Tommy Stewart recalls drag racing down Old Jacksonville Highway when he was a kid.
What “used to be in the country” is now exploding with commercial and residential development.
Stewart, 66, and his wife Margaret, have lived in Water’s Edge at Oak Hollow for six years and have seen traffic steadily increase.
“It seems to be a new town,” Stewart said, adding that the growth and prosperity of the area has been unbelievable.
He works at American State Bank, about a mile from where he lives. He and his wife drive their golf cart to grocery shop at FRESH By Brookshire’s and enjoy the development’s nature trails, lakes and greenbelts, he said.
“It’s just been a fun place to be,” Stewart said.
Offering a place for residents like Stewart to live, work and play was the vision of developers Steve Thornton and J.P. Davis.
Thornton, 58, president of Oak Properties, and Davis, 45, who serves as vice president, are partners in what is now 496 acres of land they have been working to develop into residential communities and one-stop shopping for those in the area.
“What we wanted to do is give great service for the people who live here,” Thornton said. “We have everything you need. You never have to leave.”
Oak Hollow is 178 acres on the east side of Old Jacksonville, while Oak Hills is 190 acres on the west side of the highway. The land stretches to Chicken Express and Soju to the north and First Bank and Trust East Texas to the south.
With the recent purchase of 128 additional acres behind Bruno’s Pizza and Hagen’s Lighting, which they plan to develop into a residential community, the group now has 496 acres of land in the area that has exploded in the last few years.
“We had a good 2013, but we’re having a really good 2014,” Thornton said.
Davis said looking at a 2.5-mile stretch from Bruno’s to The Madison at Tyler apartments, a “tremendous” amount of businesses have come into the area since they started the development about a decade ago. The men bought Hollytree West in 2003 and started acquiring the other property in 2005.
Their dream of businesses coming to the area started in 2006. “It has pretty much fallen into suit exactly what we wanted to happen,” Davis said.
Thornton believes Old Jacksonville Highway is approaching the same traffic counts seen on South Broadway Avenue.
Traffic counts for Old Jacksonville Highway, south of Grande Boulevard, were 13,800 in 2007 and 20,000 for 2012, according to the latest figures reported by the Texas Department of Transportation.
The men have personally spent about $15 million in infrastructure costs, including putting in streets, water and utilities before turning it over to the city, Thornton said.
Before they bought the property, the city was probably getting as low as $3,500 a year in taxes because it had an agriculture exemption. Now, he estimated that taxes paid every year are in the tens of millions. “And that’s in the last eight years,” he said.
The men haven’t taken any recent aerial photos or drawn up maps of their development because it seems to change daily. “That’s the best part and the worst part,” Davis said. “You get your materials printed and it’s outdated.”
Thornton’s wife, Angie Thornton, said many businesses approached them. “They saw the vision and the passion and need to go south with us,” she said.
Their daughter, Emily Thornton, who serves as director of marketing and sales, said the businesses that chose to be a part of it in the beginning had to be patient with development and construction. “It was a great risk” for them to move to an undeveloped part of town, she added.
First Bank and Trust East Texas, Hot Yoga Tyler and Katie’s Jewelry were a few of the first “pioneers” to open businesses there. Davis said some of Tyler’s oldest companies, such as Wisenbaker Fits, Swanns Furniture and Brookshire’s have all since moved out to the area.
Thornton said the development includes a slew of medical professionals, including The Heights of Tyler, a rehabilitation facility; Sundance at Oakhill, a memory care facility; a hearing aid center, West Vision Care, Southern Surgical Arts and several doctors specializing in all areas of practice. About a dozen professional offices have relocated there, including attorneys, accountants, financial planners and oil and gas. Longtime local retailers Spin Out and The Kitchen Drawer have already made the move and Mary V’s is under construction. Other businesses include Great Clips, Clothes Mentor and VIP Dry Cleaning. A photography studio and Bank Texas recently began dirt work for new facilities and a veterinarian clinic is on its way.
