Looking at unused potential: Housing project in works at site of former music venue; government assistance possible

When the former Little Nashville Opry property was purchased this March many started to wonder what its future held after being vacant for more than 10 years.

The property has sat vacant since 2009 when the Opry was destroyed by fire. Now the property has a new future as owner Andrew Tilton plans to use it to fulfill a need here: More housing.

“I’ve been thinking about this housing issue for the last decade or so,” Tilton said.

He had heard the question asked “Who’s going to do something?” about the housing issue, so he decided to answer it.

His plan is to have two apartment buildings on the property, completed between the next 18 months and two years. The proposed plans include two buildings on the 6-acre property, at either three or four stories, featuring roughly between 130 to 188 units. Since the project is early in planning these plans are subject to change.

Those working on the project are communicating with county leaders about possible help in the forms of tax abatements, an economic development agreement or tax-increment financing.

Brown County Commissioner Diana Biddle said last week the commissioners are open to discussing and investigating the same options that were offered to Scott Wayman, the previous owner of the property.

In July 2013, Wayman received aid from the county. The Brown County Council approved a $250,000, 10-year tax abatement to help him secure financing to build the wastewater treatment plant. At that time, former Council President David Critser estimated that the abatement value at the time may have been closer to $400,000. Wayman passed away in 2019.

“The commissioners are excited about any development we can make happen to help Brown County’s population and tax base,” Biddle said. “We’re more than willing to investigate all options available to developer in order to help them make that happen.”

Tilton has been slowly acquiring properties that have been underutilized and is working with others to make them into something new.

He has been working with is Strongbox Commercial, a real estate development company out of Zionsville. Alyn Brown not only works for the company, but is also a member of the Nashville Utilities Service Board.

“I think everybody’s in agreement that housing is an issue in Nashville and Brown County, in general. There’s articles about it, conversations about it, the county’s been working on it, town’s been working on it,” he said.

“People like Andrew have been thinking about it for a long time.”

Brown said that in these conversations questions about locations for apartment buildings and in what areas outside of Nashville those buildings would work often come up. He said the Opry property checks a lot of boxes.

“It’s a good location, it’s close to town, to the park, a short drive to Bloomington, not a terrible drive to Columbus,” he said. “It’s a good location not being utilized to its potential.”

Through conversations with some Nashville Town Council members, Tilton and Brown were brought together. They then asked themselves what could be done on that property.

“It really came down to how can we use this and what can we do here?” Brown said. “It started to come together.”

Brown moved to Nashville two years ago from Indianapolis and has had experience in real estate development with Strongbox Commercial in areas like Whitestown, Zionsville and Indianapolis.

“It kind of all fell into place when we started having the conversations, that we needed somebody to develop this and I happened to work for a real estate development company,” he said.

“We’ve done projects like this, it just happened to fall into place where the right people were in the room at the right time.”

Tilton said that about two days after he purchased the property, he started receiving phone calls then meetings started about three weeks later.

“I closed on the property on March 2, shortly after that, the ball started rolling,” he said. “For real estate that’s super fast.”

The layout

Kevin Allen with BLN in Bloomington is the senior site designer involved in the civil engineering of the Opry property. He presented to the Utility Service Board on Sept. 22.

“The number one need to keep this county growing is housing, housing, housing,” he said.

Allen referenced a report from the Brown County Community Foundation in February of 2019 and that the No. 1 issue brought up by more than 300 residents was affordable housing. They also brought up the lack of new housing construction with only 13 homes having been built in the four years prior to the February 2019 report.

“There’s very little expansion,” Allen said.

He also cited the declining enrollment of Brown County Schools, which coincides with an aging population and younger families moving out due to a lack of affordable housing here.

“Our perspective is this is all driven by lack of housing,” Allen said.

The average sale price of a home in Brown County in September of 2021 was $359,625, according to F.C. Tucker Company.

Tilton and Brown said their goal was to have one- and two-bedroom apartments from 660- to 1,200-square-feet at market rate costs. They do not have prices for apartments at this time.

