next 20 to 25 years," Rowlett remarked. "It's a good time to be in our business."
Such rapid growth will undoubtedly result in some "growing pains" for small, family-owned businesses, Miller said. However, he explained the addition of "good corporate citizens" may ultimately lessen the strain on businesses in Mt. Juliet.
Currently, "most every business in town" sponsors a community sporting team and some, like Miller's, sponsor multiple teams. He explained new businesses could provide residual benefits by contributing to community organizations.
Miller even expressed optimism regarding infrastructure improvements the new wave of development will undoubtedly require.
"I think the biggest challenge that those of us in the retail business that are already here will have is the infrastructure … There's going to be retail businesses in this town on South Mt. Juliet Road that are going to suffer during this construction period because nobody wants to drive down that road," he said. "Our golden opportunity is to try to get past that, and we'll see in five years or seven years that it was the best thing that's ever happened to this town."
On the outside looking in
Elsewhere in the county, government officials echoed the comments of the Mt. Juliet businessmen, noting the growth will pose some problems but, at the same time, bring new benefits.
"I think it's going to be more of a good thing. I'm just tickled to death to see Mt. Juliet starting to grow," Ward 6 Lebanon City Councilor Kathy Warmath said. "These are the types of things that produce sales tax and jobs for our workers in the county, and I just think that's wonderful … As a matter of fact, I think before it's all said and done Wilson County will see growth all the way across."
"I think additional retail and residential growth will give more options for Wilson County and even regional people to come to Mt. Juliet as a destination," Wilson County Joint Economic and Community Development Board Executive Director Holly Sears added.
Lebanon Mayor Don Fox agreed, adding he believes there is no competition between the cities and referring to any alleged division between the two as a "mythical wall."
According to Fox, business developments in Lebanon and Mt. Juliet will only prove to complement one another.
"We're really very different as far as being a market. I think anything that they can get down there is a net addition for Lebanon and the county," Fox said. " … The county will get half of the sales tax, so every penny that the county can make – regardless of where it is – reduces the pressure on the citizens of the cities because we are all county property taxpayers, too. There are no negatives here. It is all positive."
Still, as recently as last year, some Lebanon and Wilson County officials took aim at Mt. Juliet, as residents there do not pay a city property tax. Those who criticized the lack of a property tax in the city maintained that many county-funded services such as schools and fire protection were financially strapped due to the growth in Mt. Juliet, where a property tax could be used to establish citywide fire protection and contribute to education.
Local officials differed as to whether or not the expected increase in sales tax revenue would quell those arguments.
"It will take the heat off only and only if Mt. Juliet decides to adopt a property tax. The bottom line is the sales tax benefits all of us, but if the county dollars have to be spent disproportionately anywhere in the county, then (the sales tax) fails to meet the need," Warmath said. "I'd like to see Mt. Juliet adopt some type of property tax just like we have everywhere else in the county and get us on a level playing field.
"I don't begrudge them for what they've done because they have been small, and they had a whole lot of sales tax generation. But, it seems to me now things are changing, and really, they need to step up to the plate at some point in the future."
Fox, who has in the past been critical of Mt. Juliet due to the lack of a city property tax there, disagreed.
"The county gets about six times the property tax of Lebanon on any and every piece of property … If it locates in Mt. Juliet, the county is the sole beneficiary of the property taxes. Mt. Juliet has no property tax," Fox said. "So, the county makes all of that – half of that goes toward the school systems. Guess what? County school system money is spent all over the county. There's been a lot of improvements at Lebanon High School, the new school at Wilson Central and new and remodeled schools in Mt. Juliet. So, it's good for all of us."
Preparing for the future
While officials are optimistic about the benefits of Mt. Juliet's retail and residential boom, they were quick to note proper preparations must be made in order to accommodate the wave of new development.
"I'm all for all the commercial growth that we can get in the county. I'm not against residential, but I'd rather have the commercial growth if I had a choice," Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman said. "Commercial provides jobs, and the tax rate is higher. They don't require schools and things like that."
And the county's school system is likely to incur the initial brunt of the impact from the Providence residential development, Wilson County Board of Education Chairperson Sonja Robinson said.
Already, she added, school officials have held numerous work sessions to discuss the effect such a large residential project will have on county classrooms.
"It will affect us as far as our occupancy in our schools go and having the space available to put all of them," Robinson said. "We realize where all of the growth is coming from. There is some growth in the east part of the county, but not as much as there is now coming from the west side."
When plans for the Providence development originally surfaced, developers initially stated the project would include a section of land slated for the construction of a new school. Robinson said she has yet to hear any updates regarding those plans, and property manager Dudley Smith could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Dedman added county officials have already begun pondering ways to handle the anticipated influx of new students.
"We're building new schools, and it's going to get to the point where we have to start looking at building on to schools instead of building new schools," Dedman said. "We've got schools in good locations now, and we've got enough land where we can add on to them rather than going out and buying new land and building new schools."
In the meantime, Mt. Juliet city officials have been working to ensure the proper infrastructure is in place to accommodate the growth, including ongoing improvements to the city's sewer system and a number of new road projects.
"We're accelerating the thoroughfare plan that has been around since '95 … which is three corridor connectors – one on the east, one on the west and improving Mt. Juliet Road," Mt. Juliet City Planner Bobby Franklin commented. "I think one of the main things we're trying to do to accommodate all this growth is to build the thoroughfare plan as quickly as our budget will allow."
"Hopefully, we can get things moving very quickly on the Central Pike Interchange," Mt. Juliet Mayor Kevin Mack added, in reference to a proposed project that has been the center of debate amongst city leaders for a number of months. "It will become crucial and critical."
While Justice agreed work toward improving roadways and sewer service has been a good proactive approach, he noted his personal concern that the city's parks program has suffered due to planning for the new growth.
"We can't be so single-minded that we leave everything else in the world out … Our parks program has kind of went by the wayside because of everybody else thinking that everything else was way more important. Quality of life issues are just as important," he said. " … Growth, to me, is a good thing. Managed growth is a great thing."