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VOL. 37 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 26, 2013

Questions remain for downtown Franklin hotel/condo/retail development

By Hollie Deese

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Joel Tomlin’s Landmark Booksellers on Franklin’s East Main Street would be surrounded by  the Harpeth Square development. The prospect of increased business would be worth it, he says.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Joel Tomlin packs up merchandise in the back building of Landmark Booksellers, the downtown Franklin business he has run with his wife for the past eight years.

Tomlin sold a portion of his building space last October to make room for a big – by Franklin standards – new downtown development. And while some business owners might be miffed about the turn of events, Tomlin isn’t.

“I’m thrilled to death,” says Tomlin, whose book business will continue in its main building on East Main Street near First Avenue.

Harpeth Square, the working name for the project, needs much more space than Tomlin’s back room. The goal is to build a downtown boutique hotel with about 100 rooms to boost tourism. Condos, apartments, retail and parking also are part of the mix.

The proposed development would take up the majority of a city block, roughly 4.5 acres, from First Avenue to Second Avenue and from East Main Street to Bridge Street, filling up a mainly vacant lot.

Local businessmen Jay Franks and J. Roderick Heller III are owner investors currently looking for the right developers for the project under the newly-formed Harpeth Associates LLC.

“There are a lot of factors that point to Franklin being the geographic, historic and artistic center of the state soon,” Heller says.

“We just saw the potential of developing a project which would be consistent with not only where Franklin is now, but with what a great little town it will increasingly be in the future.”

Heller and Franks have acquired eight of the nine parcels needed for the property and aim to have developers in place in the next few months, one for the hotel and another for the condos and apartments, giving the entire project a consistent look that will fit in with the historic character of the area.

“We started in September 2012, and we have five plots,” Heller says. “We have a contractual right to three more. There’s only one small, 10,000 square-foot-plot which we don’t now have, and it’s not essential for the project.”

The project is estimated to have 50,000 square feet of retail space and cost more than $80 million.

Heller and Franks presented renderings and answered questions about the development at a public meeting last week at the Franklin Theater.

The role the city would play financially is uncertain, specifically the cost of added parking, which could be as much as $10 million.

Brooklyn Byrd hopes the proposed Harpeth Square development would bring more tourists and increased business for her businessess, Johnnie Q boutique, located just down the street.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

The parking structure would be on the 200 block of Main Street, with one level below grade (below ground level) and four above ground level to provide on-level parking for the residential units and immediate access to the hotel facilities.

The plan calls for approximately 800 spaces.

Franklin Mayor Ken Moore says he supports the $80 million development in an underutilized part of town, adding it could bring future revenue to the city. But he knows there are many details to work out, especially when it comes to the city’s contribution to parking.

“We understand that’s an important issue to them,” Moore says of the Harpeth planners. “We have some constraints as a government entity. There are certain things we cannot do, and one of them is provide parking for assigned residential.

“We have some mechanisms and things where we can work on developing parking garages if it is for the public, but when it gets to strictly residential, it is not legal.”

Moore says he has been working with the city’s legal team to understand possible options, but without a final proposal from Franks and Heller, it’s difficult to come up with an appropriate answer.

“This is something that would not be coming from general fund revenue or tax payer dollars,” Moore says. “One option could be that it has to come from the increase in property values and increased revenue coming from the development in that area.

“This is still a work in progress.”

Final design plans will not be submitted until developers and architects are hired, a step that is planned for the next few months. At that point, the owners would have to go through a review process.

Still, Heller says he intends to file the paperwork with city officials by September.

“I am pushing hard for a much higher-end project than anyone has ever contemplated for Franklin, and part of the objective of the meeting was to make people aware of the standards,” Heller says.

Franklin is more than a suburb of Nashville, and the number of tourists hitting up Williamson County for its trifecta of charming destinations of Franklin, Leipers Fork and Nolensville is growing.

The number of people who stopped by the visitor’s center in 2010 was 12,407. In 2011 it was 17,717.

Last year, more than 24,000 stopped by, and this year the center is on pace to hit 30,000 visitors.

“I’ve been in this industry for so long, and visitor centers don’t grow that exponentially,” says Mark Shore, executive director for the Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It just doesn’t happen that way. I think it says a lot for downtown Franklin as a destination.”

Mark Shore, executive director for the Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, says Franklin tourism is growing at a fast pace but would greatly benefit from a downtown hotel.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Shore says a downtown hotel will only increase those numbers.

Tourism in Williamson County generated $332.4 million in spending by visitors in 2011, Shore says, ranking sixth among Tennessee’s 95 counties. That number represents a 12.47 percent increase compared to 2010.

But do more tourists mean more rooms are needed?

The average occupancy for 2012 in Williamson County hotels was 69.8 percent, compared to Davidson County’s was 66.6 percent rate and a state average of 57.7 percent.

Year-to-date occupancy for 2013 is 67.1 percent, and Shore attributes that to an increase of 9.1 percent in room inventory because of the new Drury Plaza at I-65 and McEwen Drive.

But there is no hotel downtown, and that’s a problem, Shore says.

“We had a travel writer in from Germany about two weeks ago, and he said he wanted to stay downtown next time even if the closest bed and breakfast is a long walk,” Shore says.

“We have great hotel amenities, but we don’t have a downtown property. The bed-and-breakfast industry is really limited because they are kind of tucked into the neighborhoods, and so they really have not thrived.

“What is being proposed really fits in well with the image of the downtown Franklin area, and so I think it would do well there.”

Hotels in Cool Springs currently bus people back and forth to downtown Franklin.

“Downtown Franklin desperately needs a hotel,” Tomlin says. “We have customers and tourists come in here every day that have come to historic downtown Franklin, and they are looking for a place to stay.

“And quite honestly, this block is the most undeveloped part of downtown Franklin, and this is where it needs to be. It will complete downtown Franklin, quite honestly.”

Tomlin is not the only area business owner excited for the potential project. Brooklyn Byrd has run Johnnie Q. jewelry and accessories boutique a few blocks from the proposed development for the past two and a-half years and anticipates a consistent boost in sales if all goes well with the project.

“It’s pretty busy, but I can definitely tell a difference when its tourist season because it is super packed [downtown],” Byrd says.

“I think with the hotel coming in, it will make it more consistent and bring even more people and tourists to the area. A little boutique hotel is what we need, and it just adds to the whole specialty thing we have down here.”

The Harpeth Square development aims to solve a few problems that plague the bustling square – namely parking, guest lodging and downtown living which are problems the city has been struggling with for decades.

“We have known for 20 years that we have needed some kind of lodging down here, more than what we already have,” says Nancy Williams, director of the Downtown Franklin Association and Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson Country.

“There have been lots of potential sites and ideas and designs, and we feel like we just keep getting closer.”

Another project aiming to add more rental options is also in the works, a $4 million, 35-unit apartment development at 1319 W. Main St. It passed on first vote, with a public hearing and second vote set for this week.

Despite not having an architect attached to the Harpeth project as of yet, Heller says he has a very specific vision about what the project will look like and bring to the area, mixing new amenities with the historic appeal of Franklin.

He and his wife, Kay, are both from the area and have been active in land preservation. In 2006 they bought the 40-acre site next to Carnton Plantation, where they live part time. Their other home is in Washington D.C.

“Franklin, to me, this is a uniquely lovely town with a marvelous historical background,” Heller says. “I am a strong believer that the best projects financially are the best projects.

“So we’re going to try to build a really first-class project and expect that it will ultimately give financial returns to the town.”

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