BROWNSVILLE − Haywood County’s largest city is experiencing a boom one year after Ford Motor Co. announced plans to locate a $5.6 billion electric truck and battery project in rural West Tennessee.
Brownsville — a majority-Black city located about 50 miles northeast of Memphis — in recent decades experienced population decline, lack of job opportunities and a stagnated business and retail market.
The city with an estimated population of 9,500 people has seen momentum shift since the Ford announcement. This is occurring as the Michigan-based automotive giant and joint venture partner SK On simultaneously build out the future BlueOval City campus in Stanton, about 13 miles from Brownsville.
rownsville’s Courthouse Square is vibrant with new businesses and restaurants. A new $2.5 million, 12,000-square-foot Brownsville City Hall will open on Courthouse Square later this year.
Traffic levels are steadily rising with locals noticing a higher number of out-of-county (and out-of-state) license plates. The commercial and residential real estate markets are in the midst of an early boom likely to continue for years.
Though the biggest challenge long-term for Brownsville leaders is planning that growth out successfully while keeping what makes the city unique.
“It’s hard to determine what somebody’s intentions are,” Brownsville Mayor Bill Rawls said. “We want to protect our heritage, but we want to help facilitate the growth. We want to be able to minimize the risk for people to want to invest and for keeping the quality. We want quality in the housing. We want quality in the job development. We want quality in the construction and the growth.”
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Though what might be the most exciting — and arguably most important in the short-term — to many in Brownsville is the reopening of the $5 million Haywood County Community Hospital under new ownership. The hospital closed in 2014 amid a wave of rural hospital closures in Tennessee and is now under new leadership in Florida-based Braden Healthcare.
“The average person that you run into at Walmart or run into the restaurants, they’re more excited about the hospital than Ford,” said Michael Banks, Haywood County Community Hospital president and CEO. “Maybe because it’s more real.”
Brownsville’s residents and officials have seen glimpses of what its future could eventually look like in the next few years and decades ahead. BlueOval City — scheduled to open in 2025 — is expected to create about 5,800 jobs and provide a significant economic boost to one of the region’s most economically disadvantaged counties.
Brownsville gets its rural hospital back
Most hospitals that closed in rural Tennessee over the past decade remain closed. That is what makes Haywood County Community Hospital’s revival unique.
Rawls and Banks, who is a local attorney for the city of Brownsville and Haywood County, looked for a solution to the area’s hospital issue several years ago. That culminated in the Haywood County School District Board obtaining the deed to the hospital property from former owner Franklin-based Community Health Systems. Braden Health then acquired the hospital in 2020.
The rural health clinic potion of the hospital opened Aug. 15, which basically includes the same services someone can access at a primary care or walk-in clinic including five exam rooms, Banks said.
Eventually, the 49-bed hospital will also offer other services including full labs, X-ray, CT scan, mammography, ultrasound and 24/7 pharmacy, Banks added.
Once fully operational on Jan. 1, Haywood County Community Hospital is expected to employ about 140 people, Banks said. The hospital will also provide substance abuse treatment, mental healthcare and diagnostic services.
It’s welcome news to Brownsville (and Haywood County) residents because for the past eight years if they sought acute care or wanted to visit a specialist, they had to travel to Jackson, about 30 miles away.
“I don’t think I can truly speak to the impact it’s gonna have until the ambulances are coming in,” Banks said. “I know it’s exciting. I know it’s good for the community. Exactly the impact I hate to even speculate. Hopefully, it will be better than I can even imagine.”
While the lack of a nearby emergency room impacted the state’s search to find a tenant for the then-Memphis Regional Megasite — concern remained strong for Brownsville’s residents if no solution was found for the area’s hospital problem, especially as residents continually overused the 911 system, according to Rawls.
“This is gonna change everything. This is one of the most important things that’s ever been done in our community,” Rawls said. “Expanding people’s life expectancy especially doing the golden hour when they have stroke, car accident or heart attack. The services offered there are gonna be even better than what we had before because of technology.”
In recent years, Haywood County had some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiac issues in Tennessee. Life expectancy in Haywood County is 73.5 years old, four years younger than the U.S. median of 77.5, according to data from U.S. News & World Report.
“You can’t put people’s lives in jeopardy,” Rawls said. “That affects all people old, white, Black, Democrat, Republican, the mayor. That’s a right to life to have adequate services. It’s a people issue not a political issue.”
Even though Haywood’s hospital closed in 2014, the decline started a decade prior, according to Banks. He was chairman of the hospital’s board at the time of its closure.
Some of the reasons that led to closure were declining patient volumes, stagnant reimbursement rates from private insurers, despite premiums rising, and the state government’s decision not to expand Medicaid. These were the same issues that led to other rural hospital closures in West Tennessee.
“In its later years, probably the last 10 years, the community didn’t support it the way it probably needed to be supported,” Banks said. “I don’t think the local physicians did either. Loss of trust with the hospital itself.
“In my opinion, it’s on me to make sure the community supports it and that the doctors support it, and we do that by giving good service. When people walk out of here, we certainly don’t want them to be sick again, but we want them to know this is the place to go, so the medical services will be here, we’ve got to provide the customer service in order to keep that.”
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Brownsville’s booming real estate market
Joey Conner has lived in Brownsville his whole life and spent the past 19 years in residential and commercial real estate. He’s worked the past 11 years with Conner Real Estate, where he serves as owner and principal broker.
