Ground work

With 840 construction nearing its end, Dickson County preps for a stint in the development sun [From the July/August issue of Nashville Post magazine]

It’s been a long time coming. Actually, it’s still coming.

But when the southwestern section of State Route 840 is completed in late 2012, it will give Dickson County a direct connection to the southern half of Middle Tennessee and a clearer path toward becoming a healthy bedroom community that will compete for families and jobs with the likes of Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet and Murfreesboro.

Work on 840 was launched by the gubernatorial administration of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander almost 25 years ago, with an initial plan — since cut in half — to encircle the Greater Nashville area. And while its progress has been halted at times by cost and environmental concerns as well as a number of lawsuits, the highway has contributed to the development of Wilson County — think distribution centers near its meeting with Interstate 40 — and Rutherford and Williamson counties, where mixed-use projects have risen or been planned.

In Dickson County, officials see the road’s completion as a way to continue branching out from a traditionally industrial base that has been hit hard by the Great Recession. Over time, 840’s quick link to Interstate 24 and the rest of the Southeast should make Dickson and neighboring Burns one of the region’s targets for distribution facilities.

But Dickson isn’t out to be a one-trick pony. It has long served as a regional hub for parts of Hickman, Humphreys and Cheatham counties. A study conducted for the YMCA — which has 10 acres set aside at an emerging multi-use development — showed that a Dickson County recreation center would be able to draw from a market of more than 120,000 people, a number larger than Smyrna’s.

“I think we’ll see some developers as the economy improves. The land costs and development costs are lower here,” said David Hamilton, president and CEO of the Dickson County Chamber of Commerce. “I hope we see housing growth. It’s a great option for commuters working in Williamson County.”

The reverse may also become true over time. Carlyle Carroll, vice president of economic development at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, foresees the confluence of 840 and I-40 becoming a draw for call centers and other back-office projects.

Other factors already are in place. HCA’s TriStar Health System three years ago opened the Natchez Medical Park south of I-40. The 66-acre campus now houses a range of providers, including Dickson Medical Associates, which a year ago opened an 83,000-square-foot building.

Eric Thornton, a real estate attorney with Ramsey Thornton & Barrett and co-developer of the Crestview Park office and retail project south of Dickson, is adding to the momentum. He and his partners have built 137,000 square feet of office space at Crestview Park and recruited several medical tenants. They will add another 27,000 square feet this fall and begin work on the shopping component next spring.

“Dickson is the last frontier,” Thornton said, comparing the city to Middle Tennessee areas such as Smyrna and Mt. Juliet. “Look at those communities and you have a crystal-clear road map for the next five years.”

But there are questions about the area’s capacity to absorb the expected growth. Fred Kane, vice president at Cassidy Turley, said county planners are “between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to schools and other social services.

“The question is, ‘Does the area become Lebanon-like,’” Lane said, referring to that city’s warehouse hub. “You need something to start it off. You need jobs to kick-start tax collection. Otherwise, it’s tough to run a city when you’ve got 20,000 people.”

In that respect, a long recession may actually have done Dickson County a favor. Had 840’s completion hit in the go-go environment earlier this decade, the county would have struggled to keep up with the demands of new subdivisions, office parks and distribution centers. Today, the area awaits growth with a much shorter infrastructure to-do list.

“Sewer has been extended to Fairview and to Hickman County, we’ve built a second high school and there are plans for a middle school,” Thornton said. “The county is not going to have to play catchup.”

Hamilton still kind of wants to, though. He has applied for a grant to help lead the process for a master ECD plan for the county.

“We don’t want to let growth overrun us,” he said.