WHEN IT COMES TO GROUND-floor opportunities to do something special, Mississippi rarely comes to mind, even for highly successful builders with a nose for finding spots that have yet to reach their competitors' radar screens.
And why not? With just 12,000 housing permits last year—a fourth of which were in the capital city of Jackson, according to the Census Bureau—the magnolia state is not exactly a hot bed of construction activity. Only 10 other states and the District of Columbia handed out fewer permits in 2003, and many of those states—Connecticut, Delaware, and West Virginia, for example—are much smaller than Mississippi.
But a chance to be part of Tradition, Mississippi's first master planned community, is available to forward-thinking builders with a little bit of riverboat gambler in them.
“From a project point of view, we're standing at the economic crack of dawn,” says Leonard McMullin, who came aboard about a year ago to manage the 4,600-acre Tradition, which is buried deep in the De Soto National Forest.
Not Just Beaches Tradition is located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, about midway between New Orleans and Mobile, and only eight miles north of I-10, the interstate that connects Florida to Louisiana.
It's also just 12 minutes to the Biloxi/Gulfport beaches along a brand new four-lane highway. But the gently rolling typography and lush pine forests are distinctly different from the coastal lowlands. Then again, the entire Mississippi coast is more than a beach town.
Though more than 20 million tourists visit the area's 26 miles of nationally ranked white sand beaches, they also come to enjoy year-round, Vegas-style gaming and entertainment.
Additionally, the region boasts Keesler Air Force Base, where 17,000 military personnel are stationed. Located in nearby Biloxi, Keesler itself is home to the nation's second largest military medical facility, which is a world-class teaching hospital as well.
These and other factors convinced a partnership headed by Joseph Canizaro, a former chairman of the Urban Land Institute who is president and CEO of Columbus Properties, a commercial real estate development company based in New Orleans, to purchase the property six years ago from the International Paper Co.
Canizaro, whose most recognizable property to date is probably Canal Place at the foot of Canal Street in the Big Easy, originally saw Tradition as an ideal location for a retirement community. But when the gaming industry took hold, an economy began to take shape, and now the project has been redrawn as a full blown master planned community for up to 15,000 houses.
The other 1,400 buildable acres will be used for production and custom houses. Some 650 lots, the size and price to be determined but each with fiber optics delivered to the curb, will be available in eight villages comprising 300 acres. A golf course community that has not yet been laid out will be built on the remaining 1,100 acres.
With a tip of the hat to the Woodlands, the fabulously successful new town on the outskirts of Houston, Tradition is being built with lots of soft pine buffering, “but,” says McMullin, “with lots of ‘peeks' so the retail and business sites won't be so isolated.”
The Right Builder Tradition is the 121st project for McMullin, who started out 21 years ago as a general contractor in Galveston. He was running a couple of companies in Hawaii when the call came from Canizaro, and it didn't take much arm twisting to persuade him to move one more time.
“Every once in a while, you get an opportunity to stand at the beginning of something good, and this is one of those opportunities,” the veteran developer says. “The economy is strong, the roads are coming together, and the interest is strong.”
The downside, of course, is that nothing that even comes close to Tradition's magnitude has come before it. One large Florida-based builder of retirement communities has already turned down the property because it didn't think it could sell enough houses to meet its pro forma.
But McMullin's not worried. Indeed, he believes this is the start of something big.
“We're getting 60 to 70 hits a month on our Web site from people looking for a retirement home in Mississippi, and we don't even have a product,” he says. “And the local community development authority is receiving 2,200 inquiries a month without any advertising.”
What's required is a builder that is satisfied with 225 closing per month as opposed to 375, the project manager says. “We need the right size builder for this size market. Every builder out there has a different model, and there are tons of adult communities out there that are doing very, very well on 225 units a month,” McMullin says.
Approvals In Place State and local authorities already have rolled the dice with Tradition. The state has contributed nearly $10 million to build Tradition Parkway, the spine road that runs from one end of the property to the other. And that's on top of the $240 million that's been spent on a four-lane highway connecting the community to the beaches.
Local politicos, meanwhile, are acting quickly to move the development forward.
“Often, when a project as large as this comes along, the locals freeze like deer in your headlights. But the blush was knocked off that rose here when the casinos came in,” says McMullin. “They know how to handle themselves, but they're still as friendly as can be.”
How friendly? When McMullin asked if the 120-day review period needed to approve a stormwater-management plan could be shortened up a bit, officials asked if a week was too long. “That's the kind of reception I'm talking about,” the developer says.
Even the Sierra Club has noticed the property, recognizing it as one of the 50 best Smart Growth projects in the country. It seems Mississippi's first master planned community is bound to leave its mark.