Like most of the country, Brownsville’s housing market experienced an uptick before the Ford announcement due to low inventory and higher demand, Conner said. Then the Ford announcement took the real estate market to a level not seen before in the area.
“I take some type of pride in the fact I stuck it out in the real estate, and done well thank God, but it’s now a totally different climate when you talk about people actually searching out places to actually come (and) stay, develop or actually come invest,” Conner said.
The biggest change Conner has seen in the past year is interest from out-of-town investors, which he welcomes. He’s had people calling him from real estate firms from California, New York and Texas, among other places, trying to invest in single- and multi-family home projects in Brownsville before it likely booms further in the coming years.
“The housing market was already busy. It changed (with) more outsiders coming in looking to invest, more commercial real estate investors looking at multiple houses, multi-family units,” Conner said. “Our commercial side grew, and the residential side grew because it was then all eyes on Haywood County. How can we get in and invest now to hopefully get a return later on with Ford actually up operational working and all that?”
The median listing home price in Brownsville is currently $179,000, a 40.4% increase from $127,450 in September 2021, according to data from Realtor.com. The median gross rent in Brownsville from 2016-2020 was $635 per month, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Rent prices are likely to rise substantially in the coming years, a concern of Rawls.
“I’m talking to developers daily about single- and multi-family housing because of our housing shortage,” Rawls said. “Making sure we keep affordable housing to residents. Rents are going way through the roof. I don’t know what to do about that. How do I control that?”
Conner advises anyone interested in moving to Brownsville (or Haywood) to do it now because rent and home prices will only increase from here.
“Again you’re gonna have a lot of buyers and people looking to live in these areas that’s gonna force the pricing of housing up,” Conner said.
Brownsville’s Courthouse Square vibrant once again
As work began to open Livingston’s Soda Fountain and Grill in the Brownsville Courthouse Square in 2021, co-owners Jack and Glenda Pettigrew hoped the restaurant would boost the city but did not have high expectations.
That all changed when Ford made its BlueOval City announcement.
“We weren’t sure how successful we’d be catering to a small town,” Jack Pettigrew said. “We hope to bring some life back into Brownsville by doing the restaurant and maybe some fun things and then when they made the announcement, it was gonna help us tremendously.”
Livingston’s, 60 S. Washington Ave., opened in Brownsville’s Courthouse Square in March, about 15 minutes from the BlueOval City site in Stanton.
It’s also home to the BlueOval City milkshake, birthday cake-flavored to celebrate the project’s birth with blue sprinkles and served with a blue sucker.
Livingston’s opening also represented a continued revitalization of the Courthouse Square. Brownsville’s new city hall building will serve as more than a place for government meetings as it will also have community meeting spaces, Rawls.
The Pettigrews remember seeing several vacant buildings this time a year ago. Now, the Courthouse Square is filled with restaurants and businesses including Eat ZZs, West Tennessee Firearms Company and Exclusive Ink Tattoo Studio, to name a few.
“It just helps so much for the whole square when you take two or three eyesores and bring them back to life,” Jack Pettigrew said. “I just think it encourages people to get involved and maybe consider an investment maybe another business.”
The Haywood County and Brownsville Chamber office, 121 W. Main St., is also within Courthouse Square and undergoing renovations of its own. Former chamber CEO Sandra Silverstein recalled the memories people have from time spent in Downtown Brownsville.
“People remember going downtown for all their lives and having an ice cream cone sitting on the Courthouse Square,” Silverstein said. “It’s just where a lot of memories are for generations (of people), and we want to continue to create those same kind of memories for generations to come.”
Monique Merriweather is the chamber’s new executive director and began her role in August. The position has gained more importance since Ford’s announcement and the anticipated change and growth the area could see because of that.
She said the chamber has received interest from businesses about locating to Brownsville and also shared what she hopes to recruit to the area in the coming years.
Merriweather hopes to recruit big box businesses, retailers and restaurants during her tenure.
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Looking ahead to the future
As Brownsville officials plan out what the city’s future looks like in the short-term, it’s a reminder that the alternative of not having BlueOval City would be a far murkier one.
“I knew we deserve it just like any other place in the country like Brentwood, Franklin or Chattanooga or Knoxville,” Rawls said. “We in West Tennessee needed that shot in the arm. It’s time for that economic boost. It’s time to look forward.”
Rawls is also counting on the multiplier effect of thousands of additional jobs and encouraging residents who will not be employed by Ford or South Korean company SK On that their services will still be required.
“I tell people don’t worry. If you do something, if you do it well and you’re passionate about it, how do you integrate that into our community?” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Do what you do best. We’re gonna need it in our community whatever that is.”
For Banks, it’s straightforward — it’s time for Haywood County and Brownsville leaders to spend and invest the requisite money needed to accelerate the area’s growth. That also means shifting from the mindset of focusing on balancing the budget each year and keeping their taxes low.
“We’re struggling to sort of get out of that mentality,” he said. “We got to spend money to make money. That’s the mentality we’ve got to have.”
Omer Yusuf covers the Ford project in Haywood County, residential real estate, tourism and banking for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached via email Omer.Yusuf@commercialappeal.com or followed on Twitter @OmerAYusuf.