Rick English buys University Towers, invites E | Spaces to expand to Chattanooga

Rick English buys University Towers, invites E | Spaces to expand to Chattanooga

August 9th, 2017 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Rick English, left, and Vance Travis meet with the Times Free Press in Travis' office at University Tower on Tuesday, Aug. 8, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Travis is selling the tower to English.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

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Rick English, the Boston native who has helped develop and broker retail, office and residential projects across the country over the past half century, has purchased the University Tower office building near where he first came to Chattanooga in 1964 to play football for the University of Chattanooga.

English, the owner of Boston English Properties LLC in Franklin, Tenn., bought the six-story office building on East Fourth Street for $5.3 million from the original developers of the 28-year-old building — architect Vance Travis, engineer John Germ and accountant Dan Johnson.

"Chattanooga is a much better deal than Nashville right now," the 72-year-old real estate developer and broker said. "And where else could you find a building where you have the designer and one of the developers staying as a tenant?"

Travis said the University Tower was built in 1989 by three local professionals — Travis of TWH Architects, Germ of Campbell & Associates Engineering and Johnson of Johnson, Hickey & Murchison CPAs.

"We built this the old-fashioned way with sweat equity and borrowed money — no venture capital, no industrial revenue bonds and no PILOT (tax breaks) from the city," Travis recalled. "The three original partners each took a floor of the building, but we decided to do a six-story building to make room for some other tenants at a time when downtown was not nearly as hot of a market as it is today."

The developers did succeed in getting the University Tower name to highlight their proximity to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which across Fourth Street from the University Tower had built the UTC Roundhouse in 1982 (later renamed the McKenzie Arena).

New office tenants coming

The 44,477-square-foot office building will soon gain a new tenant and type of office concept developed by the Nashville-based E/Spaces, which operates collaborative and private work spaces in Cool Springs and Belle Meade in Nashville and is expanding into other Southeastern cities.

Jon Pirtle, chief executive of E/Spaces, said he plans to renovate one of the floors of the University Tower into 7,800 square feet of new open office suites available by the first of next year.

"Rick convinced me to come to Chattanooga, which is smaller than the other markets where we have been opened or are planning to open so far," Pirtle said. "But we quickly saw the opportunity and the growth here in Chattanooga, which outside of Nashville is really one of the most exciting markets right now in Tennessee."

E/Spaces touts its office model as the new paradigm that integrates two basic work environments — the coffee shop and executive suites — in a membership model that offers tenants a variety of space and leasing options.

"We serve everyone from a single-person office all the way up to major companies such as HCA in Nashville," said Pirtle. The E/Spaces provide users free coffee, copying and other support services and the chance to rent for brief periods conference rooms and meeting facilities, as needed.

English said Stone Bridge Realty, owned by Jim Gallagher, also plans to soon move into University Tower.

The sale of the University Tower to a limited partnership English created, known as Rsg University GP, was financed by the Bank of Tennessee from Johnson City, Tenn.

"The chance to come back to Chattanooga and buy this iconic building from some old friends near where I first practiced football as a walk-on student is just a tremendous opportunity for me," English said Tuesday during an interview in the 5th floor office of TWH/Michael Brady Architects. "This university (then known as the University of Chattanooga) gave an Italian kid from Boston a great education and Chattanooga and the people here really gave me the chance to learn the ropes and build a great business."

From football to real estate

After earning a spot as one of 110 walk-on players competing for a shot on the 1964 UC football team as a middle linebacker, English played football for four years before graduating and going on to coach football and wrestling at Notre Dame for two years. While coaching and working on the side as a salesman for Seeburg music systems, English met Independent Enterprises CEO Moses Lebovitz while installing the music systems in one of the 140 Independent retail properties that bought the music system.

Lebovitz hired English, who rose through the ranks to eventually became a vice president with Arlen Shopping Centers before he decided to venture out on his own development business.

In Chattanooga, English worked on a variety of projects, including Four Squares on Mountain Creek Road, the Corner at Riverview and Food Lion and other retail shopping centers across the South. English often used or partnered with Bob Corker, then owner of Bencor Construction, and other developers and investors such as Fletcher Bright.

English left Chattanooga in 1995, but he said he still refers to Chattanooga as his hometown.

Hits and misses

For all his success as a developer and broker over the past half century, English said he has missed some golden opportunities during his career by turning away offers from some of America's corporate giants.

English recalls meeting Walmart founder Sam Walton when Walton had only about 30 stores in Arkansas and was looking to hire those to help Wal-mart grow.

"I told Mr. Walton thanks, but we build W.T. Grants and Kmart stores," English recalled with a laugh.

Later English said he turned down a chance to get an early franchise for all of West Virginia from Dave Thomas when Thomas was starting to grow the Wendy's hamburger chain. English said he considered the offer, but in a chance meeting with McDonald's former CEO Ray Kroc, English recalls Kroc telling him the Wendy's hamburgers were too expensive and the drive-through windows concept would never work.

English also met Chick-fil-A Truett Cathy in Atlanta when he was just getting started building Chick-fil-A and decided to rent instead to another restaurant tenant that stayed open seven days a week with other mall tenants. (Chick-fil-A closes its units on Sunday).

"I turned down three of the most successful entrepreneurs in our industry, but I've somehow still had a great career working hard and loving what I do," English said. "I'm buying two more buildings in Nashville right now, but I'm especially thrilled to be able to buy this project in my old hometown."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.


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