Commercial Realtors® get some insider Pinnacle stories

It’s a pretty safe assumption that most people in the Tri-Cities have heard the Pinnacle and Bass Pro story. But most haven’t heard the version told at the November meeting of the CCIM Chapter.

Pinnacle developer Steve Johnson offered a few insider stories about critical moments during its 15-year journey from an idea to today.

I didn't mean to get into commercial real estate. It was a reaction to a math problem.

According to Johnson, the Pinnacle was an outgrowth of “math problem” at the Virginian. Johnson said after he and his father-in-law developed the Virginian then discovered there wasn’t enough area pent-up demand for that level of membership or real estate. They began a targeted marketing campaign at “second homers, retirees, pre-retirees – people who go north for the summer and south for the winter.”

“The phone started ringing.” The folks that visited loved the project, the access and the climate. But there was always a hitch. “They kept asking ‘where do you go to shop and eat.’”

“That’s when I went to Exit 7 and started developing retail, grocers and theaters. I didn’t mean to get into commercial real estate; it was a way to remove some area’s negatives for the Virginian.

Heads nodded when Johnson lamented that retail development is done is by the numbers – demographics. “What’s your traffic, median household income…it just the way it goes.” After he was “armed and dangerous” with that tradecraft he looked at the Tri-Cities and realized “we’re doing it wrong here.” With all due respect, we’ve got these three markets and each city is “fighting and scratching to get a deal.” But this combined MSA is the way to go instead of “duking it out with each market’s puny demographics. No disrespect, It’s just the reality of the situation.”

With that vision fixed Johnson started on his quest. It wasn’t an immediate success.

“Almost 15 years ago I tried, failed and that always bugged me. My goal was to create a development to satisfy pent-up demand for the region.” It was the right thing to do because when you combine the MSA’s population it’s the 70th largest market in the nation. What was lacking was a centrally located development with the right visibility to draw on the MSA’s more than a half million residents who were being ineffectively and inefficiently served…in my opinion.”

Look at it this way. Based on the MSA numbers, if you’re a top 100 firm and don’t have a Tri-Cities store you have made a mistake.

The Pinnacle idea was rekindled in 2011 when Johnson seized on the opportunity of the Borders Bill. He was the only developer of 300 contacted by the city of Bristol TN to follow up. “Now here I am with a 15-year vision with this great piece of legislation, the best piece of property in the region for position so here we go.”

Early on he targeted Bass Pro as a prime tenant, but his staff had no luck working within the system. Frustrated at a staff sales meeting Johnson Googled Bass Pro, dialed the number and asked to speak to Johnny Morris, the company’s founder and president. A few minutes later a voice on the phone said, “This is Johnny.”

Johnson laughs. He doesn’t remember what he said in the next 30 seconds “but it must have been pretty good” because the response was, “your timing is good, let me call you back.”

There was no call back that day, or the next or the next. “It kinda got to be a joke around the office. Has Johnny called today?”

But there was a day when his secretary buzzed him at about 4:30, “hey, Johnny Morris is on the phone.

“Yeh right.”

“No, really.”

Morris apologized for taking so long to call then asked, “What are you doing for dinner.”

Johnson had no plans.

“Good. Be at my house at 7 o’clock.”

If you're a top 100 firm and don't have a Tri-Cities location you've made a mistake

Johnson was in Bristol, TN  –  Morris was in Branson, MO. And Johnson didn’t have a pilot for his plane. After a quick call to Scott Niswonger, Johnson had his ride.

“At 6:45 I’m knocking on Johnny Morris’ door. He opens the door sand says, ‘you passed the first test bud, come on in.’”

After an evening and late night of talking then an early-morning review of the site plans Morris said, “I have a problem. I’ve got 64 stores and can put the 65th anywhere in America or Canada. I go to a hundred cities and get the same (demographics) pitch. If a market can justify a Bass Pro it has to have a story to go with it.” He wanted that story for Bristol.

 “Never being asked that question I’m coming up with filler. I said ‘well Johnny you can’t not be in Bristol because it’s the birthplace of county music. Bristol is the home of the Bristol Motor Speedway, the fastest half mile on earth and you know how big NASCAR is. You’re in it. You’ve got cars and trucks running around the track with Bass Pro written on them. County music, Bass Pro and NASCAR. It’s a perfect fit. You’ve got to be in Bristol.”

Morris thought for a minute.

“Damn you’re right. I wish I had thought of that. I’m going to get on my marketing people.”
Later than day Johnson was being introduced in the Bass Pro corporate headquarters as Morris’ Bristol developer.

But that was just the beginning. Things didn’t magically fall into place. “What I learned is traditional retailers could care less about Bass Pro.” I had to have a department store. If you don’t have a department store your chance of getting lifestyle and retail tenants is almost zero. And the department stores were not interested.

That changed when Johnson was visiting Charlotte and decided to call a friend to see if he could drop by his Bank of America Stadium suite and catch some of a Denver Bronco Carolina Panthers game. He friend asked about the Pinnacle, and Johnson told him about the department store woes.

“Have you talked to Belks?”

“Yea, I’m not getting anywhere with them.”

He asked his friend if he knew the Belk brothers.

“Yea I know Tim and Johnny. In fact their suite is two down door. You want to meet them?”

If you're a top 100 firm and don't have a Tri-Cities location you've made a mistake

“The Belk’s box was packed. My friend looks around and locates them down on the front row, and they’re all into the game. He starts yelling, ‘Tim, Johnny’ and I think ‘Oh God, this is not good.’”

A few minutes later Johnson was invited to sit with the Belk brothers.

“They asked me what I did. I said I’ve got this development and really need a Belks.

It didn’t go anywhere, but they knew I had Bass Pro. They’re big fishermen and asked, ‘do you think you could get Johnny Morris to take us fishing.’”

I said, “Oh hell yea. I thought I could figure that out later.”

Back in Bristol Johnson dialed Morris’ cell phone.

A whisper answered.

“What are you doing.”

“I’m deer hunting.”

“Why did you answer the phone?”

“I’m tired and I’m bored and you never call unless it’s important.”

Johnson laughs, “there’s a lesson in that. Never call a client unless you’ve got something important.”

Johnson explained what was going on and said they might have a chance at a deal with the Belks.

The answer was almost immediate.

“You tell them boys to get their poles ready.”

Another phone call. This one to confirm the fishing trip was lined up.

They hadn’t expected a call back. “Just as I was ready to hang up Johnny Belk asked “that deal you mentioned. Why do you think we need to be there?”

“I explained.”

“That wouldn’t work for us.”

“How do you think it would work?”

“By 5 o’clock we had a deal.”

“You talk about some divine intervention.”