Q&A with developer Charlie Simms: Pioneering downtown’s housing trend
THE PATH FORWARD JOBS AND THE ECONOMY
By Ideas and Voices staff
June 26, 2019
A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLIE SIMMS
Local developer Charlie Simms, a sixth-generation Daytonian, has been at the forefront of the recent boom in downtown housing construction, and talks proudly about how his company has helped downtown’s renaissance.
As part of our newspaper's Path Forward project that focuses on solutions to some of the region's big challenges, we are looking at how the region can maintain a robust economy as it moves into the future. Today on Page One, staff writer Lynn Hulsey looks at trends in the regional housing market.
We caught up with Simms recently at his office in Miami Township to talk about his business, why he thought downtown was a good bet, and where his industry is headed in the future. — Ron Rollins, community impact editor
Ron Rollins: So, your office is located in a nice development that looks all of a piece. Is this one of your company's developments?
Charlie Simms: Yes, this is development is called Timberline. My dad developed this property. I came to work for the company in 1984, not long after the Great Depression of 1980, '81 and '82 hit.
Rollins: People today tend to forget about that one, since 2008.
Simms: Yeah, that was the old one, the one we came up in.
DDN: I remember, believe me. So, how far back does the company go?
Simms: My dad started it in 1957. Before that, my grandfather was a major developer in Dayton. But when my dad got out of college, he started his own business.
Rollins: What was the business like then?
Simms: Well, it was mostly all single-family homes on integrated streets, not communities like now with amenities and pools and clubhouses. It was single family brick ranches — you know, the age of mass-produced small houses.
Rollins: How far back does your family go in Dayton?
Simms: I'm a sixth-generation Daytonian.
Rollins: That takes your family almost back to the beginning of the city.
Simms: Pretty much. My great-great-great grandfather, Alexander, has a big spire at Woodland Cemetery. He supposedly came up the Great Miami from Cincinnati during a cholera epidemic and used the wood from that board to build his first house.
Rollins: Is your dad still involved in the business?
Simms: He just had his 87th birthday and is still working. We have two companies in this office — he's a majority owner of Simms Management, running 550 apartments in the South Dayton area. I bought Simms Development from him in 1996, and I'm president and owner.
Rollins: Talk about how the company went from the work you did when you started, mostly in the suburbs, and now focusing on downtown.
Simms: When I came to work for my father, he had started building condominiums, and these condominium communities. I thought it was great, because it helps you to build a lot of homes and there's a lot of value and efficiencies to it. We continued building those and getting better at them and more themes, a few more amenities, we got better in our designs and better with our land planning. All in the suburbs. OK. And we did that for years. We introduced the three-story townhome about 10 years ago and everybody said that I was crazy, they will never sell. I don't even know how many three-stories we've sold now. Probably 600 or 700.
Rollins: How many homes have you built in the last 30 years?
Simms: A thousand to 1,500. So for a long time, we were building mainly in Washington Twp., a little bit in Centerville. We branched out into Greene County, Beavercreek and built 184 units in Mason. The trend seemed to be that condominiums and townhomes were going to remain popular — people want less maintenance, want new bells and whistles and efficiency. And then when the crash happened in 2008, the lenders shut down, sales shut down, and we had to really think about what to do next. We were worried about the business.
Rollins: What did you do?
Simms: Well, we cut back. We've always been conservative. We've never bought land way out front and gotten too much debt. But we cut back. And then I got a phone call from Walt Hibner, who was at the time the executive director of the homebuilders association, and he said the city of Dayton, their economic development people, want to meet with you. I said, What for? They said they want you to build downtown, and this 2008. And I pretty much laughed it off. I thought I would never build downtown.
Rollins: Was that because nobody was building downtown? Or because downtown didn't fit your business model?
Simms: Yeah, nobody was building downtown. We're used to buying 10 to 40 acres and building these projects that had anywhere from 50 to 200 units. And we were in a really tough time in the business. It wasn't like I was going to change my entire business model in the middle of a recession. But Walt said, come on, why don't you meet with them and see? So I did, probably out of respect to Walt.
Simms: So I met with Shelly Dickstein and Amy Walbridge, and I really liked them both. And so they said, Well, we have a site for you that we would probably be willing to give you. And that obviously perked my interest — nobody's ever offered to give me a piece of ground before. So I asked, how big is it? Well, it's one acre right next to the four-story parking garage across from the Dragons. And I was like, you've gotta be kidding — one acre? I'm sure I was trying to keep a straight face. I said, I'll drive down and look at it. So, months went by, and I was thinking about it, because there was a trend across the country and there had been for the last 10 years ago, of people coming into back to the urban core. So we did some research, we saw that the apartments downtown were basically 98% leased.
So, I decided to explore further and met with the planning department, and said maybe I can put two six-unit buildings on that site. And they said, Charlie, scoot your buildings up closer to First Street, and you have room for more buildings in the back. I said, what about the setbacks? And they said, there are no setbacks downtown. You can put your building right in the property line. And I was like, you’re kidding. We could get 18 units on one acre and I thought that was really cool. But I still knew the numbers weren’t going to work because we’re in a major recession — actually, it was really a real estate depression. I went back to the city and said, I’m going to need help cleaning up this site, which they offered to do. And they gave us a grant. And so we decided to do it and go, and we sold those first 18 units in about nine months. Wow. And we built, closed, everybody moved in, while everybody was shocked, excited, and happy. That was it.
