A few things were clear after Friday’s County Commission meeting: There will be no business park at Midway Road. A well-funded and intensive lobbying effort by the Development Corporation of Knox County and the Chamber of Commerce was not enough to produce a voting majority on the 11-member Commission. And the Development Corporation still owns about 380 acres of East Knox County rural land that it now has no authority to develop.
This marks the third time the business park has been defeated. It was initially proposed 10 years ago and fended off by local residents. The same groups went to court in 2006 to contest a rezoning of the property, and won. The revised East Knox County Sector Plan that came before Commission last week was supposed to finally (and literally) pave the way for the park. Its failure leaves open the obvious question of what happens next. In the short term, it seems, nothing much.
“This is an area that we’ve never ventured into before,” says Commission Chairman Mike Hammond, who was one of just four commissioners to vote in favor of the new sector plan.
The sweat on Roger Osborne’s forehead was the first sign that things were looking shaky for the Development Corporation on Friday afternoon. It was somewhere south of 40 degrees outside the City County Building, and even inside the packed Main Assembly Room the air was on the cool end of comfortable. But Osborne, the SunTrust Bank executive who serves as chairman of the publicly funded Corporation, was openly perspiring as he made a final plea on behalf of the business park, arguing that Knox County needs to have land available to recruit businesses and jobs.
He was followed by Todd Napier, executive vice president of the Development Corporation, and Mike Edwards, its CEO, who both used PowerPoint slides to try to rebut the various arguments made against putting a business park just off I-40 at the Midway exit: that there is already plenty of open industrial land in the county, that the Midway property is a valuable agricultural asset, that a business park would be the first step toward the massive development of East Knox County. Not true, they said; misleading; alarmist. Together, they used up nearly the entire 30 minutes allotted them by Hammond.
The second sign of where things stood came when Hammond turned the floor over to the local residents and environmental groups who had coalesced as an anti-business-park alliance. Elaine Clark, president of the French Broad Preservation Association, stood and spoke for less than four minutes, questioning both the suitability of that particular property and the entire business-park model of economic development, which she characterized as, “If you build it, they will come.” “Hope is not a strategy,” she said. Then she sat down. The brevity of her presentation seemed to surprise both the Commission and the Development Corporation/Chamber advocates who had crowded the room, wearing “Yes” stickers with a Midway Business Park logo affixed to their suits and blouses.
The reason for Clark’s minimalism became obvious as commissioners began one by one to state their own views on the Midway matter: She had counted her votes. Still, the final tally of 7-4 against was larger than even many of the anti-development groups had hoped for. (Clark later said she learned of the seventh “No” vote, South Knox Commissioner Mike Brown, just the day before Friday’s meeting.)
Now, there is the problem of the revised sector plan, which the Metropolitan Planning Commission approved in February. “The County Commission has the authority to write their own plan amendment,” says Mark Donaldson, executive director of the MPC. Commissioners could, for example, vote to rewrite the part of the plan about the Midway area and send the whole thing back to MPC for reconsideration. On the other hand, they could do nothing at all, leaving in place the existing sector plan approved in 2000, which had ruled out a business park around Midway. Sector plans are supposed to be updated every five years or so, but Donaldson says there’s “no legal obligation” for that.
Hammond says both Commission and the Development Corporation will have to assess their options. “Since the Development Corporation owns the land, it’s going to be up to them to decide what to do with it,” he says. The “them” in this case actually includes Hammond, who is one of three commissioners designated as members of the Development Corporation’s board. (The other two are Richard Briggs and Brad Anders. All three made a point before Friday’s meeting of saying that their votes would not be affected by their ex officio positions on the Corporation’s board; all three voted in favor of the business park.)
“I want to talk to Napier and I want to talk to Edwards and see where they’re at with this,” Hammond says.
Edwards, who is also CEO of the Chamber, seemed somewhere between surprise and resignation on Monday. “I was disappointed,” he says of the vote. “There were some votes that happened Friday that I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. More than anything, I was just totally struck by some of the comments that were made.”
He seems especially perplexed by sentiments from some commissioners that the Development Corporation and Chamber were exaggerating the benefits of the park or might have some ulterior motives, noting in particular Brown’s comment that the business park “smells like a snow job.”
“Every bit of information that we have produced has been sourced or documented,” Edwards says. But he shrugs off a suggestion that the vote might indicate a credibility problem for the Development Corporation. Instead, he says, it was a matter of emotional appeals winning out over good economic policy.
As for what will come of the land, he says, “It’s going to take some time to think this through and figure out the options.” The Corporation paid about $10 million for the property, but that price was contingent on its rezoning for industrial use. Without that zoning, it will probably be hard to sell it for anything close to the purchase price.
Clark says she hopes Commission or County Mayor Tim Burchett will consider appointing a task force to study the question, one that could bring local residents together with their until-now nemeses. “We have always been willing to sit down at the table as an equal partner with the Development Corporation and with the Chamber and look at alternative ideas and approaches for that property,” she says.
In the meantime, she says, the vote Friday was rewarding for the various groups and individuals who have been fighting Midway development for the past decade. “I think it proves that our elected officials are listening,” she says. “The Commission actually stood up and said, you know what, we can do better than this. And I was so excited for them to stand up and have that conviction. That’s the best thing that can happen for Knoxville right now. Let’s look at some new ways of doing things.”
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