Franklin’s leaders are trying to decide what to do about a valuable piece of property on the outskirts of downtown, and they’re hiring outside consultants to help them.
The town purchased the Whitmire property in January 2005 for $1,585,373 with plans to build a new municipal complex to house town hall, police department and public works.
The town board later changed its mind and decided to renovate a building on Main Street for a new town hall instead, leaving the Whitmire property without an express purpose.
The 13-acre property, appraised at $2.15 million in August 2008, is by far the largest piece of undeveloped land remaining in the greater downtown area. Last week, the Franklin town board voted to hire a development consultant to provide options for the sale of the tract, along with the old town hall building on Main Street.
The fate of the Whitmire property was a point of contention in this year’s town mayoral race between Alderman Bob Scott and Mayor Joe Collins. Collins favored getting the property back on the tax rolls, and Scott wanted to use the property as a public space, possibly a town park.
Scott cast the lone opposition vote to the plan to bring in development consultants.
“My feelings haven’t changed. In no way should the town do anything with that property other than use it for the public. I don’t want to see a big box (store) in there,” Scott said. “I do have a problem with surplusing it because that’s the last piece of undeveloped land in the town, and it has so much potential for public use.”
Collins pushed for bringing in a development consultant.
“We thought by doing that we could take some of the bias and some of the emotion out of it to get as focused an idea as we can,” Collins said.
Sam Greenwood, Franklin town manager, said developing the property could give the town an important source of financial stability, because it would likely realize a profit on the sale while at the same time returning the property to the tax rolls.
Realtor Evelyn Owens of Keller Williams in Franklin said that while the market is down the value of the Whitmire property should remain stable. She estimated that the property would fetch close to $150,000 per acre today with a total selling price between $1.8 and $2 million.
The future of Whitmire
The issue now is what to do with it. Scott said he intends to watch the discussion closely because he fears the board is intent on getting money out of the property without looking hard at the future implications of selling it.
“When are we ever going to get a piece of land like that? Most people are still stuck in the 1950s mindset of build, build, build without a thought to what the costs would be in the long run,” said Scott.
Collins said Scott’s fear that the town would develop the Whitmire property without adequate planning is misplaced.
“I don’t think anyone around the table envisions getting a check and just hoping the development makes sense,” Collins said.
Collins for his part said he foresees a mixed-use development that could add housing density and retail space in an important commercial district.
Collins said that because the town owns the property outright, it could dictate terms of any purchase, including what a developer plans to do with the property. It could sell the property with restrictions or partner in a public-private development venture.
“If they come in and give us ideas we haven’t thought about, we should have an open mind,” Collins said. “The bottom line is it needs to be utilized. It’s too valuable to be sitting vacant.”
Alderman Sissy Patillo, who also voted to bring in a consultant, said she wanted to know what the options were.
“Doing this doesn’t mean we sell it. It doesn’t mean we develop it,” Patillo said. “It just gives us options.”
Patillo also touted the potential for a mixed-use development.
“In an ideal world, I would like to see it developed with lots of green space interconnected with other areas with mixed usage and affordable housing,” Patillo said.
Owens supports the idea of a mixed-use space that incorporates small retail, residential condos and town homes and integrated greenspace.
“I’ve been saying this for eight years, we really need some town homes closer to the downtown,” Owens said.
Owens said homes between $150,000 and $250,000 would be ideal.
“Affordable housing, yes,” Owens said. “I think it needs to be maintenance free and if they could have condos and town homes with different price points and a nice park area, that would be great,” Owens said.
Owens said consultants would bring impartial knowledge to the table, but they might not fully understand the needs of the community and the market in Franklin.
Greenwood said the board’s intent was to move the project forward patiently.
“There’s no sense of urgency to it other than trying to get the property back to work so to speak,” Greenwood said.