Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 14, 2023

Turner Homes digs in in Hamilton

Knoxville firm eyes 118 homes in Ooltewah

Groundbreaking ceremonies are usually formalities. Work on a residential development, for example, often begins well before its builders and city officials thrust shovels into the soil and then congratulate each other.

This is the case at James Creek, a 20-acre Ooltewah subdivision that will bring 118 homes to the growing municipality. Knoxville-based Turner Homes owns the land and will soon be building houses on it as it makes its first foray into residential development in the greater Chattanooga area.

As members of Turner and representatives from the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce gather beneath an unfettered summer sun, bulldozers have already scraped the former cow pasture clean and machines have poured curving stretches of pitch-black asphalt over the dirt. But that doesn’t stop men with Turner from grabbing shovels, spearing the ground at their feet and then tossing the contents into the air amid a smattering of applause.

The development of James Creek is underway – officially.

The team at Turner has spent more time than it originally expected reaching this point, says Chris Jessen, director of the Chattanooga metro area for the company.

“The first time you do anything, there’s a learning curve, so it takes longer. Since we’re new to the area, we used our engineer from Knoxville instead of a local engineer, which slowed us down because everything is different here, and we developed this dirt during one of the busiest, craziest times I’ve seen.”

Jessen is referring to the post-pandemic building blitz that’s snapped up subcontractors. Given the torrent of local developers clamoring for help, Jessen says Turner was grateful for the single bid it received for installing the infrastructure at James Creek.

The site then sat vacant as Turner waited for these subcontractors to finish their work on another site and then roll into Ooltewah. As Jessen and his team waited, they purchased a lot near Apison Pike, built a house on it and then sold it – just to have something to do, Jessen says.

“Getting ready to build after we buy a property usually takes us a couple of years, but we had ambitious goals for James Creek that weren’t rooted in reality. Building a house helped us to begin forming relationships with local subs and vendors, and allowed us to cut our teeth on some of our processes.”

Turner comes to Chattanooga with a reputation for placing people before profits, Jessen says. The company’s spearhead is Mike Turner, a CPA who acquired the business from his father and uncle in 1996 and has spent the last 27 years growing it into a small but reputable developer.

“We’re not a huge company,” Jessen explains. “Currently, we operate predominantly in the Knoxville and Chattanooga areas. We’ve earmarked other cities for possible future development, but right now, we’re more concerned with doing what we do well here.”

Turner actually scaled back his plans before his company set up shop in Chattanooga. Originally, Jessen’s title was going to be director of the midsouth division, but Turner scrapped those plans.

“I was going to be a pioneer and hop from one city to the next. Then Mike said, ‘Let’s just do Chattanooga and Knoxville. We can do what we do well if we focus on where we are.’”

Turner’s philosophy of prioritizing people and community will initially manifest itself in a community consisting largely of affordable housing, Jessen reports, including 50 single-family detached homes and 68 townhomes starting at $300,000. Jessen says Turner tailored this plan to the needs of the Chattanooga housing market.

“One of the things that excites me about James Creek is the chance to meet the demand for affordable housing, especially as interest rates remain elevated. The new starter home is a 1,300-square foot home or a townhome because that’s what people can afford, so we aligned our design with the realities of the market. People have less buying power right now, so meeting that need is important.”

Turner has no plans to sacrifice quality as it aims for economical, Jessen says, but rather intends to “strive for excellence.” As an example, Jessen notes that the houses will include Hardie board fronts, which are known for durability, rather than vinyl siding, which is less expensive.

This might stress out the company’s chief financial officer, Jessen laughs, but making money and cutting costs have never motivated Turner.

“Mike is at a point in his life where more won’t matter. He’s concerned about legacy, reputation and doing the right thing. Doing what we love with the people we love in a way that makes a positive impact in a community is what drives us.”

When Jessen first laid his eyes on the pasture on which Turner is building James Creek, he saw a church rather than a neighborhood being raised on its soil. He and his family moved to the Chattanooga area in 2013 to launch and then pastor a satellite of Two Rivers Church, a Knoxville congregation that was expanding its reach, and he thought the property would be the perfect spot for a new place of worship.

“When I saw that piece of land, I said, ‘Lord, this is greedy, and we’ll probably have to build out in the country, but if I could pick the place, this would be it.’”

The property is located along Ooltewah Georgetown Road and across from Belleau Ridge, the subdivision in which Jessen and his family live. Two Rivers had identified Ooltewah as a community with a need for another church due its growth and established a temporary home at Ooltewah Elementary School, but was eager to find a site for a permanent building.

As providence would have it, says Jessen, one of the elders of Two Rivers had a relationship with the owner of the land, Dr. Frank “Bubba” Trundle, a local dentist, and agreed to inquire about the church purchasing a tract. After two years of dinners, negotiations and due diligence, Trundle agreed to sell a few acres, as well as donate a few acres, of the 27-acre property to Two Rivers.

Trundle later said he’d rather sell the whole thing at once. Instead of balking, Jessen called Turner.

“Two Rivers Chattanooga is high on passion but low on resources because it’s new and made up of young families, so I invited Mike, who wanted to expand into new markets, to evaluate the land. A few more dinners later, his team said yes.”

Turner hired Jessen as his company’s spearhead in Chattanooga after Jessen announced his desire to step down as pastor of Two Rivers now that the pioneering work of establishing the congregation was complete.

“I love starting things. However, the church needs different wiring to carry it into the future,” Jessen says.

That future will still be built on 7 acres of Trundle’s former cow pasture, while the rest will consist of James Creek. Turner will oversee its construction from its office in a refitted home a short distance away on Ooltewah Georgetown Road.

Jessen says the company expects to build four homes by the end of 2023 and then begin completing up to four residences a month beginning in 2024, giving it plenty to do between now and 2026. Turner also has its eyes on a second property in Ooltewah and a site in Cleveland.

Having broken ground, Jessen and company move the celebration to Turner’s office, where they stretch a long ribbon across the entrance and then shear it in half after a spirited countdown.

Jessen admits it was a formality but says he’s thrilled to be able to say Turner Homes is officially open for business in the Chattanooga area.

“Maybe we’ll expand to another city someday, maybe we never will,” he says. “For now, we’re focused on turning this pasture into a beautiful community where families can find a home and make friends and raise their kids. This is when things get fun.”