September 17, 2009

Housing construction climbs to new 9 month high

Housing construction hits highest in 9 months

Most of the gains come from apartments; single-family homes still lag

WASHINGTON - Adding to evidence the recession has ended, housing construction rose in August and fewer laid-off workers sought jobless aid last week.

Still, the reports suggested a slow and fragile economic recovery. The rise in housing starts was due solely to a jump in the volatile apartment-building category, and unemployment claims remain far above levels associated with a healthy economy.

And even as the housing industry begins to recover from its worst downturn in decades, a glut of unsold homes and record levels of home foreclosures are weighing on the industry.

Construction of single-family homes and apartments rose 1.5 percent to an annual rate of 598,000 units, the highest level since November, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That was slightly lower than the 600,000-unit pace economists had expected. And it remains more than 70 percent below the peak rate hit in 2006.

The tentative improvements in housing are most likely a rebound “from unsustainably weak results ... reinforced by a temporary boost to demand” from the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit that ends Dec. 1, Joshua Shapiro, chief economist at MFR Inc., wrote in a note to clients.

“Gains from here on will probably be much more difficult to achieve,” due to high unemployment, tight credit and the large number of homes already on the market, he said.

Applications for building permits, a gauge of future activity, rose 2.7 percent in August to an annual rate of 579,000 units, slightly below the 580,000 level that had been forecast. But for single-family homes, permits dipped 0.2 percent. They rose 15.8 percent for multifamily units.

The 1.5 percent rise in overall housing starts followed a small 0.2 percent dip in July. The August strength reflected a 25.3 percent surge in construction of multifamily units, a volatile sector that had fallen 15.2 percent in July.

Single-family home construction dipped 3 percent last month to an annual rate of 479,000 units, the first setback following five straight monthly gains.

Some economists held out hope that the drop would be temporary.

“A clear uptrend is emerging” in single-family homes, Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

New-home construction could rise further in the next few months as builders respond to greater demand from first-time buyers for smaller homes, he added.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits dropped last week to a seasonally adjusted 545,000 from 557,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said. Wall Street economists had expected a small rise, according to Thomson Reuters.

The decline was the third in the past four weeks. The four-week average, which smooths out fluctuations, dropped to 563,000. Despite the improvement, that’s far above the 325,000 per week that is typical in a healthy economy.

The slow decline in unemployment claims may indicate that the recovery will be a relatively jobless one, similar to the rebounds from the 1991 and 2001 recessions, said John Canally, an economist at LPL Financial.

The number of people claiming jobless benefits for more than a week rose by 129,000 to a seasonally adjusted 6.2 million. The continuing claims data lags initial claims by one week.

When federal extended benefits are included, 9.01 million people received unemployment insurance in the week ending Aug. 29. That’s down from 9.16 million the previous week. Congress has added up to 53 weeks of extended benefits on top of the 26 weeks provided by the states.

Some economists said the overall housing construction gain was an encouraging sign that the worst is over for that troubled market.

“This sector is likely to start adding to growth rather than holding back the economy,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

Regionally, construction rose 23.8 percent in the Northeast and 0.9 percent in the Midwest. Activity was flat in the West and fell 2.4 percent in the South.

Builders have been ramping up because buyers want to take advantage of the federal taxcredit. The National Association of Home Builders said this week that its housing market index rose one point to 19 in September, reflecting growing optimism in the industry about rising home sales.

Homebuilders’ stocks jumped after the release of that report and mostly moved higher early Thursday. Shares of Beazer Homes USA Inc. jumped more than 6 percent and Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. rose more than 3 percent in mid-afternoon trading. Financial results for homebuilders also were better than expected in the latest quarter.

The Dow Jones U.S. Home Construction Total Stock Market Index has surged since bottoming in November but remains about 72 percent below the level achieved at its recent peak in 2005

September 10, 2009

Franklin wants to move ahead with key projects

Franklin leaders try to prioritize projects

How much money should the city spend on a slate of road and park projects in the next year while keeping its AAA bond rating intact and the city's savings account at a comfortable level?

Right now, there isn't a consensus among Mayor John Schroer and the city's eight aldermen about how to do all of that.

Aldermen have already discarded early attempts this year at setting a new capital improvements project list and are going back to the drawing board again. Their early top priorities were widening Hillsboro Road, starting the "Streetscape" road project on a portion of Columbia Avenue and launching Phase III of McEwen Drive.

All told, that would mean spending $32.5 million total during the next three years on that work.

Meantime, Schroer wants to lay out a spending plan to cover project costs across the next five to 10 years that might help the aldermen see what's been spent already and what needs to come.