“Reusing this property for this project is going to be a great fit, given that it’s an overgrown empty parking lot, not real attractive for the tourists coming to town,” Allen said.

The current parking area is considered “floodway fringe,” so they will promote ground level parking spaces with the living spaces being 5 to 7 feet above, Allen said.

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Each building would have a core support on each floor: A common area, mail room and meeting space. One building will house the manager’s office. The second floor of one of the buildings will have an exercise room and a conference space. Other amenities they are considering are a dining hall or place for family gatherings, a lounge and a theater room.

“Looking at these types of apartments, people are putting a lot of nice amenities in there,” Allen said. “They’re driven by the market.”

Sewer?

Ideally, they’d like to be moving tenants into apartments in 18 months to two years, but the biggest question right now is how to get sewer from there to the Nashville Treatment Plant.

“I don’t know if it’d be a ‘concern,’ it’s just how we’re going to get it done,” Brown said. “It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘how’ we’re going to get it done.”

There are a couple of routes that could be taken, it’s just a matter of which direction will be the most efficient.

Allen presented maps to the Utility Service Board with proposed routes of getting sewer to the site. The most direct route is to travel along State Road 46 West and tie into the main on Treatment Plant Road. The longest route flows out to Kelp Road through Deer Run Park then to the treatment plant.

“We’re looking at every possible way to get (sewer) there,” Allen said. The Utilities Service Board agreed to work with M.S. Consultants to see what possible routes the developers could take.

USB president Roger Kelso said he thinks the project is a “nice turn of the light bulb.”

Allen said that the development would be a significant customer of the town and connecting sewer would potentially allow others to be included.

With Yellowwood Inn, the Green Valley Inn, Sams Hill Road, Green Valley Road and more, Allen said it’s not just their own project they’re thinking about.

“We’re sizing our facility so that you, with people in your territory, your facility could pick up an additional 50 users,” he told the board.

First of many

As the plan progresses there will be other companies that come into play, Brown said.

The hope is to draw residents in with the new Indiana University Health Hospital on the east side of Bloomington being built, Tilton said.

“There might be units set aside for traveling nurses, do a contract with some subsidies or companies that need housing for their employees. There’s a lot of different angles,” he said.

Tilton said this development is not the only one and that there’s “lots of other projects in the works.” He owns about 3 acres across from Hard Truth Hills on Old State Road 46 that he said could see that being home to 16 or 20 condos in the future.

“We’ll see,” he said.

“Each property has their own best use, I would say. Not every property can do what the Opry property can, and vice versa.”

Brown added that the long-term plan is to develop out a lot of, or all, of the properties Tilton owns.

“This is the first of many, hopefully, as we move forward, reviving Nashville,” Tilton said.

Project organizers believe that starting with the Opry land is good because it fills “an immediate need” of housing in the town and county.

Brown said they have had “really good success” talking with both county and town government officials.

“We hope that we can build some momentum with this project and with the community in general. We want the community in general to see this as a successful project and start to get behind the next few projects,” he said.

Brown said the community needs to know that local people are the ones playing a “big part” in these projects.

“We’re being able to leverage the expertise of like Strongbox Commercial, but we’ve got longtime local landowners who have a vested interest in the community and doing something good for the community and building something good for the community,” he said.

“I think that everybody agrees that without housing we’re going to keep losing people and we’re certainly not attracting people. There’s no place for them to live. I think that this is the starting point for the rest of these projects. What we’re trying to accomplish is long term strategic growth.”

Tilton said that the tax base needs to increase in order to keep the infrastructure up. He said more economic activity, income taxes, property taxes and overall activity will increase with the addition of housing on this land.

They hope that potential residents are drawn in by the ability to work from home. The buildings and units will be more modern, with workspaces and common areas for meetings.

They have not yet settled on the mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Research is ongoing to see what the community demand is.

“What do people want today and what will fit the market for years to come,” Brown said.