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Town planner offers glimpse into work required to accommodate, create growth

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Commercial and residential growth in Collierville has bounced back since the recession of 2008.
Just last year, the town saw the proposal of more than 500,000 square feet of new non-residential developments and 150 new single family houses.
The fingerprints of eight-year Town Planner Jaime Groce, as well as those of his colleagues in the Development Department, can be seen on all of Collierville’s projects, large and small.
Groce recently agreed to participate in a Q & A with Journal West 10 Media. These are his responses.

1) It seems like there is an unprecedented amount of growth currently going on in Collierville. Have you experienced an uptick in planning projects in the past few years?

Collierville has had other times of growth throughout its life, but that’s the sign of a great and resilient community. Truly great cities reassert themselves and find new relevancy with every generation.
Since the 1870s and the inception of our Town Square we’ve been a regional hub for commerce, and that’s been the trend to this day.
In the 1990s and early to mid 2000s, we were growing exceptionally fast as new families chose to make Collierville their home because of our great quality of life, so we have seen growth before.
Like so many other places, the recent recession caused growth to slow. We’ve seen residential and commercial growth heat up in recent years.
It’s not to where it was before the recession, but it’s been at consistent and healthy levels the past few years.

2) To what do you attribute this growth?

My philosophical response — I attribute that to continued demand to live in a great city, with great schools, places to work, access to regional roadways, and access to amenities like parks and quality retail. Life is more than about going to work and having a place to rest your head at night.
I think people long to be where they can thrive, and they find that in a community like Collierville.
The supply/demand response — During the recession, not many new neighborhoods were created and builders that survived developed on the few remaining lots.
We see about 150 building permits a year for single family houses and we have an inventory of lots that could last about one or two years. This means we’re seeing new neighborhoods coming in because the lot inventory is low and builders need place to build to keep up with demand.
I hear the inventory of existing houses for sale is low, too. All that will translate into new construction as people want to be part of a great city.
We’re seeing that with commercial too. Retailers want to be at Byhalia and Poplar Ave. or Poplar Ave. and Houston Levee Road, but there are few available spaces. Due to that, you’ll see new retail construction, new restaurants and the few vacant and underutilized spaces reborn.

3) What are some of the challenges that your department experiences that the general public might not be aware of?

Our staff in Development works very hard to create new and exciting things, and that is fun and is very visible to the public, but we often have to work very hard to prevent bad things from happening.
I’ll paraphrase from some wise words our Town Administrator (James Lewellen) told me. If we could give the public virtual reality glasses and you could ride around the community and see the projects that have been presented to the town but were never built because they were not a good fit or the timing was wrong, you wouldn’t recognize Collierville.
We love to help create new things, and that is fun. However, it’s also our somber responsibility as staff to help our Mayor and Board, Planning Commission, Historic Commission, Design Review Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals know when something will harm the town and work against it being a great city.

4) You guys are involved in projects varying in scope from massive commercial lots to luxury dog boarding facilities. How do you all shift gears from large to smaller projects?

It’s not hard, as we have six professional planners total with decades of combined experience and we vary our workload to keep things interesting.
The size of the project does not always translate into the amount of work, as sometimes smaller projects such as renovations of existing commercial spaces can be technically challenging.
Planners are “generalists” I tell our staff, and it’s our job to know a little about the needs of our engineering, fire, codes and other colleagues, while also working with the applicant to navigate the planning process and help the public be engaged.
While the facts of each case vary, this approach does not. With every application that comes through the door, we constantly calibrate ourselves to what is needed for that application.

5) It also seems like there is an unprecedented amount of revitalization in historic downtown Collierville. When did the town begin focusing energy on redeveloping the downtown area? Has there been a consistent effort throughout the years?

The Square dates back to the 1870s and has constantly reasserted itself to remain relevant for each generation.
Today’s focus I believe can be traced back to the Cox administration and the “streetscape” from 1994, which is where all of the decorative street lights, benches and landscaping came from.
The Square hasn’t always looked as it does now. After that effort, the next 16 years were spent thinking “what’s next.”
In 2010, the town formally adopted a plan (developed by a steering committee formed by Mayor Stan Joyner and through a very public visioning process) for its downtown, and put into place new zoning laws to make new construction easier and cause the level of investment and interest you are seeing today.
We’ve seen an influx of new housing, courting of the University of Memphis into a new building downtown, the creation of a Collierville History Museum, several new restaurants open or planned, and national recognition as being the “Best Main Street in America.”
Such things are an overnight success 20 years in the making. Many folks, several of which are behind the scenes, have worked hard set the stage for Collierville’s Square being what it is now and what is about to become. There’s much more to come.
I have no doubt that Downtown will be relevant for a whole new generation because of the work over the past 20 years. Often in city planning what we do now is not for us, but the those that will come after us.

6) Site plans for Fairfield Inn, ChemStation, Villages at Porter Farms, a two-story office building on Houston Levee, etc. have all been discussed in less than six months. Did you ever anticipate being this busy?

Yes, there’s clear demand to be in a great city, whether you’re living, working, or shopping there. In the calendar year of 2016, we saw proposal for over 500,000 square feet of new nonresidential construction and around 150 new single family houses, which does not include the new apartment complex on South Shea Road. It’s very possible we could see such trends continue in 2017.

7) In Planning and Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings you are often the liaison between the project developers and the board/commission members. You ultimately serve the town but I’m sure can often see both sides if an issue comes up. How do you balance this?

It’s tricky, but planners have a professional obligation to represent all sides (public, property rights of developer, our employer) in matters.
We talk a lot about our role internally and even have a system where we do “peer reviews” of each others projects, and sometimes we seek the advice of other planners outside of our community when we find ourselves in challenging position.
We debate internally how we should handle cases and issues as they arise. Knowing our role, staying objective, and acting with integrity are all important in being the town’s “liaison” for the planning process.

8) Are there any exciting projects coming down the pike that you’re at liberty to share?

It’s hard to say just one or two, but this changes daily. You never know what will walk in the door that will be exciting and catalytic for our community.
One way we communicate this to the public monthly is through our interactive “Development Activity Map.” Projects that came in recently are shown in “red push pins” and the public can click on these points to see the status of the project, a summary, and available plans.
This is one of our most poplar online maps and gets many hits each month. Go to collierville.maps.arcgis.com.

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