Last week, Hallmark Homes, a 52-year-old family-owned builder based in Woodbridge, N.J., opened its sales office for Oak Park, a 60-acre subdivision in Dublin, Ohio, where Hallmark intends to build 108 attached and detached homes as part of an ambitious self-contained community.

This project is Hallmark’s first in Ohio, and represents another glimmer of resurgence for the Columbus area, which appears to be attracting new builders again after slogging through one of the country’s worst housing droughts. Indeed, the number of building permits for “structures” issued by the City of Columbus from January 1 through today stood at 608, compared to 396 for the same period in 2008, according to the city's Department of Development.

“Business has been good here, knock on wood,” says Jack Martino, division president for Indianapolis-based Westport Homes. Westport has operated in Columbus since 2005, but doubled its presence there two years later when it purchased six locations from Dominion Homes. Westport’s closings from its 12 communities in Columbus rose by 80% last year, and are projected to be up another 25% in 2009 to between 130 and 150 units. Most of its sales lately have been in the $185,000 to $190,000 price range, says Martino.

Fischer Homes and Ryan Homes have also come into the Columbus area within the past 18 months, according to the Columbus Dispatch and confirmed by BUILDER with local builders whose companies are all fighting for business from entry-level and move-up buyers, albeit with somewhat lower expectations. “Our market share is the highest it’s ever been, but the pie is much smaller,” says Bob Schottenstein, CEO of Columbus-based M/I Homes. “Competition can make you stronger, but you’re also competing with everybody.”

Hallmark, a division of Atlantic Realty, has built homes in California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. It decided to expand into central Ohio partly because one of its executives has family roots there and knows the market, explains William Hayes, the executive construction manager for Hallmark’s Oak Park project. Hayes adds that the other reason for expansion was the opportunity to build in Dublin, which Hayes calls an “abandoned area” because so many other builders have either left or gone out of business. Columbus Monthly magazine recently named Dublin the area’s “best suburb,” and the town reputedly has one of the state’s top school systems.

In early 2006, Hallmark purchased raw land in Dublin from Jerome Solove Development, its partner at Oak Park that will build the commercial component in this project. Jamie Adkins, Dublin’s city planner, recalls being impressed “right off the bat” with Hallmark’s plans for this community. “It really had great character, and we didn’t have to fight them over every detail of quality.”

Oak Park will be one of Dublin’s first complete communities, and revolve around its clubhouse and 36 attached townhouses in four styles that range from 2,200 to 3,000 square feet and start in the mid $300,000s. Another 72 single-family houses will surround this community center, ranging from 2,400 to 3,500 square feet and starting in the low $400,000s.

In total the community will offer a dozen home styles, all of which showcase four-sided architectural design informed by traditional English and Irish cottages. Not only are these designs unique to Dublin, says Hayes, they are also unique for Hallmark, whose condo, townhouse, and single-family estate products in New Jersey are a bit more conventional.

Thirty-one of Oak Park’s 60 acres will be open space, with walking trails and five ponds. Jerome Solove will develop another four acres for restaurants, shops, and offices. Adkins could not provide a cost estimate for this project, but noted it would include infrastructure like roads and sewers that Hallmark and Solove will install, as well as an upgrade of a nearby intersection. Hayes says Oak Park will be an “all in one” project, meaning that it will open completed instead of in phases. The clubhouse and three models have been built, and he expects houses to be ready within the next six to nine months.

Hallmark is already looking for other opportunities in Ohio. “We haven’t found any yet, but we’re not planning to be just one and done here,” says Hayes.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Columbus, OH, Atlantic City, NJ.