Just minutes after news hit Thursday morning that a record 3.3 million workers applied last week for unemployment benefits, building officials emailed the daily batch of Shelby building permits.

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Topping the list was Gill Properties’ $3.9 million project to build White Oak at White Station, a 27,000-square-foot shopping and office center at 681 S. White Station Road, between Poplar Avenue and Wheelis Drive.

The developer decided to forge ahead even though COVID-19 has closed all Shelby County restaurants and forced thousands of other employees to work from home.

Different types of courage in the face of the pandemic are emerging in places other than hospitals.

“This is about confidence and this, to me, is about people going back to work,” Brown Gill said.

“We certainly discussed in-house whether we should mothball the project for a year,” the company’s vice president of development said. “I think like, like all of us, we hope for a U-shaped recovery.”

The bottom of the ‘U’ would be April-June, with an economically rough but slightly improving July-September, and a strong recovery starting in October-December, he said.

“Humans, including me, are really bad at predicting the future,” Gill said. “Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s definitely more risk, but I think that Ray (Gill, his father,) and I are big boys and can absorb that risk and hopefully produce a beautiful product at the right time.”

In a gutsy move, Ray (left) and Brown Gill are going forward full steam on a $4 million shopping center in East Memphis even as the economy is slumping because of COVID-19. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
In a gutsy move, Ray (left) and Brown Gill are going forward full steam on a $4 million shopping center in East Memphis even as the economy is slumping because of COVID-19. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
Ray Gill said Brown was a little more concerned about the pandemic’s effect on the project than he was.

“I felt like it’s such a good site and that the economy is going to come back,” Ray said. “It’s going to take us a year to build it and we’ll be fine…

“There will be a six-month or so decline, but the economy has enough optimism built in that it will come back in the fourth quarter or first quarter of 2021,” Ray Gill said.

“We could be wrong,” Brown Gill said. “But I still believe in the project and I believe in the Memphis economy and that the Memphis retailers are going to recover and are going to come out of this.

“… Am I concerned? Yes,” he said. “But I also have got to believe that we have a stronger economy than that, and we can get through this. And by the time this building is produced there will be more retailers and offices who want to be in it.

“We are going to carry forward.”

Bank3 is the lender, Thoda & Associates is the architect and Grinder Taber Grinder will build the two, one-story buildings.

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Gill Properties has signed leases with some tenants who have not pulled back because of the pandemic.

“They know in a year we’ll be fine, in my opinion,” Brown Gill said. “Not one of those signed leases have come back and said ‘We don’t want to be in the building.’”

Most of the tenants are in the service industry.