When John Wise III decided to leave T.U. Parks Construction Co. to start his own construction company, the then 30-year-old builder began with little more than his ambition to own his own business.
"I started with no money, and nothing but a hope and dream," the 50-year-old builder and developer recalls. "I leveraged myself and was just scrapping and clawing, trying to be a developer with no money — and that's not easy to do."
About John Wise III
› Age: 50
› Job: Founder and owner of Wise Construction and several development firms
› Career: A former builder for T.U. Parks Construction Co., Wise started with his own building and development firm in 1999.
› Personal: He and his wife, Connie, have five children
But over the past two decades since he launched Wise Construction Co., and later expanded into his own development firm, Wise has built and developed more than $150 million worth of apartments, car washes and storefronts to become the biggest owner of multi-family housing in downtown Chattanooga.
While financially stronger and bigger builders were reluctant a decade and a half ago to undertake apartment projects in untested parts of downtown and North Chattanooga, Wise plowed ahead, developing, building, leasing and maintaining more than a dozen apartment complexes, mostly near Chattanooga's central city.
"I wouldn't say I am overly bullish on the market, but I am pretty vertically integrated so I have a pretty good cost basis," Wise says. "We're a leaner operation and we are also a long-term holder of these properties."
Critics of Wise and others who began building higher density developments in Chattanooga complain that the developers don't build the type of quality projects neighborhoods want.
Garnet Chapin of the Northside-Cherokee Neighborhood Association contends that many of the new apartments being built, especially in North Chattanooga, have hurt neighboring homeowners.
"I think we have encouraged development to the detriment of surrounding neighborhoods," Chapin says. "We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and the people doing some of the building, in some instances, are substandard. While we have generated a lot of interest and thought in so many other areas of our community, the quality of some of our residential development is disappointing."
But Wise insists he must deliver what the market wants to make his rental business successful and to help seed the growth of the downtown area.
Wise has been sued in the past over disputes on his developments and the city of Chattanooga has declined to offer Wise the type of tax breaks afforded to several other apartment developers for projects in the downtown area. But Wise, who took over the stalled Mission on Main project to bring apartments and storefronts to Main and Market Streets, has often been able to do the projects that others have not and, in the process, prove the market demand for downtown housing that other developers and downtown boosters have been able to capitalize upon.
He's done so in nearly all cases without the property tax breaks provided to a handful of other downtown apartment developers.
"I've had to make it on my own," Wise says.
For all the advantages of living in and around Chattanooga's redeveloping downtown, building in such urban areas where land is harder to acquire, parking is limited and construction may be constrained is generally more expensive. To maintain cost-competitive rates, Wise has vertically integrated the design, building, maintenance and leasing under one shop.
"I don't have to make a dollar the first day that I finish my project," he says. "I hold on for the long term investment in most instances."
Wise, who first came to Chattanooga to play tennis at Baylor School from his native Alabama home, began his building career with T.U. Parks Construction Co., before launching his own building company in 1999 before he turned 30. He has faced some tough times, including in the Great Recession that hit a decade ago and nearly halted most building activity and caused many properties to drop in value.
The Wise portfolio
› Developer/Owner: John Wise
› Number of apartments: More than 1,200
› Value: Portfolio is worth more than $150 million
› Projects: Hayden Place, Hannah Parc, The Maddox Building, Sergeant’s, 125 Cherokee, Coolidge Landing, Mary Locke, Mission at Main, The Constance, The Hamilton at North Market, The Lofts at Tremont, and 330 Stringer Street
But with five children at home to support, Wise said failure was not an option.
Wise has had his setbacks. He developed a trampoline park on the Southside known as Jump Park Chattanooga in 2014, but closed the business three years later. The Southside Social next door also briefly closed in February after a drive-by shooting outside the club killed a 21-year-old woman.
Wise successfully completed and leased most of the apartments in his Mission at Main project at Main and Market Streets, but he is still trying to fill the premier first-floor space with a restaurant or retailer.
Still, Wise continues to invest in the Southside. Wise's newest project is a 158-unit apartment complex across from Finley Stadium, which is scheduled to open this summer. Wise named the complex for his late nephew, Henry, who tragically drowned during a boating accident on July Fourth weekend at Port Saint Joe, Florida.
"That made me stop and appreciate my own children and the importance of taking time to be with them," Wise says of the death of his nephew.
Wise, who has been in construction and development all of his life, isn't slowing down. On a typical day, he gets up around 4 a.m. and starts texting others about what needs to be done on the projects he is managing at the time. After taking his children to school, Wise most days is at work — on site or at his North Chattanooga office — until about 7 p.m.
"He's a hard worker," John Wise IV, the 22-year-old son known as "Sergeant," says of his father.
After two decades of building his own business, Wise says he is proud of how he has developed both people and properties.
"I enjoy hiring people and trying to make them better people," he says. "But I've also worked to stay lean and mean. I think that's been key to why I've been able to make these projects work."