A look at Franklin’s future

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2008

Amanda Crocker, Franklin’s impressive young city planner, gave local Rotarians the best overview I’ve seen yet of expected residential and commercial growth in the city.

Our newspaper has reported on each of the projects individually over the past couple of years, but Crocker’s PowerPoint presentation Friday afternoon, complete with aerial maps, lent some valuable perspective on what’s in store — short-term and long-term — for our city.

Two observations after seeing Crocker’s presentation:

n Commercial growth is well under way. Visible evidence abounds — from the already-open Lowe’s to the soon-to-open Farm Fresh.

n Residential growth is lagging. In fact, had Crocker given the same presentation two years ago, the residential component would have looked much the same: a total of 1,200 single-family lots in various stages of planning and design, but very little happening in the way of actual construction.

The slow pace of residential development can be attributed mainly to the national housing slump, from which Franklin is not exempted, unfortunately. Given recent trends in the housing market, who can blame a developer with millions of dollars at stake if his feet have gotten a little cold?

Crocker, an Ivor native and Windsor High graduate who has degrees from William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth, acknowledged the effect of the housing slump on residential growth. Full occupancy of the 1,200 planned residential lots is at least 20 years away, possibly 30, she predicted.

So with commercial construction plowing full speed ahead, an unconventional economy awaits Franklin in the months ahead. Typically, residential growth precedes — indeed, drives — commercial growth.

Could the opposite be true in the case of Franklin? Over time, yes, I suppose, as the housing market rebounds and as new commercial development adds to the city’s appeal. Big-box discounters and chain restaurants don’t mean much to this consumer, but economic developers tell me that those enhance a community’s &uot;windshield appeal&uot; to prospective newcomers.

But what of the short term?

I recently asked Ron Dennis, president and CEO of Farm Fresh, if his company was attracted to this market by existing demographics or projected demographics. &uot;Both,&uot; he was quick to answer, and I have no reason to question his sincerity. Indeed, as we sized up the opportunity to purchase The Tidewater News two years ago, we liked the fact that the newspaper was stable and profitable in the existing economy. Projected growth, however, made this community even more attractive.

But when commercial growth outpaces residential growth to the extent that it’s now happening, two short-term economic challenges arise: Where will the workers come from to fill the jobs being created? And what of the fate of existing businesses when the size of the pie — i.e., the number of consumers in the market — remains the same but more eaters are taking bites from that pie? Everyone’s share of the pie gets a little smaller, of course.

Those aren’t insurmountable challenges, but they are questions certain to be confronted as Franklin’s economy evolves.

Steve Stewart is president and publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.