Feb. 13, 2012
GILBERT, Ariz. – Cruise the tree-lined streets of Morrison Ranch with co-owner Howard Morrison, and he’ll likely tell you what crops grew here for generations before his family’s farms sprouted houses a few years ago.
And if he takes a short detour and stops next to his family’s four 80-foot-tall grain silos, Morrison can treat you to a short lesson in the history of his family’s farming in the East Valley. His grandfather, also named Howard, and then his father Marvin and uncle Kenneth have plowed this ground for cotton, corn and alfalfa east of Phoenix since the early 1930s. The new Morrison generation’s latest crops include neighborhoods.
Howard Morrison has many memories of growing up and working on the land surrounding his family’s grain silos. The silos – 80 feet high and in use until 2002 – are preserved as architectural centerpieces of Morrison Ranch. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
In March, the Morrison family plans to auction more of their farmland to homebuilders. The land to be sold is at the southeast corner of Recker and Elliot roads. A name for the new neighborhood is ready.
“This is where Elliot Groves will be, on this corn field that you see, 80 acres,” Morrison says from the driver’s seat of his Suburban. He grew up on this land.
Also this spring, possibly in March, Morrison expects an announcement for a multifamily development by P.B. Bell east of Recker and Elliot roads.
Crops give way to neighborhoods
Much has changed since the late 1990s when work first started on the 3,000-acre Morrison Ranch. For the next 15 years, homebuilders across the Valley saw annual increases in building permits and demand for new homes.
Then in about 2006, the homebuilding industry ran out of fuel. In most states, including Arizona, demand for new homes vaporized. Blame for the crashed economy and housing crisis was spread everywhere, from Wall Street to Main Street.
The financial pain was felt at all levels, from workers who lost their jobs, to cities, counties and states, which lost tax income from declining payroll, sales, property and corporate taxes. Many homebuilding companies went out of business or were merged into other corporations.
Those were painful years, Morrison says. “It was so crazy you couldn’t expect anything other than a crash. I mean a crash. We (the homebuilding industry) fell hard.”
At the metro Phoenix market’s peak in 2006, Morrison says, about 67,000 single-family home building permits were issued. Last year, there were maybe 7,000. A consensus of 13 metro Phoenix market analysts surveyed by Arizona State University estimates that 11,300 permits will be issued during 2012 and more than 18,000 permits in 2013.
Morrison says there were as many as 400 homebuilders, including many small mom-and-pop operations, during the high-octane years leading up to 2006. “Today, there are about 27 (builders) that are active,” he says.
Caution the new rule
Real estate analysts, after a few years of annual flubs in predicting a turnaround, in recent weeks began offering cautious estimates as to when (and how quickly) the stalled housing industry in metro Phoenix will rebound. They point to new and positive signs suggesting demand for new homes is returning.
Morrison turns his Suburban down a street lined with newer homes on large lots. Between the two one-way streets is a linear park about 40 feet wide. There is plenty of room for children and families to safely play football or enjoy picnics. The streets are lined with shade trees.
Before construction began, he says, “We’d be driving through an alfalfa field, Field 17.”
Despite operating in a struggling housing industry, Morrison Ranch in 2011 sold more homes than any other master-planned community of its type in Arizona and ranked 23rd in the nation. That announcement comes from John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a national housing analysis company in Irvine, Calif.
As farmers, the Morrison family knew they could coax higher yields from their fields by using improved farming methods.
In much the same way, the Morrisons held out for a better residential design in their planned community. They would sell land to builders if the builders’ designs set houses back from main arterials and included more shade trees, unique house plans, functional front porches, several miles of walking trails, and other family-friendly features.
Setting new houses in Morrison Ranch back from busy streets offers reduced traffic noise for homeowners as well as safer sidewalks. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
“We turned everything on its ear,” Morrison says. “Scott, my brother, likes to say, ‘You know, this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but if this is what you want, this is the only place in Phoenix you’ll find it.’”
Reclaimed water for green space
The master plan includes using reclaimed water for green space. That design meant adding a second piping system throughout the community to handle the needed irrigation water for grassy areas and the forest of 28,000 trees planted so far.
In addition, homebuilders interested in buying Morrison land would have to agree to input from the Morrisons on the quality of housing. Some builders balked.
“We ran into a lot of skepticism,” Morrison says. “And a few of them (builders) went on down the street so they could do something else. Because what they wanted is, they wanted the land and then they wanted to do what they wanted on their own.”
“And we said, ‘No, this is what we’re going to do,” he says. “So we’ve always been slow and many have referred to us as stubborn. Hopefully not in character but stubborn in holding to our principles.
“The magic behind this wasn’t one thing,” Morrison continues. “The magic was putting all of these things together in one place.”
Stewardship of the land
Morrison credits much of the family’s success to Don Tompkins, the planner and “executive coach” the Morrisons recruited from Southern California.
Maybe it was their family’s stewardship of the land over three generations that fueled their dreams. Or maybe it was simply daring for a better design that pushed the Morrison family to set the community development bar a little higher.
So far, about 2,300 residences have been completed on 1,560 acres in Morrison Ranch.
Commercial space evolving
Also in the master plan are sites for retail, office and commercial space. The Arizona Farm Bureau recently moved its headquarters from a site near Sky Harbor International Airport into 50,000 square feet of new office space at Morrison Ranch.
Near the Arizona Farm Bureau is Lakeview Village, a 17-acre neighborhood shopping center anchored by a Bashas’ store at Higley and Eliott roads. Unlike most other corner centers, the exterior design of this shopping center offers unique facades for almost every store.
Morrison believes that the builders who win the land auction in March will begin adding streets, sidewalks, water lines and other utilities later this year. If demand for new homes increases in coming months, construction of homes in Elliot Groves could begin in 2013. It will be the first phase of the fifth neighborhood in Morrison Ranch.
The East Valley’s remaining farmland could vanish during the next wave or two of homebuilding. Already, plows and tractors are sitting idle longer. In the distance beyond the rusty plows are new homes. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
Farming chapter ending
Study the Morrison Ranch silos and it’s hard to avoid thinking about the years they were surrounded by hard work and family bonding.
The Morrisons once farmed more than 3,000 acres in the East Valley. They still operate a dairy, Arizona Dairy Co., in east Mesa. They also have a large ranch, Windmill Ranch, in Verde Valley.
The Morrison family’s influence stretches beyond agriculture. Howard’s parents, Marvin and June Morrison, became the benefactors of Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. It was founded in 1982. Marvin Morrison died in 2007 at the age of 83.
The family name also graces the Morrison School of Agribusiness and Resource Management, a part of the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.
Writer’s note: I grew up in another state caring for my family’s cattle and horses, and I worked part time on neighbors’ farms. My formative years were filled with repairing barbed wire fences, milking cows (by hand), feeding and vaccinating cattle, irrigation chores and driving farm equipment. After graduation from high school, I enlisted in the military. It was the Vietnam era. Today, I watch economics at work as Arizona farms evolve into homes, schools, grocery stores and high-tech centers.
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