Midway Business Park proposal raises questions

Can recruiters and residents find middle ground on 300 rural acres in East Knox County?

When the Development Corporation of Knox County (TDC) presented its newer, greener version of the Midway Business Park in a meeting at Carter High School in January, they faced a tough audience. Residents of East Knox County thought their sector plan would protect Midway Road from development, but it has not stopped TDC from purchasing nearly 300 acres near the Interstate 40 interchange.

Those residents won a court battle to keep TDC from developing the land, but the Metropolitan Planning Commission kept the proposed park alive by launching a formal amendment process with public meetings, committees, and the like. The presentation at Carter High was not part of that process. Instead, it was a gesture by TDC signaling willingness to work with the community.

Having already been steamrolled, only to be rescued by a judge, the community was in no mood to be wowed. Elaine Clark, president of the French Broad Preservation Association, asked Todd Napier, TDC executive vice president, if he knew what sort of return Knox County gets investing in business parks. Napier did not have figures available, but his staff has since assembled data on the five business parks the non-profit operates.

There are almost 400 unsold acres in the business parks, but TDC insists they need more offerings to attract new businesses. According to TDC recruiter Doug Lawyer, low-impact, environmentally friendly developments like the newly envisioned Midway Business Park are all the rage in the business world.

That same trend led the Chamber Partnership (headed by Mike Edwards, who also heads TDC) to send state legislators off to Nashville with new directives for business recruiting. Instead of focusing on distribution centers and transportation-dependent manufacturing, he wants legislators to work on incentives for technology-dependent businesses. Residents thus wonder whether a business park is the best use for rural land in our changing economy.

So far, TDC has made money for Knox County by developing business parks. The cost of property, improvements, and construction at the five existing parks sums to $33 million. Coincidentally, lots TDC has sold and property taxes assessed over the years sum to $33 million. Those two figures only tell part of the story; you must factor in jobs and payroll and what planners call induced impacts, the ripple effect of a major employer setting up shop.

TDC has brought a dozen major employers to Knox County, bringing 5,000 jobs worth $281 million and $177 million that ripples across another 5,000 local jobs and trickles into county coffers through sales and property taxes. If just 2 percent of that money returns to local government, TDC brings in nearly $5 million per year.

Though business-park development is TDC's main focus, they also run a startup incubator and are about to announce a business-plan competition for a dozen high-tech entrepreneurs. The winner will be awarded use of the Fairview Technology Center to launch their business. TDC is clearly carrying its weight, but past performance is no guarantee of future gains.

So far TDC has sunk $10.2 million buying property along Midway Road, and projected costs for development push the price tag near the combined total for the five other parks. Hardin Business Park, opened in 2007, has yet to attract a tenant.

Already invested, TDC is eager to move forward. When residents objected that a sewer line would bring sprawl, TDC proposed on-site water management. Though contiguous acreage for a large-scale employer was the initial goal, TDC now speaks of developing the Midway site in three phases, each providing a few smaller lots.

Of course, it was flexibility that got TDC in this bind to begin with. Compatibility with existing zoning was part of the criteria for selecting a site for a new business park, but that got jettisoned when real-estate speculators found willing sellers in Thorngrove. Having thus stomped on the East Sector Plan, it may take quite a bit of bending for TDC to find common ground with residents of the last rural corner of the county.