For instance, Franklin has committed to spending more than $2 million on the Mack Hatcher Parkway extension this year and $4.8 million on building a new Interstate 65/Goose Creek interchange in 2013.

"What we have to do now is look at what we've got on our capital expenditures (list) and make some hard decisions," Schroer said. "Maybe we can only do only one of these projects right now. But in six months, if the economy changes and trends start growing, we can look at this model and maybe we can do some other things."

Money Worries Hinder Effort

First begun last year, the capital improvement projects list is a relatively new task for aldermen. Aldermen rank their top projects, assigning different points to the projects of greater importance. Some of those projects are being designed while others are in the midst of construction.

This year, Schroer asked the city's financial consultants at the PFM Group to create various spending scenarios and how those costs might potentially impact the city's bond rating. Franklin is one of only three Tennessee cities with an AAA rating from Moody's Investor Service.

With much of the city's revenues coming from local sales taxes, which have slowed during the national recession, Franklin officials are nervous about spending and covering debt.

"We used to sit around here and say 'If we have a 10 percent growth rate in sales taxes' and then we'd hit 12 (percent) — great," said Alderman Dana McLendon. "You can't make those assumptions anymore. Who knows?"

The city had estimated sales tax collections to be around $24.1 million for 2009, but city leaders say that number is likely to be lower now. The total in 2008 was $23.6, records show. New construction also is down.

Those worries prompted Franklin leaders to cut the city's budget this spring from $59 million to about $56 million. Then they set an even smaller figure of $54.5 million for the 2009-2010 budget.

But Alderman Ann Petersen worried that the city's existing debt taken on in years past will hurt this board's ability to launch new work.

"Years before, they saddled us with a lot of things that we don't have any control over," Petersen said.

Few Projects Will See Money

Even though aldermen had 71 projects to choose from in their rankings, financial reality is already forcing aldermen to concede that only a few will get money.

"We will not fund our top 10," said Alderman Pearl Bransford. "Through the work of this board and the various scenarios we might come up with two, possibly three, and that's going to be it."

Alderman Clyde Barnhill wants to re-examine previous construction bids to see if money might be saved through rebidding those projects.

One project on the list that's faced the criticism is the launch of the next phase of the city's Streetscape project on Columbia Avenue between Five Points and Fowlkes Street.

That work, which includes new sidewalks, Could cost more than $4 million.

Lambasted by some as mere beautification and hailed by supporters as possibly spurring economic development, the Streetscape work still is dividing aldermen.

Petersen and McLendon remain opposed to it ever being launched. Said McLendon: "We're putting up the wallpaper, and we don't have a roof."

But Alderman Beverly Burger sees the Columbia Avenue project as one that could mean helping the city.

"I see a deeper meaning here that is important for the city if we're ever going to grow our tourism," Burger said.

"I think it's a good business decision, not only for today but also five to ten years from now."

August 3, 2009

Carnton's new Visitor Center

Carnton Plantation opens new visitors center

THE TENNESSEAN • July 29, 2009

FRANKLIN — Today, visitors to Carnton Plantation will get their first glimpse inside a long planned project to bring modern amenities to a site with ties to Franklin's Civil War past.

The new, $1.2 million Fleming Center opens its doors for a soft opening Wednesday that Carnton supporters have been hoping would come for years.

At 7,000 square feet, the new visitors center offers ample event and exhibit space, as well as new restrooms, water fountains and office space for staff. The center will replace the doublewide trailer used at the site for years.

The upgrade will improve visitors' trips to the museum and will mean more guests can use Carnton for events like weddings and receptions, said Margie Thessin, plantation interim executive director.

"For us, events are fund-raising," Thessin said. "We really hope that people like to come out and take a look."

During the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, the plantation's main house was used as a hospital. It is adjacent to the McGavock Confederate Cemetery, the largest privately held Confederate cemetery.

The center, which sits behind where the trailer is located, is named after Sam Fleming, a Franklin native and Middle Tennessee banker who was a lifelong supporter of the museum. His widow, Valerie Fleming, raised money to build the center and name it after her husband. An official dedication ceremony will take place Sept. 12.

Exhibits planned for the center include a new Battle of Franklin exhibit that will feature relics from the battle, including presentation swords and other artifacts.

In September, the center will host an exhibit focusing on Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, who was defeated at the Battle of Franklin.

"We feel like this exhibit is going to draw people from all over the country," Thessin said.

The center will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Sundays, the center will be open from 1 to 5 p.m.

