Say it ain’t so. I’m writing this column hoping that I’m over-reacting, but I don’t think so.
What my sources tell me is about to happen is that an existing company in Knoxville will be relocated to Cherokee Farms, essentially moving jobs from one place in the Knoxville area to another.
The University of Tennessee and UT-Battelle have invested $88 million in Cherokee Farms, the old UT dairy site south of the river off Alcoa Highway. Its laudable goal is to create a research park backed by the nearby expertise of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the university and to produce the results enjoyed by the Research Triangle over in North Carolina. But instead of bringing in new jobs and a new enterprise, the park will first be moving jobs around in Knoxville.
There is a proposal to build a 50,000-square-foot building. The local company would occupy 30,000 square feet of the space, leaving a 20,000 square feet “spec” space to locate some other company.
UT sources will only say that the park’s mission also includes “keeping jobs in Knoxville,” an excuse often used when an existing company moves into publicly provided space. The argument also includes the rationale that the company is compatible with the UT mission and is a good fit for the research park.
Since the initial funding to develop the park and build a science building has been used up, it appears that this deal will give the park some space it can market. Research companies are known for not wanting to get into construction projects and prefer to locate in existing buildings.
Local developers raise these concerns:
• Once the dam breaks, will the research park empty out local private buildings and existing industrial parks like Pellissippi Place? (Knox County has $5 million invested in that park in Blount County.)
• The master plan for Cherokee Farms calls for five parking decks to handle parking for the entire site. This facility cannot justify building a parking deck without a huge subsidy by the university. If it is to have surface parking, then will future buildings be smaller and will there be more parking lots taking up valuable building space?
• What are the criteria for locating in Cherokee Farms? Is there a Request for Proposals process? Or is it subjective and up to the university administration to decide whether it meets the mission statement?
The state of Tennessee spent $300 million in incentives to locate Volkswagen in Chattanooga and has committed more for its expansion. Cannot the state commit the money to build research buildings at Cherokee Farms, turn key facilities ready for occupancy, and marketed as such nationally?
Can the Legislature not authorize bonds to construct necessary buildings?
Should there be some rules on relocating existing area jobs to the site? Or require a minimum number of new hires in order to move?
We recently had a Korean parts company announce 1,000 new jobs in Clinton. The knock on Knox County has been that we don’t have the land for large-scale industrial sites.
What Knox County does have is Cherokee Farms and the University of Tennessee, a tremendous resource and what should be a magnet for research companies.
There is supposed to be an announcement sometime in September and it is possible that all these concerns will be answered then. I hope my fears are groundless.
The grand vision of Cherokee Farms is a good thing. UT and UT-Battelle are to be commended for that vision. But let’s not start settling for piece-meal and make-do. Let’s not recruit existing businesses in our area. Let’s not move jobs around in the local economy, let’s bring in new ones.
Perhaps the state administration ought to ask what they can do to help make this facility all it can be. Attention needs to be paid and marketing expertise brought to bear. It will bring prestige to the university, which has always been a goal, and raise the profile of our local scientific community.