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Building a great suburb during the Great Recession

Ben Felder
News Editor

Dana Baker has found her dream home.

Its a three-bedroom ranch-style house in a young subdivision on Piedmont’s south side.  It has granite counter tops, the vaulted living-room ceilings she has always wanted and is in a great school district.  The problem is Baker doesn’t have the money to buy the house and with her hours recently reduced at work she isn’t expecting to qualify for a loan anytime soon.

“I want to be in Piedmont, I have for a long time,” Baker said while attending an open house.  “This house and neighborhood would be perfect for my kids but I’m not sure we can make it work right now.”

A few years ago Baker might have been in a different situation.  She was working a good job at a retail distribution center and mortgages were still fairly easy to come by.  Today, two years since the housing bubble popped and America entered the Great Recession, the flow of people moving to growing suburbs has slowed considerably.

Piedmont is one of the fastest growing cities in the state but as a town trying to make a name for itself as Oklahoma City’s next great suburb, it has the challenge of growing during one of the worst economic times since the Great Depression.  Construction crews are still at work in different parts of town, but Piedmont is facing an economy that other suburbs like Yukon and Edmond never had to when they were in their infancy as suburban communities.

Piedmont is still considered a growing suburb but one clear sign that the recession has caught up with the town is the recent slump in new home construction.  Piedmont’s new home construction boom peaked in 2005 but has declined every year since.

Since the first of the year only 26 new housing permits have been applied for in Piedmont, four less than this time last year.  If that pace continues it will mean a fifth consecutive year of decline in local new home construction.  Over the past 14 years the month of August has been the busiest for new home permits but last August only five permits were issued.  That made August the 27 consecutive month in which permits failed to reach double-digits.

Local developer Phil Boevers has been building homes in Piedmont since 1979 and said the past few years have been the toughest he has seen.

“I’m not looking for a lot of good in the development market for at least the next two to three years,” Boevers said.  “There is a huge problem getting people financed for houses right now and that means less homes being built and less people moving to Piedmont.”

Boevers acknowledges that its not just a problem for Piedmont but for most communities looking to attract new home buyers.  Boevers said buyers are finding it harder to get credit because banks are more timid about loaning money for mortgages and housing developments.

“Banks are scared right now,” Boevers said.  “It takes a lot of collateral to do these residential deals.”

Eric Anderson is vice president of F&M Bank in Piedmont and he admits that these have been tough years for banks.

“Before 2008 we saw the best 15 years in banking history,” Anderson said.  “I grew up in the 1990s, so I’ve never seen bad times.”

Anderson moved to Piedmont when he was in junior high and has called the town home ever since.  He knows that the growth over the past few years has slowed in Piedmont but he is quick to add that the town is still growing.

“We are not doing 120 homes every year but we will probably do somewhere around 40 this year,” Anderson said.  “That’s still pretty good compared to other communities.  Piedmont is still growing.”

Anderson said banks are a little more careful about loaning money than they might have been in the past but he said there is still money to loan and interest rates are at historic lows.  However, there are less people looking to buy a new home right now as the recession continues to linger and Anderson said he has seen a change in mind-set by many people over the past few years.

“It seems like since the end of 2008 our loan totals have kind of gone down and our deposit totals have gone up,” Anderson said.  “People are saving more and spending less.  It’s a great time to borrow money, the incentive is there, but everyone seems like they are holding back a little bit.”

Consumer confidence is still relatively low but Anderson believes that is starting to change.  When people begin to purchase new homes again he sees Piedmont as one of the most attractive communities in the region, but besides residential growth he believes more retail development is also a key to Piedmont’s future success.

“Over the past five years we have seen a kind of retail growing boom so to speak,” Anderson said.  “Infrastructure is kind of a big thing for our commercial growth and the city is working on that.  I think this grocery store is going to be the first domino to fall to spur more retail.”

Anderson, as well as most Piedmont residents, are hopeful that the new Williams Food grocery store will spur more retail and business growth, but city officials are banking on it.  A year-long struggle resulted in a new store breaking ground in August and with a projected opening date of March 2011 the city believes Williams Food will be the start of even more development.

No one can deny that Piedmont has faced its share of economic challenges but for mayor Mike Fina that’s just the scenario that every municipality has to face.

“There is one universal problem that every community faces,” Fina said.  “That is funding and whether a city’s tax dollars can fund city services.”

Raising Piedmont’s tax revenue has been the goal for city hall and is the reason Fina said he was so aggressive in bringing a grocery store to town.  City officials have not been shy about the fact that they believe the new grocery store will be the ignition that will finally light a fire of retail business in Piedmont.  Piedmont residents have been vocal about their desire for more retail and businesses but for that to happen Fina said it has required an aggressive approach.

“We have always taken a conservative approach to our projects and budget so its natural that citizens take a conservative approach to new ideas,” Fina said.  “When it comes to moving forward its really about a mindset.  Right now there is a national mindset that is timid but I think we have an energy and culture in Piedmont that wants to move forward and is ready for growth.”

Fina is hoping that an energetic citizen base and forward-thinking leaders will lead Piedmont out of the recession, but he understands that the process for doing that is different than it was in the past.

“For many years all these cities were growing and all passing bond issues and the first answer was always yes,” Fina said.  “Now its always no.”

A voting public that is beginning to become more concerned about spending by its city, state and federal leaders means government officials are challenged with the dilemma of how to cut costs while increasing services.  Fina said the city is looking to expand its services but has also maintained a level of fiscal responsibility while other suburban cities are facing major budget cuts.

“We have been fortunate that although we have been in an economic slowdown we haven’t fallen too behind in our tax dollars,” Fina said.  “We haven’t had some of the natural problem that other communities have had like furloughed employees.”

Attracting new business to Piedmont will mean more sales-tax revenue but it will also help create a higher quality of life for residents that want more shops and restaurants in their community.  However, the real driving force behind Piedmont’s growth has been its school district and while a recession has stunted economic growth, a well performing school district will always attract new families that are looking to raise their kids in a perceived better school district.

“The silver lining to me in Piedmont is the school district,” Boevers said.

“Our anchor right now is the school system,” Anderson said.

“We will continue to grow because parents want to put their kids in our schools,” Fina said.

Nearly every city leader agrees that despite the challenges Piedmont has faced over the past few years the one advantage it has over many other communities is a high performing school district.  The Piedmont Public School district has continued to see solid growth every year and while the district has not been immune to budget tightening ,it has remained aggressive in building for the future with the construction of a new elementary school and plans for more facilities in the near future.

The challenges are real for Piedmont but so is the potential.  These are tough days for any community and as Piedmont attempts to grow it will face hurdles that other communities didn’t have to in their early days as a growing suburb.  Views differ on how long it will take Piedmont to rebound from the recession but most city leaders and residents say there is a bright future for Piedmont, no matter how long it might take.

“I think everyone is willing to take a leap to help Piedmont grow,” Anderson said.  “Where there is a will a lot of times we will find a way.”

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