Developer Ethan Collier has a varied collection of hats he wears from time to time. One day, he might don his engineer hat as he works with his team at Collier Construction to figure out how to plant a community on a parcel of land. Another day, he might put on his financier hat as he assembles the money he needs to pay for the project.
But as Collier surveys a large empty plot in Oak Grove, a razed neighborhood located off the southern end of Main Street, he puts on his professor hat and launches into a history lesson.
“This was a mill town,” Collier begins as he watches a dump truck rumble across a far-off tract. “It had its own baseball team and day care. Most of the housing supported the mill.”
The mill to which Collier is referring is the 350,000-square-foot concrete behemoth behind him. It was once the home of Standard Coosa Thatcher, a textile factory that employed about 2,200 people in its heyday.
“Most of our nation’s mills were in the Northeast until TVA drew them south,” Collier continues. “Bad farming practices made the soil less fertile and impacted the industry across the east, so mills popped up about 100 years ago. Since there was no housing and no cities to support them, mill owners built little towns around their factories.”
The first of the buildings that would eventually become Standard Coosa Thatcher appeared in 1916, notes ChattanoogaHistory.com. The mill began scaling back its operations in the early 1980s and was fully shuttered by 2003, the website states.
Between then and now, much of Oak Grove collapsed into a crumble of rotted timber and brick. The mill itself, which was formed out of cast-in-place concrete, stood strong, although its abandonment left it vulnerable to the elements, the homeless and artists who spray painted acres of graffiti on its walls.
But as Collier stands in the midmorning shade of the mill, he sees tomorrow instead of yesterday. The once-thriving mill town will become a community again, only instead of manufacturing facilities and company housing, he envisions a sprawl of houses and townhouses extending from the mill, which itself contains multifamily housing, retail establishments and office space.
This will be no small task, Collier admits. His company has completed more than a dozen residential developments and nearly a dozen commercial projects since Collier formed the company in 2000, giving it a solid portfolio. But Collier has never attempted anything of this magnitude.
Stretching from 19th Street to Main Street and Dodds Avenue to Lyerly Street, Mill Town encompasses close to 40 acres, Collier says. He says he plans to build about 800 residential units on the land, including the multifamily dwellings within the mill. The price tag for the development changes whenever the market shifts but currently stands at $180 million.
“It’s a big development that will dramatically change this end of town,” Collier says.
If Mill Town has naysayers, they might be pointing at a St. Louis developer’s failed attempt to transform the mill into an artists’ loft. But those detractors would likely not be considering Collier’s success with other projects many considered impossible. Among these would be 100 at South Broad, the shiniest feather in Collier’s cap.
“Six years ago, no one was investing in South Broad,” Collier recalls. “There was no talk of a Publix or a multi-use stadium, and there were no houses, but I believed it would have value in the long term, so we went in, started building and were successful.”
While Collier is passionate about the easier projects his company handles (he cites Julie’s Park, a small for-lease neighborhood in Red Bank, as an example), he says he feels “called” to tackle the tougher development challenges.
“We excel in identifying projects other developers found to be not financially feasible. When we do our job right, we create something of value for our city.
“That’s why this project appealed to me. We could buy a farm in Ooltewah and build 200 homes on it, but that wouldn’t change a thing. This area needed the kind of investment we’re making.”
Collier knew Mill Town would stretch his company’s musculature, so he moved its headquarters into Standard Coosa Thatcher’s former research and development lab, which is located a stone’s throw away from the mill.
He then spent 2019 piecing together the 45 or so parcels that now make up Mill Town. After bulldozing the tattered remains of Oak Grove the following year, Collier Construction started building the first phase of the project in 2021.
Priced at $30 million, phase one encompasses the creation of 80 homes but does not include work on the mill. Collier says activating the mill first, or in tandem with the construction of the housing, would be impossible.
“The mill is 350,000 square feet of building that can’t go away. It’s solid concrete, so leveling it would cost more than the land is worth. To activate a building like this, you need a lot of rooftops. Before you can provide the amenities of a town square, you have to build the housing first.”
(The concrete workers used to fashion the mill over 100 years ago is so strong, Collier’s crew was unable to drill into it to hang fire extinguishers.)