Bobby Asad, owner of Fish City Grill and Sonoma Grill, who also is developing Kinsey Crossing at Loop 323 and Kinsey Drive, recently bought about 2 acres at the corner of Dueling Oak and Old Jacksonville. He lives in the area and plans to construct two buildings that will total about 22,500 square feet of commercial space near Swanns. He said the high-end retail center, Sonoma Village, is still in the design stage, and he hopes to break ground in the next couple of months. He plans to move Fish City Grill there by November or December, and when Sonoma Grill relocates there, it will get an overhaul, including a wine bar and wood-burning oven.
He chose the area after seeing it develop over the last few years. “It’s been a very desirable area all along. We just needed to see evidence of it,” he said, adding that restaurants have recently been successful.
‘NICE FOR TYLER’
Thornton said they purchased about 65 percent of the raw frontage land on Old Jacksonville — from Loop 323 to Loop 49 — so they could set the look for the corridor.
“Nothing like this has ever been done in Tyler to this scope,” he said.
In 20 years, Davis wants to drive down the corridor and have it still look nice. That’s why the quality of the construction of all the properties is important.
“It’s always going to look nice for Tyler,” he said.
Davis said about 40 percent to 50 percent each of Oak Hills and Oak Hollow remains to be developed for residential and commercial properties.
They are selling lots and are leasing land to businesses.
“We encourage people to own, we want longtime ownership out here,” Davis said.
Ms. Thornton said owning their own property allows business owners the flexibility to control how it looks and invest in it.
Shelby Burkett bought land in Swann Plaza a year ago and is constructing a 5,000-square-foot building to relocate Mary V’s from Bergfeld Center. Ms. Burkett, 29, has owned the women’s apparel and accessory business for six years and wanted to own her own building instead of paying rent. The business will celebrate its 50th anniversary when she moves into the new store this fall.
As a business owner, she has dreamed of building her own place.
“I’m excited to have a beautiful canvas for our merchandise,” she said.
A large plot of undeveloped land remains available for commercial use — retail, restaurants and professional offices. Thornton said they hope it will be a mix of locally owned businesses and national chains, and development will begin this year.
The growing area has increased traffic flow and brought more businesses to surrounding areas, such as in Gresham, Flint and near the Grande Boulevard intersection, Thornton said. With even more potential growth for the area, he reiterates what he said years ago — Old Jacksonville should be New Jacksonville.
Tyler Independent School District bought 29 acres from them and recently broke ground for a new middle school. Ms. Thornton said the new school will be a plus for moms dropping off their children and doing business in the area.
After the school purchased the land, Thornton said they began selling an average of 1.25 lots a month in the Pinnacle and Oak Hills residential communities.
When they first started developing the area, they began with residential, then added office and commercial.
“There are over 2,000 rooftops that can get to Oak Hollow and Oak Hills areas by neighborhood streets,” Davis said.
They offer smaller garden homes and starter homes to large estate lots.
“Our goal was to have the nicest of every price point in Tyler,” he said.
They are working on Barrett Heights, which will offer 35 new homes off of Oak Alley. Phase III of Bishop’s Gate just opened for construction of smaller garden homes and there are only three or four lots available.
Other residential developments include Waters Edge, which all 32 lots have sold and houses are under construction; and The Stables, which has one of the 20 lots available to build on. The Plantation offers larger estate lots and out of 12, there are two lots left to sell. Shaddock Ridge offers 12 larger lot homes and is a continuation of The Plantation.
Davis said they recently purchased the 128-acre property that will be Oak Creek, just south of Oak Hills. There will be about 300 homes in the $250,000 to $500,000 range, and they will build a large street connecting it to Old Jacksonville. About 15 acres will be left as green space. They plan to start construction within two months and it will be a six to eight year project broken into phases.
The group boasts about the beauty of the residential developments, which includes a park area and three lakes where a fly fishing club comes on weekends and people have professional photographs taken.
Thornton believes one of the neatest things about the development, in which they all live, are the big oak trees scattered throughout. Some of the trees they planted to replace those taken out while clearing land are getting larger now and will one day cascade over the boulevard streets, while the 1,600 Irish bulbs they planted around the lakes have turned into bright yellow and purple blooms, he said.
“That’s part of our vision for the future,” Mrs. Thornton said. “You can develop short sited or for the long term.”