Realtor Geoff Ramsey has climbed several steep hills during his 12-year journey to develop a 24-acre patch of real estate on Old Lee Highway.
From appeasing reluctant neighbors to trudging through 18 months of due diligence to making loan payments that swelled over the course of the project, Ramsey has overcome his share of obstacles.
But none was more formidable than the 80-something spitfire named Bernice Solomon. “She was as sharp as a tack and a shrewd negotiator,” Ramsey recalls. “She beat me up.”
Ramsey first encountered Solomon several months before Volkswagen announced it would build an automobile assembly plant in Chattanooga. Through his work as a Realtor, he had identified what he thought would be a prime parcel of commercial property if the rumors about the company coming to the city turned out to be true, and he wanted to acquire it before anyone else perceived the same opportunity.
Solomon owned the property, a 9.5-acre patch of overgrown land situated on a hill between exits seven and nine on Old Lee Highway. Between her residence and a pair of dilapidated medical facilities she also owned, the parcel didn’t look like much to passersby, but its close proximity to Volkswagen’s potential home at Enterprise South made it attractive to Ramsey.
Instead of rundown buildings and unchecked foliage, he saw apartments, an extended stay hotel, a restaurant and more on the property, which is easily visible from I-75.
So, Ramsey knocked on Solomon’s door and offered to buy the land. Solomon didn’t say no, but she didn’t say yes, either.
“We went back and forth. I showed her the comps and what her property was worth, and I explained that I was offering to overpay for it because I was betting on VW,” Ramsey remembers. “I must have talked with her a million times.”
Ramsey and Solomon had reached what he says was “a fairly comfortable number” when Volkswagen turned the rumors about the company into fact July 15, 2008. The moment Ramsey heard the news, he drove to Solomon’s house and made his final plea.
“I said, ‘Land speculators are going to be calling you. Believe me when I say they will offer you the world and then come back and beat you up on the price during due diligence,’” Ramsey says. “’But my offer is not going to change.’”
Ramsey shoves a piece of paper across a desk in his office at Re/Max Properties on Shallowford Road and holds out a pen to demonstrate how he wrapped up his pitch. Nearly 12 years later, he still seems relieved that Solomon took the pen and signed the deal.
“The news about VW was on her TV as I sat in her living room,” he says, smiling like the Cheshire Cat.
In the years that followed, Ramsey convinced three partners to join him on the project. This helped him to cover the loan payments, which grew as he and the other investors added seven adjoining parcels. By the time the final piece of property was in place, the foursome had $1.1 million in loans riding on the land.
True to the nature of many commercial projects, the Old Lee Highway development moved slowly. As Volkswagen spent $1 billion building a 1.9 million-square foot assembly plant and then started rolling vehicles off the line in 2011, Ramsey and his associates experienced the kinds of ups and downs that can accompany a commercial endeavor, regardless of its size.
He still seems to be recovering from his effort to mollify his neighbors, who were not as excited about his ideas for the land as he was.
“We had a contract for close to 400 apartments, but the owners of the single family homes that adjoin our project objected, so we whittled it down to 330, added greenspace and showed them a more attractive product,” Ramsey explains, rubbing his temples with a thumb and a forefinger. “We then whittled it down to 300 because they were still unhappy.”
As a residential Realtor, Ramsey is an advocate of the American dream of homeownership. He’s even donated a lot of his own money to RPAC, a political action committee that works to protect homeownership. (The National Association of Realtors welcomed Ramsey as a member of the RPAC Hall of Fame in 2019.)
But as the spearhead of the Old Lee Highway project, Ramsey was cast in the unfamiliar role of adversary. He played the part only briefly, however, as he was able to convince his neighbors that the development would benefit the community.
“I believe property values in the area will go up because it’s a nice project,” he says. “Plus, it will put commercial activity on Old Lee Highway, and most people want to live close to restaurants and other conveniences.”
There were easier victories along the way. When Ramsey wanted to cut into the earth to create a middle tier between the base of the property and the acreage at the top of the hill, where he envisioned the apartments would go, he faced a costly excavation. Fortunately, Enterprise South was happy to take the soil off his hands – for free.
Twelve years after Ramsey signed a deal to purchase Solomon’s property, rocks, soil and foliage still dominate the property. However, progress on the project is beginning to accelerate.
Ramsey and his partners have sold the 14-acre chunk of land at the top of the hill to Greensboro, North Carolina-based Ardmore Residential, which intends to build the apartments. The $3 million price tag allowed Ramsey and the other investors to pay off the loan that had hung over their heads for more than a decade.
In addition, Ramsey and his partners have engineered a man-made retention pond close to the road to catch stormwater runoff and satisfy various code requirements.
They are also accepting bids on the boulevard that will take residents from Old Lee Highway up to the apartments, passing what Ramsey hopes will be an extended stay hotel and a restaurant along the way.
“The hotel makes sense because it’ll be close to VW and Amazon,” Ramsey posits. “And hotels want to be next to a place to eat.”
A classy self-storage facility is still a part of the vision as well, as is a strip center Ramsey hopes will be attractive to retailers who want to take advantage of the residents at the top of the hill.
“There will be [up to] ... 4,000 people driving through that will need a dry cleaner, a Subway, a Great Clips, a nail salon – whatever,” he says. “That will be a home run for someone. We might even do it ourselves.”
All of this is coalescing as Volkswagen prepares to spend $850 million expanding its Chattanooga facility in a bid to manufacture electric cars.
“That’s going to create high paying jobs, which will spur new development as those people spend money in restaurants and at dry cleaners and nail salons and draw more commercial activity to the area,” Ramsey suggests.
Although Ramsey is primarily a residential Realtor, he’s no stranger to commercial endeavors. He was a partner in a similar but smaller project on Standifer Gap Road many years ago and has handled the real estate transactions for several local subdivisions, including Flower Branch, Castlegate, Kenton Ridge and others.
“I saw the engineering phases of those projects and sat in on the RPA meetings and learned how it all works,” he says. “At some point, I thought, “Hey, I’m making other people rich; maybe I should do something for myself.”
Ramsey has also closed several commercial deals in partnership with another Realtor this year. But he doesn’t foresee a day when he’ll leave the residential side of his business to focus on other things.
“Residential real estate is still my bread and butter,” he says, tapping the document he shoved across the desk earlier. Although he had pretended it was the deal he offered to Solomon many years ago, it’s actually an offer he’s negotiating for homebuyers he’s representing.
“I was out with them all day yesterday,” he says.
Still, Ramsey is open to investing in another commercial project at some point. He has the means, too, as he and his partners have freed up the credit that was tied up in the Old Lee Highway project, opening the door to new possibilities.
“The corner of Old Lee Highway and Apison Pike would be incredibly valuable. I can’t believe something huge hasn’t happened there yet,” he says.
Then he adds, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe I should be out there negotiating.”
If Ramsey does make a bid for the parcel, he can rest easy in knowing one thing: Solomon doesn’t own the property.