Despite the complexity of erecting 80 houses at once, Collier says the hardest part of any project is putting together the money. But here again, the company’s past achievements helped to grease the wheels of the Mill Town project.
“Our success with projects like 100 at South Broad gives us credibility when we say we’re going to invest in something,” Collier says. “When I laid out our vision for this development, our partners and investors were excited.”
The healthy glow of the housing market in 2019 also helped to pave the way for financing, Collier says, but then then pandemic squeezed the supply chain on which developers rely to a trickle.
The latter is no longer an issue, he declares, due to good planning.
“We’re a big buyer, so our vendors are typically pretty responsive. But some things are beyond their control, so we’ve gotten used to doing things differently. When we started building phase one, we ordered the HVAC units and appliances three or four months out, when it used to be three weeks.”
As Collier walks past a row of finished houses on 19th street, he points out several that are occupied. While there are vacancies, if they worry him, the concern doesn’t register on his face.
“We’ll adjust,” he shrugs. “The housing market has its ups and downs, but we’ll be able to ride the waves. We’re concerned about it but not to the point that we’re pulling back our starts.”
The ravenous appetite of investors for rental properties helped to sell phase one. Collier originally planned for the first 80 homes at The Mill to be split evenly between for-sale and for-lease units, but the lion’s share of sales went to investors who are in turn renting the homes.
“And those are not cheap,” he says.
This statement provides an opportunity for Collier to address a topic of importance in Chattanooga: the need for more affordable housing. Whereas Oak Grove was once a neighborhood in which low-income individuals and families could live, it’s poised to become a destination for the upper-middle class.
Collier addressed this issue on the front end of his “surban” renewal project by donating about 10% of the land he purchased to Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, which will have enough real estate to build 70-90 affordable units, he estimates.
“We knew this project would impact this neighborhood in some good ways but also in a bad way. We donated land to CNE to help offset that.”
Those who can afford the cost of a house at The Mill ($385,000, Collier says) will be able to enjoy several amenities, even before the mill is reactivated. Among these are a large courtyard where landscapers are installing a small park.
In addition, each unit comes with a rooftop balcony overlooking the courtyard.
Like a proud craftsman who can’t resist showing off his handiwork, Collier rabbits into an end unit, up a set of stairs, past the primary bedroom and up another set of stairs to the balcony, where he presents a view of not only the courtyard but also the townhomes to his left.
“You’ll be able to watch your kids play in the park and see who’s coming and who’s going,” Collier boasts. “This is a cool space. It feels like a neighborhood.”
Collier says the amenities at The Mill will help to justify the price tag – as will the future value of the units, he claims.
“We’ve seen the property values in neighborhoods in which we built rise. At 100 South Broad, we sold at $385,000; four years later, we’ve seen sales at $700,000.
“The traffic problems we have as a nation aren’t getting better; getting from here to the suburbs is becoming more and more difficult. So when people invest in developments that are close to their jobs, the property values climb.”
A few minutes later, Collier is pulling back a chain link gate and entering the ground floor of one of the buildings that make up the mill. Patches of light illuminate portions of the cavernous room, as well a few of the thick concrete columns that support the ceiling, but the space is mostly dark and bordered by ink black shadows that hide the walls.
Aug. 11, though, Collier Construction will team up with the Pop-up Project to host an event featuring music, dancing, a bar and projection lighting that will bring the room back to luminous life.
Collier says his company is hosting the event to bring in people who can help visualize what the mill can become.
“We have ideas but we need someone in the food industry to say, ‘There are several hundred people living here; this would be a great place for a restaurant.’”
(Tickets for the event are available at www.collier.construction.)
Despite the considerable dimensions of the room, guests will see only a small percentage of the mill, which contains spaces as large as a city block. These industrial grottos once housed acres of yarn spinners and combing machines, but somehow, Collier believes he can fill them with apartments, businesses and people.
After that, he’s unsure about where his company will build next. As developers snap up the city’s aging treasures and make them new, opportunities to transform old communities and manufacturing enclaves are waning.
Where will Collier’s passion for overlooked parcels take him when the city is fully restored? He wonders himself.
“That aren’t many places like this left in Chattanooga,” he muses. “I don’t know where we’ll go when this one is done.”