Rollins: Was that enough to change your mind?
Simms: Yeah, it proved to me there was demand downtown. The other cool thing that happened is, you know, everybody says all your building materials are going to get stolen, and it's going to be uncool down there. So I ran the job. I couldn't wait to get down there every day. We did not have one nail stolen off that site, right? And it was just so refreshing. And people I met down there were great, and it brought back my belief in Dayton, because I could remember the time when our parents were telling us not to go downtown. It wasn't safe.
Rollins: So now, fast forward, you're completing your fifth development — Monument Walk, after building a variety of townhomes at different price points that all sold out right away.
Simms: Exactly. A lot of people said don't ever build on the west side of Main Street — the businesses don't do well and it wasn't as healthy. I didn't care — this is a nice piece of ground. It looks over the river. We built the first one as a four-story with an elevator. There are rooftop views, premium pricing, they've sold well.
Rollins: And you and your wife moved into that development, right?
Simms: It's been a year. We love it. We love walking around. We like the restaurants. We love Riverscape.
Rollins: You were sort of a pioneer. How do you feel about other developers coming into downtown after you, from out of town?
Simms: They're mostly building rental, and that makes sense because a lot of the demand now is for young people. Most of our market has been people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. And because with the pricing as high as it is, the younger people can't really afford it. Right? Even though interest rates are low. And they're doing loft rehabs — things Dayton needs that I don't really do. So it's not really direct competition to me. And we need it, right? So the more the better.
Rollins: What's next?
Simms: Well, there's a couple places that we're looking at. Around the Oregon area. There'll be some opportunity, hopefully, around Wright-Dunbar. We're meeting with the homeowners association there, and they wanted us to look at the neighborhood as a whole. We're also looking at a site on Salem Avenue that's owned by Omega Baptist Church.
Rollins: So, when downtown promoters were pushing for development there, they argued if it worked development would ripple outward into the surrounding neighborhoods. Is that what is happening?
Simms: Well, sure. These projects are all infill, right? Wright-Dunbar is infill. Salem is infill. And by infill, I'm talking about spaces that are available, that are already developed all around. And infill is the wave of the future because sprawl — building new roads and development — is getting very expensive. I think you're going to see a lot more infill because it's very green, like downtown — all the existing infrastructure is there, the roads, the streets, the sewer, the water, all that. So I like it, because not only it sells well, but it's great. It's good for the environment. It's good for the community. And I'm not saying we'll never build in the suburbs again, because we are — in Beavercreek, in Yankee Trace. But infill is the long-term trend. And we haven't even mentioned Springfield. We broke ground a couple weeks ago for 34 units in downtown Springfield.
Rollins: That's exciting.
Simms: They called me in the same kind of scenario about a year ago. They showed me all the cool things that were happening in Springfield, and took me over to a site they wanted help with — one acre right next to this beautiful park that they developed downtown. And we set up a deal similar to what I did with Dayton; you know, those two economic development offices work together. It took about a year to craft the deal; if you want residential builders building new stuff downtown, a public private partnership is paramount. You have to have it. We hope to have our model open by the end of the year — 34 units on 1.2 acres.
Rollins: What does that tell you about the whole urban living thing and how it's playing out in cities this size in this part of the country?
Simms: It tells me people want to walk. They want to not be in their cars as much. They want to be able to be where the action is. And in this isn't just young people — I'm the perfect example. You feel like you're in the middle of something when you're downtown. There's a vibe, for me. Obviously, Dayton doesn't have the vibe of New York City or Chicago. But it's definitely got a vibe.
Rollins: So in retrospect, are you surprised by how this happened? How it unfolded? Or does it seem inevitable, in retrospect?
Simms: Well, I knew pretty early that there was a demand. I didn't know that we're going to have to six sites and build 118 units in five years. But I'm really glad we did it. I'm really proud of it. It's what the market wants. And it taught me that it's smart to follow where the demand is.
Rollins: Thoughts on the the economy in general, the industry in general?
Simms: I think the Dayton economy is good. I've always liked Dayton, because we're not super big. We don't have to compete with big regional and national builders. The base just had good news and will continue to have good news. We have the water supply, we have the infrastructure, we have a safe environment, pretty much, a nice climate. It's a good place to live now. So I think Dayton will continue to be well, because it's situated around other cities that will help us. I think the national economy can continue to do well. I mean, we're obviously one of the most successful countries in the world right now, where people want to live. And I think our economy will continue to grow.
Simms: Really, you know, I'm just proud to be a Daytonian. And I love this industry. Homeownership is the American dream, providing jobs. I've been very fortunate to do it as long as I can.
Infill is the wave of the future because sprawl — building new roads and development — is getting very expensive. I think you’re going to see a lot more infill because it’s very green, like downtown — all the existing infrastructure is there, the roads, the streets, the sewer, the water, all that. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the community.