Case Studies

Tallahassee Builders Association

A foreword on two businesses from lesser-known Florida

Far removed from the beaches and theme parks that define other locales, north Florida has its own amenities that attract some of the 1,000 folks who move to the Sunshine State daily.

“It’s a beautiful place to live and raise your family,” says Lynne Edwards, executive officer of the Tallahassee Builders Association (TBA) and owner of the 319 Wine and Cheese Shoppe in the capital city. “We have beautiful surroundings and state parks, and universities, arts, theaters and museums. We’ve everything you’d want in a big city, but with a small-town feel.”

A few Tallahassee contractors profiled in the following segment concur, and anticipate an extended growth period as memories of the so-called Great Recession fade.

Tallahassee Builders Association

Photo courtesy of Praesidium Homes LLC, a TBA member

But before anyone hums “Hard Times Come Again No More,” it should be said that there are reasons why the greater Tallahassee region—which covers Leon County and parts of Gadsden, Wakulla and Jefferson counties—may fall short. High among them are the skilled labor and buildable land so necessary to sustain a healthy construction industry.

“We do need a better work force and more tradespeople,” Edwards says. “We need for the high schools and junior colleges to push the trades. We need skilled plumbers, electricians, carpenters.”

Perhaps some of that solution is arriving daily with the new Floridians. If so, those proficient with tools may find the opportunity to build not just houses, but a rewarding livelihood.

Of course, incentives figure in attracting and retaining good tradespeople. Praesidium Homes LLC is in the forefront of progressive personnel policies.

Employee benefits can be a rarity on the construction sites, as workers are usually compensated only for hours on the job. That can be a problem in any part of Florida, where summer days are often marked by heavy rain in the afternoon that can interrupt work.

No fair-weather employers, Praesidium founders R. Vaughn Poppell and Tim Tucker pay their workers a minimum of four hours even when inclement weather puts construction on hold.

“Obviously if they work over four hours they will get paid more, but we wanted to make sure our guys got at least something for their survival,” Poppell says.

In addition, if a holiday falls on a weekday, it’s a day off.

Another builder, Mark Kessler, president of family-owned Kessler Construction LLC, recalls how he persevered during the tough times that consumed so many of his competitors, and how creativity and customer service are indispensable in good times and bad.

Kessler calls his Southern Oaks project Leon County’s first and only sustainable residential community, where each house is to meet the Florida Green Building Council’s criteria for energy sustainability and efficiency.

Not that Southern Oaks is for everybody; the properties range from the high $400,000s to $700,000 on half- to three-quarter acre lots offering considerable privacy under leafy branches. But long term, Kessler says, the homeowner will see substantial savings in energy costs—think air conditioning—and enhanced resale value. And short term, maybe easier access to financing since utility costs won’t break the budget.

While Southern Oaks marks the gold standard of Kessler’s design-build company, he doesn’t shy away from building more modest homes, such as a two-bedroom domicile under 800 square feet.

“Custom doesn’t have to mean expensive; it just means one of a kind.”

“Custom doesn’t have to mean expensive; it just means one of a kind,” he says. “We’ve never built the same home twice.”

Another custom home builder and remodeler, Brandon Jett of Jett Builders Inc., has his hands so full that he can be selective about which projects he undertakes.

“I’ve got more than enough work to do, and I don’t want to grow,” he says in a profile of his company. “I don’t want to get any bigger because it’s big enough. It’s not all about the all-mighty dollar; it’s about quality and relationships, and that’s what I want to keep.”

Jett learned the trade from his dad, and didn’t always enjoy toiling under Florida’s furnace-blast sun, but now counts himself lucky that he can design and build a dream house for his customers.

Still, Jett will never forget the lean years when he seemed to be building mostly character. Others may have called it a recession; to him it was a depression, and just as his forebears may have struggled to eke out a living in the 1930s, at times he, too, was reduced to doing odd jobs.

“It got to the point where if you wanted your gutters cleaned, we’d come do it,” he remembers.

He probably won’t be doing that again anytime soon, though like other North Florida Builders, he faces certain challenges.

The combination of large estates, conservation land and sometimes-confusing zoning regulations can make for a shortage of real estate. And with an economy whose most significant players include state government and the universities, there’s a shortage of large-scale businesses to ensure stability when the public sector is ailing.

Edwards notes that when state employees get laid off—which happened early in Gov. Rick Scott’s first term—a negative ripple swept the housing industry, and that the same happens when fewer students necessitate layoffs of faculty members at Florida State University or Florida A&M. Then there’s the unrelated matter of builders having to deal with separate building and zoning codes on the city and county level.

“We’d like to see the permitting process be the same for the city and county to make it easier for business and developers,” Edwards says. “We need for the city and county to look at zoning issues and make more land available for development. And because we are a landlocked county we have smaller builders because there’s not enough land to keep them interested.”

Comprised of over 300 members, the Tallahassee Builders Association is affiliated with both the Florida Home Builders Association and the National Association of Home Builders, and keeps a keen eye on issues affecting the industry. Among the association’s upcoming events are the Parade of Homes, scheduled for the weekends of May 6-7 and May 13-14.

Challenges notwithstanding, the association is upbeat about the foreseeable future.

“During the downturn, we were suffering the same as everyone else, but we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” says Edwards. “We’re growing in the right direction. People are feeling comfortable in their positions and lifestyles. We’re seeing a great remodeling industry and more home construction.”

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Spring 2018

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