Land of Opportunity: Making the Most of Lakeshore's Acquisition

Now that the city of Knoxville is completing acquisition of the site of the former Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, a big question becomes how to make the most of its magnificent 186-acre campus bordering Fort Loudoun Lake in West Knoxville.

Under a 1999 agreement, the state agreed to convey to the city any property vacated by the institute with the proviso that "ownership of the Property will revert to the State, at the State's option, if the Property is no longer used for public recreational purposes." Some 60 acres had already been ceded to the city in 1993 primarily for athletic fields in what became Lakeshore Park, along with an easement around the perimeter of the entire property for the 2.25 mile Lakeshore Greenway.

A master plan developed in 1999 by the landscape architectural firm Ross/Fowler envisioned the day when most, if not all, of the remaining property would be incorporated into Lakeshore Park. Among the plan's many resplendent features were some 30 acres of formal and informal gardens, several pavilions, including one for picnics near the lake, more athletic fields, and lots of open green space.

Over the past decade, another 60 acres have been added to the park—with conveyance of the remaining 65 acres expected imminently. Yet even though the land for many of the amenities envisioned in the master plan has long been available, none of them has yet come to fruition.

An ambitious attempt to get the gardens started in 2003 faltered over its $12 million cost. Then-Mayor Victor Ashe proposed that the city cover half of it with the balance to be raised privately by the park's not-for-profit governing board, whose ever-so-dedicated impresario was and is lawyer Tom McAdams. But City Council nixed the deal, and McAdams now concedes that plan was "probably too aggressive" and that the gardens "need to start small and grow."

Given the city's budgetary constraints, that's probably got to be the maxim for realizing Lakeshore's vast potential over time. McAdams reckons that an investment on the order of $30 million will be needed for fulfillment of the master plan. Just the cost of demolishing close to 20 antiquated buildings on the site, for which the city is responsible under the 1999 agreement, has been placed at more than $5 million. (The historic administration building atop the property's highest hill would be preserved, and following renovation is expected to be occupied by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.)

As matters stand, the city's Capital Improvement Program for the years 2013-2018 would allocate $500,000 a year for "Lakeshore Park Improvements/Expansion." But at that rate, it would take more than a decade just to complete the demolition, let alone fund the additional $5 million that McAdams estimates is needed for grading, interior roads, utilities, and other infrastructure to support the master plan.

After splurging on parks during Ashe's years as mayor, the city went for nearly a decade after he left office without making a major parks investment. Over that same decade, the city's bonded debt has dropped from $253 million in 2003 to $176 million presently with further declines of about $10 million a year in prospect. So there would appear to be room for new borrowing to accelerate the pace of Lakeshore progress. Unfortunately, escalating costs of the city's under-funded pension plan are crimping its financial wherewithal, and any Lakeshore funding must also be justified in relation to everything else that's competing for city resources.

But Mayor Madeline Rogero has already evidenced that investment in more parks is in keeping with her oft-stated overarching goals of making Knoxville a "vibrant, sustainable, livable city" and "preserving historic and natural resources." Her budget for the current year includes $5 million for a new, five-acre Suttree Landing Park on the South Waterfront.

Before setting her course on Lakeshore, Rogero rightly wants to "get public input and to update the master plan," as she related to City Council at a budget retreat last month. "Then we will set a timetable, but it's going to take years," she added.

In my own mind's eye, a top priority is to take advantage of a 13-acre tract of low-lying lakefront property that's relatively inaccessible from the rest of the Lakeshore campus. Until 2008 this tract had been leased to the University of Tennessee as a golf practice facility, but a $500,000 donation raised by McAdams' board facilitated its relocation.

This is where the present master plan places a picnic pavilion and pier accompanied by a landscaped parking lot and access road that beg demolition of at least one of a dozen small cottages that dot the adjacent area.

McAdams e-mailed that "You are correct that focus on the former golf facility is the highest priority… We have order of magnitude cost estimates for that area that range from $400,000 for removal of fences, bunkers, sand traps, and light racing, demolition of Maple Cottage, and construction of a temporary gravel parking lot to $3.1 million for construction of a permanent landscaped parking area…with restroom facilities, picnic pavilion, and other improvements."

He goes on to make it clear that his board is not looking to the city alone for funding. "We are hopeful that there will be a significant private-sector involvement as well… The board is currently in discussions concerning fund-raising potential and the timing and methods for raising those funds."

Rogero has also stressed the importance of "having a private organization that can raise private dollars" to the city's ability to move ahead. Hopefully, a collaborative effort can bring fulfillment of the wonderful opportunity that Lakeshore's acquisition presents.