June 15, 2009

Nashville goes Green

'Green' homes sprout in Nashville market
THE TENNESSEAN • May 26, 2009
For years, it's been nearly impossible to find a home for sale in Nashville certified as "green" by any of the major environmental programs in the nation. But that's changing.
Local real estate agents have added a capability to their multiple listing service that will let agents search for homes by various green features, from tankless water heaters to certifications such as Energy Star, a Department of Energy program to inspect and certify homes that are 20 percent to 30 percent more energy efficient than average.
Builders with some of Middle Tennessee highest volumes, such as Fox Ridge Homes and The Jones Co. of Tennessee, have begun building Energy Star-certified homes, expanding the inventory of such homes.
But the green features, which can add 10 percent or more to a home price, can be a tough sell to the average consumer. Agents say builders seem more interested in environmentally friendly homes than do many homebuyers.
Many people would rather have a sunroom than a solar water heater, even if they know what one is.
"There are certainly more builders with this on their radar than buyers," said Anna Altic, a real estate agent and eco-broker with Village Real Estate. "But I'm very optimistic we're going to see a real increase in demand."
Altic, who was instrumental in getting the green search function added to the local agents' listing service, said 124 Energy Star homes have been sold this year in Middle Tennessee, when the search function was added.
Only five homes with the more expensive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council have sold this year, she added.
"It's a harder sell, but every year it gets a little bit easier,'' said Jeff Middlebrooks, the owner of E3 Innovate in Nashville, which tests and rates homes for energy-efficiency certifications.
"Energy prices are only going to keep going up. Energy efficiency is going to become much more important. Five years ago, you never would have thought people would take insulation over granite countertops, but now, you're hearing that," he said.

Recycling Center will open in Spring Hill

Spring Hill recycling center opens soon
June 10, 2009
Lighten your garbage load by recycling at the new Spring Hill recycling center, which opens Monday, and is behind the Food Lion on Stephen P. Yokich Parkway.
The center will accept the following items: paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, steel cans and aluminum cans. Participants are asked to separate all items and not bring other trash or garbage.
The City of Spring Hill and Maury County teamed up, each approving $1,350 for the one-year partnership to encourage recycling by offering the site in the city's downtown.

May 4, 2009

Burkitt Place new home starts

Regent Homes segues over to Burkitt Place
THE TENNESSEAN • April 29, 2009
Although new home construction in some places might be taking a hiatus due to the ailing economy, one local builder is taking on more.
Regent Homes, which has built homes in the mixed use community of Lenox Village, is now building some of the homes at nearby Burkitt Place.
"We've built out all of the lots we have for single-family detached homes in Lenox Village," said Dave McGowan, president of Regent Homes. But Burkitt Place has a similar section that has not been built out.
"We talked to them about going into that community and secured a contract for 24 lots," he said.
The first homes will range from $230,000 to the $280,000s, all with Hardie cement siding and a brick or stone combination.
Half will have fenced-in, alley-loaded garages, and the other half will have street-loaded garages.
McGowan said Regent also plans to introduce a bungalow series priced in the $250,000s designed for empty nesters. These would be one- or one-and-a-half-story with attached or detached garages.
McGowan said the company had found that a lot of empty nesters are looking to live in that area. He expects about 60 percent of Burkitt Place buyers to be empty nesters.
"It's a nice community, and it's a real convenient location," he said.
Young, professional, two-income families are the company's other target. McGowan said a community like this is attractive because it's an easy commute.
"We're really excited about adding them to our group of builders," said Rob Pease, project manager with CPS Land, the project's developer. "We think they're a natural fit for the community."
Pease said builders at Burkitt Place and at CPS's other communities are responding to the shaky economy by trying to appeal to more buyers.
"They have adjusted their offering to meet what seems to be a change in the market and in the economy," he said. For example, many builders are offering same quality of construction but less square footage to attract more buyers.
This change might be a little more pronounced in the high-end market. But, said Pease, "we're seeing it everywhere."
McGowan said he's not worried about the economy affecting Regent's plans at Burkitt Place or elsewhere.
"We found it to be a very steady, stable market," he said of Burkitt Place. "It's a growing, popular area" with positive job growth, he said.
Also, Regent has chosen to build in the Davidson County portion of Burkitt Place rather than the Williamson County portion, thereby avoiding the impact fees builders in Williamson County have to pay.
McGowan said Regent, which has been building in southeast Davidson County for years, tries to go into underserved markets and study their needs.
Many of Regent's buyers are well off and have equity in their homes, but they are looking to downsize, said McGowan. They want something that's low maintenance and allows for easy mobility.
"We know what's important to them and what's not," he said. "It's about identifying what that buyer wants and what price point he wants."

