Amazing how quickly, in the wacky world of Knox County politics, an appointed board can go from obscure acronym to political football. It helps, of course, when there are millions of dollars at stake: five million, to be exact. That’s the amount of Tax Increment Financing developer Tim Graham is trying to get for his Willow Creek project, a Lowe’s-anchored big-box development in Halls.
The obstacle in his path has been the County’s Industrial Development Board (IDB), which evaluates TIF applications and forwards them to County Commission. Graham’s first attempt to tap into the subsidy stalled. A subcommittee of several board members balked at the idea of a TIF, typically used as gap financing for downtown redevelopment projects, for converting a greenfield site on the county’s suburban fringe into yet another big-box strip center. And, when the subcommittee recommended that the full board reject the proposal, Graham requested a postponement.
The postponement wasn’t aimed at rethinking the project, however. Nope, Graham’s novel response was to get a new board. Upon learning that the terms of four board members were about to expire, Graham turned to allies on County Commission such as Scott “Scoobie” Moore and Greg “Lumpy” Lambert, as well as his lawyer Arthur Seymour and publicist Cynthia Moxley, to lobby other commissioners. As reported in the News Sentinel, he succeeded in sliding three friendlier faces into the four open slots. I’ll be curious, but perhaps not surprised, to see how those three new votes shake out, should Graham’s project come before the full board. (The IDB has temporarily delayed any TIF decisions until December, which should give Graham time for the whole tiff to blow over.)
Graham’s proxies didn’t stop there, however. Lambert also put downtown developers on notice. “If we don’t start using that tool somewhere other than right down in the middle of town, I’m going to quit voting for the downtown ones,” he said, adding that the IDB should be more open to TIFs in the county. The downtown TIFs, of course, are in the county, which is why Lumpy has a say, but the conditions and challenges the TIFs are designed to address aren’t always confined to downtown. “It is a tool that can be used anywhere where there are blighted conditions that make it difficult to develop,” he said, citing the blight of several abandoned big-box stores in his district, particularly along Clinton Highway.
Lambert, so far, hasn’t followed up on his threat. At the end of July, he was one of commission’s more outspoken advocates in favor of a TIF to support the redevelopment of the old S&W Cafeteria on Gay Street, playing good cop to Moore’s bad cop. Along with Commissioners Frank Leuthold and Paul Pinkston, key votes in Graham’s IDB appointment coup, Moore spent the meeting grilling S&W developer John Craig about the project. In the end, the commission did approve Craig’s $814,000 request; here’s hoping that Moore, Leuthold, and Pinkston are still asking tough questions when Graham’s request comes back around, asking for $5 million.
And the toughest question Graham’s project faces is the one Lumpy, perhaps unwittingly, raised. TIFs are “a tool that can be used wherever there are blighted conditions that make it difficult to develop.” The difficulty is self-evident, in the case of the S&W. Years ago I took a tour of the building, as part of an Ashe administration committee studying the adoption of an alternative building code for downtown. Other than the impressive façade, the place was a ruin. Poking around inside by flashlight, fallen plaster crunching underfoot, I remember thinking: “add a few dozen snakes and a couple taunting Nazis and you’ve got an Indiana Jones movie.” TIFs, downtown, are a necessity brought on by decades of disinvestment and deferred maintenance.
Don’t get me wrong, disinvestment does exist in the county. Those abandoned big-boxes that Lumpy cited are certainly “blighted structures,” and could stand some redevelopment. But is Graham’s plan to turn 60 acres, most of it currently cow pasture, into a Lowe’s and assorted out-parcels curing blight, or creating it?