Unum weighs future of downtown lots

Unum weighs future of downtown lots

August 22nd, 2013 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Unum President and CEO Tom Watjen delivers the keynote address Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Chattanooga Chamber at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


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Unum Group, one of downtown Chattanooga's biggest landowners and sitting on an array of surplus parking lots, has launched a panel to look at future uses of the tracts.

Tom Watjen, Unum's chief executive, said Wednesday that new employee parking garages it has built adjacent to its downtown headquarters have opened up its real estate footprint on the north side of Fourth Street and it's looking at what's next for the lots which span a three- to four-block area.

"We've always been wanting to work with the town and community to make sure we do the right thing," he said after keynoting the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting.

In addition to the vast space off Fourth Street, the company has parking lots off Vine Street near UTC. Also, the company owns a lot on the old EPB property between Market and Cherry streets on which some employees park.

In all, Unum now has about half dozen lots in which employees don't, or rarely, use for parking, according to the company.

Kim White, who heads the nonprofit downtown redevelopment group River City Co., said Unum's lots likely are the most future impactful parcels in the central city because of their number.

"No doubt we believe it's one of the biggest opportunities for downtown," she said.

Tom White, Unum's senior vice president of investor relations, said the company is talking to a number of developers and to UTC.

He cited new developments near Unum's campus, such as a Walnut Street project that's the biggest apartment complex to go up in downtown in decades. Such projects are changing the dynamics of how that part of the central city looks, operates and feels, White said.

"We want to see how some of that develops before we make any final determination," he said. Both Watjen and White said they don't have a time table for the properties.

Kim White, meanwhile, said her group and the Chamber are embarking on a new market study in September that will look at five-year housing, office and retail trends.

"If you want more retailers, you have to have more people living downtown," she said. Currently, White said, there are more people who desire to live downtown than there is housing.

"There aren't enough options," the River City official said.

Watjen told about 1,200 people at the Chamber annual meeting that Unum, which has nearly 3,000 employees in downtown Chattanooga, has 25 million customers in the United States and United Kingdom. In Chattanooga, it has a $200 million annual payroll, he said.

The nation's No. 1 disability insurer has seen its stock price recently hit new 10-year highs. Watjen said company performance, a rising market and an uptick in its business sector have contributed to the hikes.

"It has been nice to see," he said. "I'm not going to complain."

Watjen said while Unum is a big business as a Fortune 250 company, it likes to act like a small one.

"Nimbleness is important to our future success," he said, adding that it has a "bias for action."

The company CEO said there's a lot of potential business to be tapped in the marketplace, noting that 70 percent of Americans lack disability insurance.

"It's a good business that could get better down the road," he said.

Watjen said that Unum has a $55 billion to $60 billion investment portfolio and that officials are "rooting for higher interest rates."

Ron Harr, the Chamber's chief executive, said that attorney Howard Levine of Miller & Martin is the business group's new chairman, replacing Diana Bullock, EPB's vice president of economic development and community relations.

Harr said the Chamber is kicking off a new effort to boost the group's membership to 2,014 by the end of 2014. He noted the Chamber and Unum predecessor company Provident each were founded in 1887.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.