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Now Is Our Time – The Building Boom in Fayetteville

A billion is a pretty big number, right? A billion dollars means you’re rich. A billion calories means the cheesecake is most definitely rich and a billion pair of kate spade shoes means I’m the richest and happiest person on earth.

So a billion dollars in home sales for Fayetteville is great news. According to the Fayetteville Realtors Association, that’s the value of the homes sold in the Fayetteville area in 2006. That might help explain the new homes you see springing up in almost every quarter of the county. According to the county tax office, there are more than 1500 distinct and separate neighborhoods, sometimes comprised of more than one subdivision, in Cumberland County. There are about to be many, many more.

Here is a quick look at some of those new neighborhoods and the people behind them. These are by no means the only large-scale home building projects in and around town, but they’re the focus of this story.

Dr. Menno Pennink, Ralph Huff and Mark Stout all have one thing in common; they’re all informed speculators. Not gamblers with cards and dice, they’re speculating on Fayetteville and the direction it’s headed. And like the high stakes in Vegas, millions are at stake.

Ralph Huff has two communities on the table, Stone Creek in Eastover and Camden Woods on Camden Road. In all that means 20 homes finished, 20 almost finished and 12 million dollars tied up among them. He’s betting on the Base Realignment and Closure or BRAC to pay off big. “We hope some of these BRAC people are gonna start coming in after the first of the year because we’ve got a lot of these houses, more than we should have, waiting for them,” said Huff.

Huff concedes that just because he’s built, doesn’t mean they will come. “We’ve gotten ahead of the curve, and we’re probably too far ahead of the curve because we’ve built two new communities,” he says.

Huff and other builders in town have some long odds to overcome. A recent slowdown in the new housing market for one thing. According to the Fayetteville Association of Realtors, the number of new houses sold this year over last year is up, with slightly over 200 more sold in 2006 than in 2005. But that’s a fraction compared to the more than 600-home increase from 2004 to 2005. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the south as a whole saw drops in home sales for September, October, and November. The most dramatic drop occurred in November with 10,000 fewer home sales closed.

So why are Huff, Pennink and Stout as well as so many other Fayetteville builders willing to engage in this high-stakes pursuit? Primarily because they aren’t as concerned with what’s happening in the rest of the country as they are closer to home.

According to the National Association of Realtors web site, while most states saw a decline in sales from 2005, North Carolina jumped almost 10 percent. The home of the long leaf pine was the only state to pull off such a feat. But Fayetteville is often left holding the short of the good news stick with our neighbors to the north and west. Huff says there are two reasons why this time, Fayetteville will pay off big - a war that’s dragging on and the relocation of FORSCOM Headquarters to Fort Bragg from Fort McPherson, Georgia because of BRAC. He said, “It’s not like BRAC is gonna come and then it’s gonna disappear. When they get through with it, we’re going to be 10% bigger than we were.”

Huff says homes in his new communities have a little more fit and finish than new homes he’s built in the past. He’s betting on his belief that the folks coming from Georgia will pay more than $200,000 for a new home.

Self-described developer, Dr. Menno Pennink, is already seeing a payoff from his latest gamble. His downtown penthouse-slash-condo-slash townhouse development called 300 Hay has two-thirds of its units sold and, as of this writing, concrete has yet to be poured!

“It is fortunate for the city that we have this project already started,” he said.

Pennink says, in his case, if he didn’t build it they would still come - and then turn around and head to Moore County.

He said, “If we would not have (high-end housing) available, they would go to Southern Pines. They still might go to certain places. So we need to build other things, too.”

But unlike many builders, Pennink isn’t counting on BRAC to bring him customers. He says he’s had no inquiries from people preparing to move to Fort Bragg and all of his penthouse sales are to people currently living in Fayetteville.

“I am very pleased and thankful that it turned out to be that there are a lot of people interested, too, because it would be very embarrassing if I hadn’t sold anything.”

The retired neurosurgeon-turned-developer says not many people would have bet on his idea in the past.

“When I started 10 or 15 years ago people really thought, ‘he’s wacky, crazy’, so did my wife,” he said.

Mark Stout, President of Atlas Resource, is working with Pennink on the River Bluff project, a riverfront community. Stout is gambling on people who want a “high-end lifestyle” to come knocking on his riverfront door.

He said, “Before we’ve even taken any reservations we’re getting a lot of requests for information about upgrades.”

Stout isn’t alone in acknowledging the Fayetteville customer is becoming more discriminating when it comes to the amenities of a new home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of new homes built with 4 bedrooms or more has jumped almost 10% in the last decade. That means almost half of all new homes have room for Mom & Dad, the kids, guests and maybe a study or playroom. In Fayetteville, the price of a new home rose almost $16,000 over last year.

But perhaps even more telling is the number of bathrooms found in a new home. In 1995, only 11% of all new homes in America were built with 3 or more bathrooms. By 2005, that number had doubled. So do the fancy features figure into Fayetteville building? You bet! Remember the higher prices on Ralph Huff’s new neighborhoods? The average price is $280,000. That’s $85,000 more than the average 2006 new house price tag. But Huff says so far sales are going well. And remember those sold out penthouses at Dr. Pennink’s 300 Hay project? Each one is more than $800,000.

Pretty good for a town often “hammered on” by our neighbors to the north according to Huff. He said, “Everybody here knows this is our time.”

So for homeowners in Fayetteville, especially those who aspire to moving on up to a bigger and better abode, hold on. The neighborhood in your future could still be on somebody’s drawing board.

Johanna Royo is a local journalist enjoying learning more about Fayetteville with her work for CityView magazine.