Editor’s Note: Census data show Northeast Tennessee’s population growing faster than it has in years since the COVID-19 pandemic changed migration patterns. Housing permits are being pulled at record levels. News Channel 11 is spending this year looking at the growth’s impact from every angle.

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Greeneville Town Manager Todd Smith said he sees evidence everywhere of the town’s population growth spurt — including at church on Sundays.

“The new face comes in, ‘oh, where are you from? The West Coast, the Northeast, Florida,'” Smith said of his inquiries to new people.

Greeneville’s Wildwood Landing subdivision is nearing completion. (WJHL photo)

“‘What brought you here? Well, we did a little research on places to go, we traveled around, and finally found Greene County and said this is where we want to be.’ I’ve heard that story dozens of times, over and over.”

That puts Smith and other town leaders in a position Greeneville hasn’t occupied through at least the last four decades, when growth has been flat to stagnant. The town had 14,097 people at the 1980 census and 15,479 40 years later in 2020, an average growth of only about 2% per decade.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, a rapid rise in virtual work and other changes that have changed things quickly. Greeneville’s gone from an average of 10 to 20 new single-family houses a year through most of this century to about three times that many this year. Smith said with national builder D.R. Horton having broken ground on a 300-plus home development, Johnson Farms, he and his staff are projecting up to 1,000 new homes this decade and potential population growth of close to 20%.

“It wasn’t on our radar screen five years ago,” Smith said of the residential growth. It certainly is now, and Smith points to several factors.

“The secret is out about Northeast Tennessee,” he said. “Low cost of living, low taxes, great school systems, low commute times for people, getting into a digital virtual economy. People can choose to live wherever they want to.”

Greeneville Town Manager Todd Smith. (WJHL photo)

Add an abundance of the kind of outdoor and recreational opportunities that have grown in popularity since the pandemic and the area’s scenic beauty, what started as a trickle is turning into a steady stream.

“I’ll just give you an anecdotal piece of evidence,” Smith said. “We’re hiring for a position in our public works department today. I’ve had four applications come in that have some denotation there that says, ‘I want to leave California, Washington, Florida,’ wherever the state is, because the quality of life in Greeneville best suits my family and what my situation is.”

Smith said town leaders have met frequently, including at a January retreat that included the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, to talk about the next decade.

“We kind of know where that growth is going to happen,” Smith said. “So what does that mean for the town of Greeneville? It means more public works workers. It means more firefighters and police officers, maybe a new school.”

Planning for those staffing, budget, equipment and building impacts is the only way the town can successfully meet the demand that’s going to be there in ten years, Smith said.

East Tennessee State University’s Fred Gordon agrees. Gordon, who runs ETSU’s masters of public administration program, said the town’s challenge lies in planning and effective zoning.

“Where are you gonna build, how are you gonna build, are you going to deal with fair housing requirements, access for people with disabilities,” Gordon said. “A lot of things have to be taken into consideration.”

How do we keep Greeneville, Greeneville?

Neither Smith nor Gordon have much doubt that Northeast Tennessee will continue in a growth mode. Both say navigating the growth successfully isn’t going to be easy.

“Our mantra in 2023 is keep Greeneville, Greeneville,” Smith said. “The growth is good. We want the growth. We welcome the growth, but we don’t want to lose that small town quality that made Greeneville so attractive in the first place.”

Gordon said such an approach is very important when communities encounter unexpected growth.

“I think they have to serve their constituents and recognize the needs and concerns of people who are in Greeneville, who have been there for a long time, (whose) families have been there for generations,” Gordon said.

Being sensitive to those concerns and protecting the town’s historic assets and its environment while enabling growth and prosperity can be a “double-edged sword,” Gordon said.

“There has to be a fine balance line between courting infrastructure, investment and at the same time maintaining green space, maintaining the historic charm of Greeneville, maintaining its true original identity,” he said.

One way the town is approaching that challenge is by holding the line on its zoning and building standards, Smith said.

D.R. Horton representatives met with his team when they entered the market “to kind of lay out what their plan is and what their growth potential is,” Smith said.

Those conversations have continued. While the early stages of the building process haven’t always been smooth — Smith said the town has “had to hold their hands on some building inspections” and come to a fair level on permit valuations — that’s a pretty normal process.

Leaders are operating by the mantra, ‘Keep Greeneville, Greeneville.’ (WJHL photo)

“It’s both sides of communication, and so they’ve worked with us, we’ve worked with them, and once you sit down and talk with the developers and get them on on the page of our ordinances and our building permit process, then it goes smoother. The developers understand that.”

Smith said a town or city’s role is to have the infrastructure and lay the groundwork for growth and for private businesses to come in.

“They just happen to be the first one to come in at this volume,” Smith said of Horton. “They’ve taken advantage of a market that they see a demand for and they’re meeting all of our audiences, they’re checking the boxes, they’re passing our building inspections, making it work at this point.”

Smith said the key as the town anticipates growth of up to 20 percent this decade is protecting what’s drawing people in the first place.

“We don’t want to lose our essence of who we are as Greeneville, and that’s our challenge. I don’t have a magic answer for that. I don’t have an answer for that. But that’s prominent in our thought process is ‘how do we keep Greeneville, Greeneville?'”