Plan cuts Cool Springs commutes

THE TENNESSEAN • April 22, 2009
FRANKLIN — While downtown motorists are being rerouted all around town to avoid ongoing construction projects, there's better news for those who frequent Cool Springs.
A new traffic signal timing program has reduced drive times in that area by up to 45 percent, according to city officials.
That's compared to last October, when new timing patterns for 23 Cool Springs traffic signals were first enacted, the result of an $89,150 traffic study that evaluated morning, noon and evening peak periods.
During December, engineers installed new timing patterns for the Christmas season. In February, a second phase of timing patterns were begun to handle average weekday traffic loads.
City officials say the changes have reduced traffic delays as well as vehicle emissions.
Before the study, a motorist attempting to drive the entire 23-intersection study area during a weekday could have faced up to 25.2 minutes in delays. Today, that time has been cut down to 18.5 minutes, according to a report by consultants Kimley-Horn and Associates.
"This study confirms the need to continue this program not only in Cool Springs, but other parts of the city as well," said Kevin Comstock, project manager. "I think the nation as a whole sees this as a positive aspect to traffic, that we can actually reduce delays and fuel consumption with timed traffic signals."
The new report says the city's traffic signals should be retimed every three years.
"The study suggests the city will continue to benefit over the next few years if we continue to research and calibrate our timing based on traffic studies such as this," said Eric Stuckey, city administrator.
The city began its ongoing traffic counts and Congestion Management Program back in 2006.
City officials are also slated to receive $550,000 in federal stimulus money to spend on the city's Intelligent Transportation System traffic project.
The project would add a number of traffic improvements such as greater synchronization, cameras and message boards.

March 2, 2009

Brentwood Library soon will be biggest

$5M expansion will include larger children's area and room for recorded arts
THE TENNESSEAN • February 18, 2009
BRENTWOOD — Brentwood will have the largest library in Williamson County once construction on an 11,000-square-foot expansion is completed in the fall.
When all is said and done, the Brentwood Library will measure in at 54,000 square feet, or 4,225 square feet larger than the Williamson County Library in Franklin.
"I think it's great. If you're expanding, it means you're improving," said Lee Vaugn, a frequent computer user at the library.
Vaugn is one of the library's 1,000 daily visitors accessing the library's 145,000-item collection.
Library borrowing is up 56 percent since it opened in 1998, according to Chuck Sherrill, director of Brentwood Library, who said the increase in library traffic sparked the expansion of the 10-year-old building.
"My biggest goal is not to ruin this big, beautiful building. It has served us very well. It has just gotten overcrowded. I hope people will walk in and not notice a change," said Sherrill.
But the $5 million project will bring extensive changes to the facility. Here's a rundown of what library patrons can expect.
Recorded arts room
The newly added recorded arts room, to be located near the reference desk, will feature more than 25,000 movies, audio books and music CDs for patrons to check out. The room will be named in honor of the Friends of the Library, which contributed $50,000 to the expansion.
"The Friends have been saving up money for the past two years, knowing that the library would need our help," said Karen Anderson, treasurer.
"We raised this money selling used books donated by library users and we are happy to give it back in this way."
Children's library
Local artists are preparing to come in and transform the children's area into a creative and interactive haven for kids. A park theme and sculptures of animals are planned for the new area.
An additional kids entrance to the library is being planned — possibly a tree trunk with a hole for the kids to climb through.
The renovation will create a larger area to be used for arts and crafts, creative writing and other projects.
Missy Dillingham, the children's librarian, says the additional space will allow them to expand popular book collections.
"We're really excited about the craft room. The downtown library has something like that, so it would be really cool to have something closer," said Shelley Armstrong. She and her 4-year-old son visit the library three times a week.
Story time room
Parents can also look forward to an expansion of the story time room to three times its current size, according to Dillingham.
"The room we have now has been crowded, but everyone still comes because the program is so popular, but now we won't be like sardines in a can," said Dillingham.
As planned, a muralist will come in and paint the walls from corner to corner with imaginative paintings. Another artist will come in and design a large stained-glass window to serve as the backdrop for the room.
Brentwood Room
Library director Chuck Sherrill says he is keeping quiet the name of the major contributor who is funding the expansion of the famed Brentwood Room, which houses local history and genealogy materials.
The room was closed in October and will open with more space and a new look, according to Sherrill. Rare books and files kept in the room are currently being housed in a storage space. The donor's name will be revealed when work on the project is complete.
More computers, conference space
The addition will add a new computer lab that will seat 15, to be used for special training and classes in addition to the library's current 25 computers being used by patrons.
More study rooms and a conference room that can be used by the public for meetings also are in the works. The 16-seat conference room and the five study rooms will be equipped with large wall-mounted computer screens specifically designed for meetings and instructional programs.
Several organizations and individuals are helping to raise funds for the expansion, including the Friends group, Brentwood Library Foundation and Leadership Brentwood.