Construction on The Springs of Mill Lakes’ clubhouse, which will cater to the 55-plus demographic, is now underway.
Construction on The Springs of Mill Lakes’ clubhouse, which will cater to the 55-plus demographic, is now underway.

Allen Harris got the itch to go residential about four years ago. A commercial property developer by trade since co-founding Bailey-Harris Construction in 1979, he decided he wanted to get into the home building development business. Since he now owns the whole company, no discussion was necessary before moving forward with his plan.

He considered a few sites around Alabama but couldn’t find the perfect spot. He then was told about an 80-acre site in Opelika, Ala., that had been on the market for at least 15 years. A weathered “For Sale” sign outside a nondescript 2,500-foot road frontage gave little indication of what was on the property. Soon after he began to walk the land on a January afternoon, he discovered not one, but two lakes. He knew he’d found his place to develop.

The site Harris first walked in January 2015 and closed on nine months later will soon feature 133 single-family custom homes geared toward the 55-plus demographic, although there will be no age restriction. In early June, Allen and his sister development company, Chapman H, officially broke ground on the site, now known as The Springs of Mill Lakes.

Allen has hired two Alabama-based builders to construct the homes: Harris Doyle Homes of Birmingham and Auburn-based Homeworks of Alabama. The homes, which will start construction in October, and the entire community will target baby boomers with one-story homes. A stocked lake for fishing and walking trails are all part of the elevator pitch.

Allen Harris
Allen Harris

Executing a Vision
After decades working on the commercial side of the business, building everything from churches, to schools to offices, Allen wanted to develop a single-family community for Baby Boomers. He is a part of the generation and says his parents’ generation, many of whom, like Allen’s father, fought in World War II, inspired him to do something specifically for the Greatest Generation’s children. Those Boomers are now retiring or looking to downsize, Allen says, which is why a community designed especially for them should fit neatly in Eastern Alabama, where this type of product is scarce.

Allen studied the market and other active-adult communities in the region. Just ask him. “[Of the] 80 million Boomers in the U.S., 10% will move in the next two years.” Allan Campfield, owner of Homeworks of Alabama, says Allen takes even the most minute detail into account. Allan knows he sounds like a “sales pitch, but I truly believe it .”

After Allen fell in love with the lakess, Chapman H began civil design and putting in infrastructure on site. In addition to the lakes, the property also features wetlands, natural springs, and streams complicating the development process, as grating started in May . Lucky for all involved, Opelika, Alabama is development-friendly.

Although this is Allen’s first foray into single-family housing, he hasn’t found much difference between residential and commercial development. “I am very comfortable in my arena right now,” he says.

Chapman H broke ground at The Springs of Mill Lakes community in June.
Chapman H broke ground at The Springs of Mill Lakes community in June.

Tailoring a Community
Homeworks of Alabama has been building custom homes in the Auburn-Opelika market since 2004, but has never built an age-specific community. The same is true for Harris Doyle Homes, which typically builds move-up/move-down homes mostly in the Birmingham area .

The basic construction of the homes is the same, explains Brooks Harris, chief business development officer for Harris Doyle Homes, which was founded in 2008, when constructing a home in a 55+ community or any other community. But, Harris, a second-generation Alabama builder adds, there are differences. “We’re building almost exclusively one-level homes because the 55+ market doesn’t want to see stairs,” he says. “People in that age range want main-level living so that’s what we’re catering to.”

Each builder will construct homes using five different floorplans at different elevations – Homeworks of Alabama will build 91 while Harris Doyle Homes will handle the rest. Prices for the homes, which will be around 2,000 square feet, were still being hammered out when BUILDER went to print.

Campfield says older buyers know what they want in a home, including smart-home technology and energy-efficient features. “When you’re building for someone 55 years or older, you’re building for a very savvy buyer,” he says. “This is a person that’s already owned a half-dozen homes in their lifetime.”

The clubhouse, which Homeworks of Alabama is also building, broke ground in July, and will include a fitness center, meeting room, catering kitchen, and a flex room with a floor for ballroom dancing.

“They know what they’re looking for in a home and I think they recognize quality in homes maybe more than a first or second-time home buyer,” Campfield adds.

Surrounded by Nature
The 80-acre site wasn’t all Allen purchased in Opelika. He also secured an adjacent 45-acre parcel, but there won’t be any homes there – it’s a perpetually protected wildlife sanctuary (maybe that’s where his ‘little birdie’ came from). Allen says he will add walking trails and put a footbridge over a stream to give residents a relaxing area to enjoy the outdoors. “It’s just drop-dead gorgeous,” he says.

While one of the lakes will be stocked for fishing, the other will feature docks for non-motorized water craft like kayaks and canoes.

Assisted Living
But perhaps the biggest selling point for some buyers will be on a 13-acre section of the main property where an assisted-living facility is slated to break ground next year. The facility will be owned and developed by a separate company and have roughly 200 units.

Since there are seniors whose spouses require the attention only an assisted living facility can provide, Allen says the development is a perfect complement. “They’re working with us to size the dining room so that a lot of our people can, if they wish to, join in the meal program in the assisted living facility,” he says. “So the whole thing meshes very well.”

According to Brooks, prospective buyers have already started inquiring about the property. “Auburn (which is next to Opelika) is a really nice spot to retire,” he says.

Developing land and building homes for Boomers is something Allen has become passionate about. Plus, he adds, it’s essential for Eastern Alabama. “This market needs these homes,” he says. “This has become a need.”