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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / This view of the Tennessee River Gorge, along a TVA transmission line, is an example of the views that will be created when Aetna Mountain is developed by Thornton Enterprises. Jasper Highlands, also developed by Thornton, can be seen on the far mountain. John "Thunder" Thornton has recently purchased 7,400 acres atop Aetna Mountain, near Haletown, to develop. The Times Free Press toured the undeveloped property on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

After developing Jasper Mountain into one of the South's biggest mountaintop residential developments over the past decade, John "Thunder" Thornton is planning a similar development just 9 miles to the southwest atop Aetna Mountain.

Thornton's Thunder Enterprises has acquired 7,400 acres in Marion County not far from its Jasper Highlands community, which is set to sell out sooner than expected.

The newly acquired site is nearly as big as the 8,900 acres Thunder Enterprises acquired or optioned to buy at Jasper Mountain in 2008.

With most of the 1,300 mountaintop lots now developed and sold as Jasper Highlands — and the Top of the Rock restaurant on Jasper Mountain also enjoying success — the nearly 100 employees at Thunder Enterprises have their sights on a new mountain community.

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Thunder Enterprises acquires new land for development

Just above the former Hale's Bar Dam in Guild, Tennessee, Thunder Enterprises acquired 6,259 acres of a former coal mine and timber property in September and will soon close on the purchase of another roughly 1,100 acres from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

"The property is an incredible piece of Tennessee land with the river encompassing it and multiple bluffs, creating sweeping views of the valley below," said Thornton, CEO of Thunder Enterprises. "Buyers are eager to find a dream home in scenic Tennessee, and we're able to offer them a great extension of the community we've created at Jasper Highlands."

Thornton said he has been talking for the past three years with the previous owners of most of the property as he prepares to launch the ambitious venture on what Thornton called one of the most unique sites in the nation.

"Try to find 7,500 acres within 20 minutes of a metropolitan city anywhere, but to find this scenic site next to such a great city like Chattanooga is about impossible," he said.

Just off of the Interstate 24 Haletown exit, Exit 161, Thornton said the features of the property resemble what has drawn buyers from 47 states and a half dozen countries to Jasper Highlands: seclusion without isolation.

"Most of these sites will be 1 to 1.5 acres in size, with plenty of open areas to provide the privacy most people always wanted but still with a sense of community," said Dane Bradshaw, president of Jasper Highlands.

The area is also about 10 minutes closer to Chattanooga, while still being in nature and near the Tennessee River.

The first lots in the Aetna Mountain development are expected to be ready for sale sometime next year and the entire project is likely to take seven to 10 years to sell out, Thornton said.

The new development is just west of the 2,600-acre Black Creek Mountain development atop the Raccoon Mountain ridge west of downtown Chattanooga.

Black Creek is a more conventional, denser development with city sewers. But both of the mountaintop developments, along with the new Cameron Harbor project taking shape on the former Rarity Club on Nickajack Lake, is drawing local workers and relocating seniors.

"I think the draw of our county is the beauty of this area with the river and our mountains, combined with a very low property tax rate and cost of living," said Marion County Mayor David Jackson. "That's why I think Jasper Highlands was so successful, and we hope Aetna Mountain will be as well."

The success of Jasper Highlands gives the developers, as well as the homebuilders who will build homes on the sites, more confidence for the future.

Thunder Enterprises bought Jasper Mountain in January 2008, shortly before the Great Recession slowed the housing market. The developers had to build a road up the mountain, along with building their own utilities, from water to high-speed internet service. After a slow start, Jasper Highlands has nearly sold out in recent years, with nearly $180 million of property sales on Jasper Mountain on the Cumberland Plateau just above Kimball.

About 200 of the 1,300 lots are now occupied with residents in homes, and more than 100 other houses in Jasper Highlands are under construction. Ultimately, the development is expected to top $750 million in investment, with most homes ranging from $400,000 to $2 million in value.

"We've continued to see record-breaking sales in 2021 as we did last year," Bradshaw said. "Since the onset of the pandemic, we saw a dramatic increase in sales because people are looking for a different type of lifestyle. Our community's wide-open spaces, scenic views and amenities align with what's important to them."

Similar to Jasper Highlands, Thunder Enterprises will have to build a road up to the top of Aetna Mountain. Road crews are already expanding and upgrading an old logging trail used when the site was first developed nearly a century ago for coal mining and was later used to harvest timber for Bowater. The main entrance road up the mountain will be built near the Haletown exit and be visible from Interstate 24, Thornton said.

Unlike Jasper Highlands, where the developers had to build their own high-speed internet service, EPB serves Aetna Mountain with its Gig internet and power connections.

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

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