Development Corp. Should Move Beyond Business Parks

Local planners should build a natural history museum in East Knox County

The Development Corporation has a few hundred acres of land in eastern Knox County burning an $11 million hole in its pocket. TDC bought the land on speculation, thinking they could ram zoning and sector-plan changes through County Commission and build a business park there, but residents of the Thorngrove community stopped them. As it is currently zoned, the land is not worth what TDC has invested in it, so they are trying again to turn the agricultural and residential land toward commercial and industrial uses.

Residents fear a sewer line to the park will enable sprawl, so TDC modified plans to incorporate on-site wastewater management and other low-impact practices. Still, the community is determined to fight them. Residents are not opposed to development, but they want it to be compatible with the community's history and character, and they want to be respected, not rolled over.

Support from the community is important not just for good public relations, but also because TDC does not have the money to build a business park. They will ask for taxpayer dollars for that, but only as a final step, once the project has enough momentum that commissioners will have trouble saying no. While TDC generates revenue through real estate holdings, staff salaries are taxpayer-funded. Technically a non-profit, though one with salaries that exceed the entire budgets of many local non-profits, TDC has a civic mission that allows them to do things that would be unseemly if done privately or by politicians. If this sounds more like Soviet central planning than austere American capitalism, welcome to the reality behind the rhetoric.

So the development politburo has an asset they need to put to use. I think they should build the Museum of Appalachian Natural History on their land.

The acreage sits at the heart of the Tennessee Valley, near the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers, so it is the perfect place to tell the tale of our region's 400 million-year history. Computer visualization could bring the geology to life, showing the collision between the African and North American tectonic plates that crumpled East Tennessee into ridges and valleys, the draining of the sea that once lapped at the feet of the Appalachian mountains, and the gradual etching of rivers through the hills. For low-tech learning, the museum could include demonstrations of water eroding sugar slabs or sand pits, and it could display the types of evidence geologists use to decipher ancient events.

Most modern life forms evolved during the time span that shaped our region. The origin of the Tennessee River system and the diversification of freshwater fishes are overlapping stories, and the evolution and diversification of insects took place right here. Primitive plants left the rich deposits we call coal. Evolutionary and geological timelines provide an abundance of subject matter for an Appalachian natural history museum, and connecting the two could be a unifying theme for exhibits.

Kentucky has the Creation Museum; we can embrace reality. The museum would be a major educational asset, not just for school kids who visit, but for local universities and laboratories. While it might not directly provide as many jobs as a business park, its indirect impacts would be far greater. Thorngrove was once a crossroads with a hotel and general store, and with a tourist attraction, it could once again be a commercial hub with shops and restaurants serving food grown on nearby farms.

The mission of TDC is "to strategically promote long term quality business development," and a top-caliber museum could attract more firms to Knoxville than mere business acreage. It would improve our cultural and educational image and cement Knoxville's status as the capital of the Southern Appalachians. Instead of treating the land as yet another parcel with interstate access, TDC could develop it in a way that leverages its unique characteristics and builds on tradition.

It took millions of years of erosion, upheaval, and evolution to create this place we call home. The protracted political battle over the Midway Business Park may yet yield something wonderful.