Ray Gill, president of Gill Properties, got into commercial real estate because of his interest in land but now wishes he’d spent some time reading palms and tarot cards.

Gill Properties staff include Debbie Salera, from left, Janet Ferrell, Ray Gill, Jennifer Stewart and Patty Lycan (missing is Brown Gill).

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Having weathered four recessions since opening his business in 1984, Gill said the current financial recovery defies predictions.

“My crystal ball is cloudy,” said Gill. “With the cost of money as inexpensive as it is, you’d think there would be more demand.”

That wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s he became an expert in finding land opportunities by studying road plans and municipalities’ growth patterns, as well as sewer lines and infrastructure.

Gill said it was pretty easy to figure out where the next booming intersection would be.

“It’s not like today when there’s no growth,” said Gill. “There’s no way to predict the future because there’s no indicators. And back then rates would be steady for weeks or months at a time.”

Now no one is buying land, in other words.

Gill Properties brokered the southeast corner of Winchester and Ridgeway roads for a major shopping center and some acreage in Germantown, which became a subdivision. It also developed the 100-acre Cordova Station mixed-use development in 1987 and Grand Harbor at Pickwick.

But when the 2008 financial crisis hit, fortunately the company wasn’t sitting on a lot of land.

The company had branched out into retail and office development, but Gill wanted a steadier line of work, so he switched his focus to a new arena.

“I didn’t like the ups and downs of the land business,” said Gill. “If you’re in the land business it’s feast or famine, and right now it’s famine. I’ve never seen a period where there’s more negativism toward land as there is now.”

In 1999 Gill bought two sites in Jackson, Tenn., to develop as upscale self-storage units with attractive brick walls, fortress-like fences around them and video surveillance, all of which could easily blend into a retail environment.

He ended up creating a new zoning district altogether, since self-storage had been marked as industrial use. Called Storage Town of America, the units are run by Gill’s son.

Storage Town bought out a competitor in Jackson with two sites and opened one more site in Memphis and another in Bartlett.

In the meantime, Gill looks cautiously for new office/retail development opportunities in Shelby County like an undeveloped 10-acre tract on Poplar Avenue near Kirby Parkway. The land is situated nicely between East Memphis and Germantown making it prime space for medical or other Class A office users.

The Kirby Farm Home on the site is on the National Register of Historic Places and came with a historic price of $2.6 million, but Gill felt comfortable with it because potential users were already lining up. He purchased the site in April.

“We’re in the midst of modifying the zoning,” Gill said. “We started looking at that site when we had a medical user who needed some space. Subsequent to that we found users who want larger spaces on a single floor.

“We found a niche where there may be some demand for 20- to 30,000-square-foot floors.”

The house and other buildings on the grounds will be removed.

Gill also has two buildings currently under construction, a 19,000-square-foot shopping center on Germantown Parkway, and a former Barnhill’s restaurant on Poplar Avenue in Collierville, which is being renovated and has been pre-leased.

Gill, whose company has five brokers including himself and 16 employees total, said he will act cautiously for the time being. One prediction he is willing to make, though, is where new growth in land is likely to occur first.

“I’ve always thought Arlington would be the first community to show some signs of life and I think that’s already started,” Gill said. “You see some home sales there and some wood going up in subdivisions.”

He pointed out that Arlington’s schools and city government are stable and property taxes are low.

“Collierville and Germantown are mature communities from a land perspective, but Arlington is an affordable community with its own government,” Gill said. “It’s not the city and it’s not (Shelby) county.”