December 17, 2015

Talks to Collierville Chamber of Commerce

By Russell E. Bloodworth, Jr.

I feel very honored to be with all of you today. I was asked to share some of the vision we have for Schilling Farms. The real visionary is Harry Smith whom I am sure most of you know well. Harry is the one who had the original vision, and he is the driving force behind what will make Schilling Farms the quality development it will become. He has been kind enough to share his vision with us and allow us to be his partners. No one could ask for a better, more honorable, more talented partner. We feel very privileged and blessed.

I want to share with you a little bit of the history of how this partnership came about. Three years ago a good friend and partner of ours suggested to Harry and to us that we should get to know each other better. We began to talk back and forth, and explored in some detail the opportunities and challenges of Schilling Farms. The more we talked, the clearer it was to me that Harry had one of the greatest opportunities of a lifetime. Maybe of several lifetimes. But it also became clear that he also had one of the greatest challenges: the task of building one of the largest and most critical pieces of Shelby County.

On one hand, the scale and the zoning of the property is mind boggling. It has almost a mile of frontage on Poplar Avenue and future Winchester Road. You could fit all of downtown Memphis in the northern half of the property. 3000 to 4000 people will live within its boundaries. Over 1.5 million square feet of office and commercial space. An entire Ridgeway Center and Humphreys Center and River Oaks combined.

On the other hand, the challenge at the end of the twentieth century is how to do good to Collierville, to both its present and future citizens. This is the real story of Schilling Farms, and this is the challenge that daunted Harry when he owned it by himself, and now daunts us as well.

About a year ago, six or seven months before we became partners, I began a concerted exploration of Tennessee and Mississippi antebellum towns. Of course, I began my exploration with Collierville itself. Thanks to Mrs. Clarene Russell’s friendship and fine history, I had a big head start. Later, Madison Wilson would supplement many of the visual pieces of early Collierville history that I was missing. What I was looking for was a sense of the town in its earliest days. About dead center in the Schilling Farms property is an ancient homesite. Because of its orientation, we think it was built after the railroad was constructed. You can still see the magnificent alley of trees running from the tracks to the old house site. Just to the west on the Porter property is Mrs. Porter’s house. Her house is a wonderful example of the quality of building design in and around Collierville in the 1 840’s. There are other great examples of the old days near the Square. The house Jack Everett grew up in is one fine example.

Nearly every weekend I would drive to another pre Civil war town. I visited Franklin, Savannah, LaGrange and Holly Springs to name a few. These drives both saddened and encouraged me. They saddened me because I realized the wonderful quality of small town America had been ruined after the Second World War. They encouraged me because a few pieces of the carefully constructed and designed early towns still remained.

I think Savannah saddened me the most. Unlike Collierville, which began about twenty years ago to really try to deal with the growth that was occurring, Savannah was one of the meanest, most disjointed, visually and physically trashed towns that I visited. Whatever anyone thought to do, he or she did. No controls, no thought to the neighbors, the children, the future. As I drove through the town looking for the early pieces of the original settlement, I marveled at what can happen in a town with neither control nor vision. Finally, as I neared the river, I came upon housing that dated from Savannah’s earliest days. There nestled at the top of the bluffs was a piece of old Savannah with a wonderful sense of scale and place.

This is the challenge that now faces both Harry and us: to create a wonderful addition to Collierville. Something that we can all be proud of, not just in the way it looks and the economic activity that it brings, but in the way it functions. No, we don’t want the businesses and homes to look like they got dropped in from California or Texas. We want it to look like it is part of a wonderful Western Tennessee small town with a grand architectural heritage that dates from the first half of the 19th century. But we also want it to be a place that is friendly to pedestrians and children on bicycles, a place where you would feel comfortable raising a child and a family. Harry has put tough covenants on the ground to achieve that and we plan to put on more.

Now I want to tell you a personal secret. I have been hoping for the chance to work on something of this magnitude for nearly thirty years. Not for the economic aspects, though I hope they will be salutary. This is a chance for me, as well as the company I represent, and for Harry as well, to give back to the community the very best we can give. We want Schilling Farms to be a great place for our grandchildren and their children. I don’t want some balding, middle aged real estate guy 75 years from now to drive through Schilling Farms the way I drove through Savannah and conclude the best was destroyed and what was built became a blight on Collierville.