Do the Right Thing

Connecting Mascot to Midway is a win for everybody

Knox County has spent millions of dollars on Eastbridge Industrial Park. It sits on Mine Road in Mascot with hundreds of acres of expensive graded land still empty. It is considered too far from the interstate to be successful. It sits in an area with 2,600 acres of idle land already zoned industrial, with water, sewer and a railroad line.

Meanwhile, the county has purchased land off the Midway Road exit on Interstate 40 in east Knox County that the neighbors hate; it's been tied up in court, it violates the sector plan, and no tenants have shown up anyway.

Knox County has a chance to get rid of its Midway Road problem, salvage Eastbridge, create jobs, and do the right thing.

Norfolk Southern wants to build an inter-modal facility, where cranes will take up to 300,000 tractor trailers a year and put them on railroad cars for shipment across country. They propose to put the facility in New Market, on 1,300 acres of farm land because it's cheaper than locating it on an existing industrial site, as in Morristown or near Eastbridge in Mascot.

But there is one cost factor that has not been considered. Though the land is cheaper in New Market, it is 12 miles from the Asheville Highway exit of I-40 and it's even further going the other direction through Jefferson City out Highway 92 to I-40. That's 300,000 trucks a year going through Jefferson City or going down Asheville Highway to East Knoxville.

It is four miles from the Midway Road exit to Mascot. A four lane industrial access road can be constructed by the state so that trucks can get from Mascot to the interstate without ever passing a mailbox. The state can have the road constructed by the time the inter-modal facility is ready.

The hundreds of acres of brownfield industrial sites in Mascot around Eastbridge could then be exploited. The access problem would be solved. The infrastructure is already there, paid for by Knox County. It saves greenfields. It turns a blighted industrial area into something productive. The county starts to recoup some of the millions it has spent on the location.

This would require the Knox Area Chamber Partnership, the Development Corp., and Knoxville's political leaders to step up. They know industrial development in East Knox County has been handled badly, money has been wasted, and no jobs have been created. This is a chance to salvage the whole mess. Go see Gov. Phil Bredesen and Economic Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and do the deal.

The prospective road changes the financial equation for Norfolk Southern. It makes the Mascot location more financially feasible and it solves the problem of getting the trucks to and from the interstate to its inter-modal facility.

At a community meeting in New Market on Saturday, 176 angry voters signed up on a contact list and took information to stop the inter-modal facility in their neighborhood. Full disclosure: I live half way between the New Market site and the Mascot site, so it's a wash for me. But given a choice between developing brownfields and developing greenfields, it's no contest.

The railroad will only listen to dollars and cents. They have to be convinced Mascot is a better deal. I know my neighbors. They will fight Norfolk Southern in court for years and to the last man, woman, and child. They will fight for their tomato fields, their chicken farms, and their dairies. They don't understand the logic of losing 50 agriculture jobs and millions in agriculture revenue to provide jobs for 12 Norfolk Southern crane operators.

At the meeting Saturday not one person made any statement opposing an inter-modal facility. Everyone wants it in the region, everyone sees it as an environmental plus and an economic boost to jobs in Morristown and Knoxville where their children might get a job. But they cannot understand raping the environment in New Market for an environmental stimulus project to get trucks off the road.

Come on, Knoxville. Focus on something besides courthouse scandals for once and do something for East Knox County and Knox County taxpayers. Here's a chance for somebody to be a hero.