|By Francis X. Gilpin, The Fayetteville
Observer, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 18, 2009--SPRING LAKE -- The $1 million purchase of a business park from the town appears to be just the beginning for Rocky Keim and Bob Stafford in Spring Lake.
The developers are weighing a handful of other real estate projects, unfazed by the town's economic and political troubles.
Their Gentry Group LLC has renamed the 50-acre business park, which the Army deeded to Spring Lake for economic development, to Freedom Center. Gentry Group hopes to lure defense and national-security contractors wishing to be near an expanding Fort Bragg.
The businessmen envision $27 million in construction at Freedom Center, with financing through federal economic-stimulus programs.
But that's not all.
The developers believe Spring Lake is on the verge of explosive growth, fueled by military base realignment and closure, in spite of the town's image.
The latest knock on Spring Lake is the police force, which is trying to regain arrest powers while two former officers await trial on criminal charges.
"Spring Lake has been neglected very much in the past. But we see Spring Lake being ready to come into its own," said Stafford, who operates from Southern Pines. "We see it being an area that's lacking a lot of things and being receptive to getting them."
About two miles outside the town limits, Stafford is developing a 350-lot subdivision near N.C. 210 and Ray Road.
Although assigned a Spring Lake address, the development is in Harnett County. In the past year, Stafford said, he has sold 75 lots, mostly to military personnel, in a time of tight credit.
But Stafford also expects to start building a higher-end extended-stay hotel inside Spring Lake next spring. Stafford said he'll partner with a Fayetteville nonprofit organization, Kingdom Community Development Corp., on the 180-room hotel, which will include a casual restaurant.
As for Keim, the Raleigh-based developer is considering at least one Spring Lake project of his own.
Since others are pursuing the same opportunity, however, Keim said he has to be circumspect until a decision is made, which is expected within six months.
"The use is something that's been talked about quite a bit," Keim said. "Some people would like to see that go in, say, Fayetteville proper. Some people would like to see it go down by the airport. We're trying to leverage relationships, key relationships in the county that will put that in Spring Lake."
Wave of developers
Town Planning Director Thomas H. Spinks said Keim and Stafford, together and separately, are part of a wave of developers descending on Spring Lake.
Many of the projects that have been approved or are nearing approval by the town are residences for military personnel who want to live off post. Those include the $38 million Stonegate apartments, the $16 million Cliffs at Waterford condominiums, the $15 million second phase of the Village on the Lakes apartments, the $14 million Spring Lake Green apartments, and the $13 million Waterford apartments.
Besides BRAC, traffic projections are a big enticement to developers. About 76,000 automobiles travel North Bragg Boulevard a day. That rate could double in a few decades.
"The numbers are astounding," Spinks said.
N.C. 210 is getting attention because of big vacant tracts available along it.
"We are targeting certain corridors and properties for development," Keim said. "And that would be both retail as well as residential."
Keim said Spring Lake needs more commercial activity in the evening.
But redeveloping the town's tattered business district is less appealing to investors. Spinks said developers must assemble smaller parcels for a decent-sized project and bargain with owners who sometimes have an inflated sense of what their real estate is worth.
"Everybody thinks they've got the tooth fairy by the ankle," Spinks said. "They're holding onto the keystone of the project. People hold out and then development develops around them and makes their property pretty much useless."
Gentry Group boasted in a recent presentation to Cumberland County officials that the company's principals have a combined net worth of $30 million.
But Gentry Group hopes to borrow up to $17 million for Freedom Center through a new federal bond program. Recovery Zone Facility Bonds are intended to provide low-cost financing for permanent job-generating projects ready to break ground in economically depressed communities.
In that regard, Spring Lake's reputation works to Gentry Group's advantage.
"We think we fit the mold of what they're looking for," Stafford said.
Stafford said he and Keim can work around Spring Lake's recent woes.
"I don't think it's helped us any, obviously," he said. "But, by the same token, I think it's given the leadership there motivation to get those problems cured and get on with it."
Staff writer Francis X. Gilpin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3587.
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