Letter: A Difficult Visionary

I could write a true novel in responding to Mr. Neely's "A Hard Lesson" (great title and a very good article especially the early history in reference to the McClung Warehouses) about what I knew about this subject matter both "publicly and behind the scenes." [Cover story, Feb. 13, 2014] First and foremost, I loved those buildings and especially their floor joists that were huge and "rough milled cut" of the era. Even more impressive was that some of those joists were even made of the great American Chestnut trees that were also a piece of our region's Appalachian history prior to their own destruction due to the invading blight.

I met Mr. Saroff a couple of times during the eminent domain threat time period in 2005/2006. I think everyone can recognize that Mr. Saroff is very "unique," to say the very least, but he was the legal and lawful owner of the McClung Warehouses. He also knew that eminent domain by government was a real threat, especially in a region that had countless victims of families, farmers, and American Indians who were "helped" by the federal government and its TVA through such powers. Mr. Saroff was reminded every day of that history in looking out of his buildings' windows at the TVA towers.

But in reality, eminent domain was not really a threat administratively or politically to Mr. Saroff back then, especially when it became a very public property rights cause. Specifically, there is a certain way to pursue eminent domain in public administration and it has to be done consistently, legally, ethically, and documented in a methodical fashion. Let's just say that was not being done in this case. Secondly, Mayor Haslam was not going to pull the trigger on eminent domain since property rights was and still is a very important issue to Tennesseans and he was already certain to be having a tough enough Republican primary ahead of him on his road to the governor's mansion.

However, I always found it interesting that the McClung Warehouses issue was not immediately solved, especially with the resources that the former Mayor Haslam had and the experience his former community director and now current Mayor Rogero had during that time frame. Once the property rights threat of eminent domain was resolved, it was truly a golden opportunity for the City of Knoxville to take the lead and foster collaboration to get the task at hand done. But then again, Mr. Saroff was very "different," and it seemed that he many times did not help his own cause. As an example, Mr. Saroff even later ran against Mayor Haslam during his reelection in which they both will forever share in political history that distinction together.

But I do want to add one more thing. The very first time I met Mr. Saroff downtown, it clearly became apparent I was dealing with a very "eccentric, passionate, and special" type of individual—somewhere between Forrest Gump and an entrepreneur who was likable with moments of brilliance. I was absolutely amazed with his depth of knowledge in several areas per historic buildings and urban development, just as much I was completely dismayed by his perception of reality on what it would take to make his vision come to life.

In short, I believe Mr. Saroff was a preservationist and wanted the same thing we all wanted with those buildings. However, Mr. Saroff caught his dream by its tail when no one was hardly hunting downtown and it unfortunately became very unmanageable and apparent that he needed help with this endeavor. But as the buildings' lawful property owner, it was his dream and choice in how to pursue it. Unfortunately, we all know how that story ended.

When unfortunate things happen, we often refer to it as "that's life" or "it is just business," but as a community, I think all parties would refer to this saga in this specific case as just plain FUBAR. We, as a community, including Mr. Saroff, missed out in addressing one heck of an opportunity—a very hard lesson indeed.

Bill Johns, MBA, MPA

Knox County


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