by Clay Carey
MT. JULIET – As he prepared to make the move from East Tennessee to the Nashville area, Travis McCloskey eyed homes in Williamson and Davidson counties.
But he chose a newly built home in western Wilson County. He is one among many.
Wilson County has shot to the top in housing growth, edging out Rutherford to become Tennessee’s fastest-growing county in 2009, according to new U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Experts say growth in both counties is driven by home buyers like McCloskey – young professionals entering the housing market for the first time.
In terms of new home construction, Wilson ranks 29th nationally and Rutherford ranks 30th. Williamson has fallen completely out of the nation’s top 100; it had made the list every year from 2004 to 2007.
"The type of growth you’ve had (in Wilson and Rutherford) has brought in your retail and your restaurants," said Duane VanHook, a part-time homebuilder in Wilson County and professor of construction management at Middle Tennessee State University.
That attracts a demographic that is still buying homes: younger professionals and couples.
Those newcomers have helped many local retailers weather the rough economy.
"Mt. Juliet had more than 190 new business licenses issued in the calendar year 2009," said Mark Hinesley, director of the Mt. Juliet/West Wilson County Chamber of Commerce. "That is probably a direct reflection of the fact that people are moving into the area."
The businesses wouldn’t be coming into town if shoppers weren’t coming into the community, Hinesley said. At the same time, he said, newcomers wouldn’t move in without stores.
It was attractive to the 26-year-old McCloskey when he bought a new home in the Providence development off Interstate 40 seven weeks ago.
"Everything is within a mile’s walk, it seems," he said. "With the way I travel (for work), I don’t want to come home and have to drive 20 minutes to the grocery store."
Home prices also played into his decision.
McCloskey, a regional manager for Whirlpool Corp., had been looking to spend between $150,000 and $250,000 on his first home; the house in Providence cost about $230,000.
"I got a lot more bang for my buck here," he said.
Growth Rate Drops
In Wilson County, there were 44,748 homes in July 2009, up from 43,732 the previous year, an increase of 2.32 percent. The number of homes built in Rutherford County rose from 101,454 in 2008 to 103,781 in 2009, or 2.29 percent.
Overall, housing growth rates are well below the rates of a few years ago, a result of the economic downturn.
"Going into this slowdown, we had great numbers" in terms of unemployment and home cost statistics, said John Sheley, executive vice president of the Home Builder’s Association of Middle Tennessee.
New housing construction peaked in the 11-county greater Nashville area in 2006.
According to MarketGraphics Research Group, a Nashville firm that tracks home construction, more than 17,000 permits were issued that year; that number dropped to 4,700 last year. Almost 1,700 home construction permits have been issued so far this year.
Before 2008, Wilson County had a lot of demand for very expensive homes, according to VanHook, the president of the homebuilder’s association there.
"The market pretty much died off with the economy," VanHook said.
Middle Tennessee’s real estate market didn’t suffer as much as those in other parts of the country, but national trends did drag housing construction numbers down.
Growth "may be slower, but I still see us getting our share," said G.C. Hixson, director of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board of Wilson County.
The growth has forced the county to expand its services, said Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman.
Right now, the county is clearing new land for a high school in Lebanon, and the city school district there expects to have a new middle school open by 2011. A new high school opened in Mt. Juliet in 2008, and county officials have discussed building another school in eastern Wilson County.