Relatively steady business-related building permit issuances in the county suggest the local economy may be on the mend after a lengthy recession.
Loudon County Economic Development Agency President Pat Phillips said consumer demand appears to be up, which could encourage more businesses to enter the local market.
"I mean, it's improving," Phillips said. "A couple of years ago it was certainly more stagnant than it is now, but there seems to be a little more activity being generated."
According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state's unemployment rate is 8.5 percent for August. Loudon County sits at 7.5 percent, Phillips said.
"If you look at home values, home prices, Loudon County is one of the highest in the state," Phillips said. "I mean, so you've got a fairly large buying abilities, purchasing abilities, disposable income essentially. ... Prior to the recession, it (unemployment) was in the 3-3.5 percent range, but it's coming down. So I think that a decreasing unemployment rate is helping."
By the numbers Lenoir City lists 21 commercial permits through September, averaging about three per month. The city issued 37 permits last year. The Loudon County Planning and Codes Enforcement Office reported 16 commercial permits, averaging about two per month. Last year resulted in 26 commercial permits. The city of Loudon lists 10, which is the same amount for all of 2012.
Lenoir City Assistant Codes Enforcement Officer Beth Collins said while numbers are down, it is still a "steady amount" for 2013.
"It seems like it's staying pretty consistent right now," Travis Gray, Loudon building inspector, said.
Of the 21 permits listed from Lenoir City, four are from new commercial construction, Collins said.
"If you see last year's numbers, you only had two in the new commercial construction, whereas we've had four this year," Collins said. "Well, that's a large chunk of change that somebody is going to sink into new commercial construction."
The Lenoir City Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership on East Broadway Street is in the process of expanding its facility to accommodate accounting offices and a larger showroom.
Randy Lloyd, general sales manager, said the dealership sought a new commercial permit earlier this year.
Renovation costs totaled $56,796, Collins said.
"We're growing in leaps in bounds and basically outgrown the building that we're in," Lloyd said. "We went from selling from 50 to 75, 80 cars a month to well over 130-150, so naturally we've got to have the space to accommodate new inventory as well as our customers."
Other new commercial permits for the year include Tennessee Farm Bureau Insurance, Pediatric Choice and the Lenoir City First Church of the Nazarene.
"We know that most of the expansion and most of the jobs are created through small businesses," Dale Hurst, Lenoir City administrator, said. "So I'm a big believer and proponent in taking care of your small businesses because that's where your wealth is created. ... I think it's just a reality that Lenoir City is in a great location. Expansion will continue. Growth will continue."
Four 1,200-square-foot retail units remain vacant next to Food City at the Shops at Sweetwater Creek off U.S. Highway 72 in Loudon, units Crescent Commercial Properties Leasing Agent Brandon Graham said has been "sitting there for a year, trying to rent them out."
Crescent, which is based in Greenville, S.C., took over ownership and management of the property in October 2012, he said.
Graham said Crescent has "struggled finding people" willing to enter the market. Along with Food City, the center currently houses Subway, Top Q Nails, Dollar Tree and newly opened Italian restaurant Vittorino's.
"Well, we've gone door to door locally, passing out fliers," Graham said. "We've done multiple flier mass mailing. We have marketed the property to all the Knoxville area commercial brokers. I've actually come to a Loudon County Chamber of Commerce event. (I) met with the economic development coordinator. (I) met with the chamber of commerce. You name it, we've tried it."
Vittorino's opened April 23, owner Rossey Gutierrez said, adding that moving to the location provided access to Tellico Village and Knoxville customers.
"For a small town, yeah, we've been pretty good," she said.
Despite Vittorino's moving into the center, the property still remains largely empty alongside Food City. Next to the Dollar Tree, constructed in September 2012, three vacant retail units remain unoccupied side by side.
Phillips said there are many variables retailers take into account before they commit to a location.
"All retailers are going to look at two things essentially," Phillips said. "You know, population density or really housing density within a five, 10 mile radius or less — I mean a 3-5 mile radius, and then looking at traffic counts. And when they're looking at the housing, they're going to look at the income levels, persons per household. ... Companies are just being a little more cautious entering into new markets."
Next to the relocated Food City, Loudon Plaza Shopping Center owner David Garfunkel & Company has had similar problems leasing the available units.
But Joseph Goldstein, senior vice president of the Savannah, Ga.-based company, said he was "in talks with two major retailers to subdivide" and backfill the former Food City building. He was hopeful an announcement could be made by the first quarter of 2014.
In an effort to make the property look better and stop truck drivers from parking there at night, Goldstein said the parking lot was cleaned last week.
"We just resealed and restriped and repaired the parking lot, and we're going to be upgrading the center to hopefully the aesthetics of the south center as well," he said. "We had a tremendous amount of trucks parking in there overnight illegally, and they tore up my parking lot in a terrible way. So, we've gone in and put signs up and have repaved and resealed."
The Market at Town Creek in Lenoir City, also owned by Goldstein's company, has made some progress. Suite 202 was recently leased to 1st Franklin Financial, he said. The 1,540-square-foot unit can be found adjacent to the shopping center's Food City. The property has Pizza Hut, Food City, Premier Salon, AT&T, Fusion Tanning and Bojangle's. Five Guys restaurant, once located in Suite 301, closed last year.
David Garfunkel & Company is in discussions with "several major retailers" about the 20 unoccupied acres it owns, but Goldstein could not give any details. He did say they were all "major or regional tenants."
"We've got meetings scheduled at a real estate conference in Atlanta later this month to discuss further, but we hope to have some plans to reveal at sometime by the first quarter of next year," Goldstein said.