Bear in Mind Vestal Bound

Keep your ursus urges to a bear minimum South Knox community takes tentative steps toward redevelopment

City Beat

It's a familiar sight to nearly anyone who's visited Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park more than onceâ"a black bear ventures out of the woods and into the clear not far from the 11-mile paved loop that winds through the Park's most picturesque valley, and a dozen or more tourists stop their cars and venture out to get a closer look, maybe even snap a picture.

It's a scenario that can lead to trouble for bears and humans alike, as is so often the case when the interface of wild animals and pampered primates becomes too intimate or commonplace.

From May 13 through 19, area conservationists will observe National Bear Awareness Week in hopes of making all of usâ"especially those of us who visit, or live in close proximity to, the Parkâ"savvier observers of the Smokies' most recognizable four-legged representatives.

â“The black bear is kind of an icon for the Smokies,â” says Tracy Kramer, program coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). â“We want to get the message across that if you're doing anything to change a bear's behavior, you're probably getting too close.â”

Most problematic, says Kramer, is when people feed the bears, either by design or through carelessness. There's a Park aphorism that maintains that â“A fed bear is a dead bear,â” and Kramer cites park studies that claim bears who get a taste of human food live on average half as long as their counterparts who cleave to a natural diet of grasses, berries, acorns and insects.

â“People food is like fast food for bears,â” Kramer says. â“When it's available, it's easier than foraging for real food. And once they become accustomed to it, they'll go into populated areas and take down bird feeders, rummage through trash cans or campsites.â”

Bears who develop those bad habits often end up being euthanized orâ"if they're luckyâ"exported to another region. Euthanizing the bears is especially unhappy for Park officials, given that the black bear population was once on the verge of extinction from that Park, and has risen to its current level of 400 to 600 animals only though careful wildlife management.

Kramer says conservationists are attempting through Bear Awareness Week to educate people about the â“rulesâ” of bear/human interaction. Foremost among these are:

⢠Maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from any wild bear, the Park standard. â“If you get close enough to take that perfect picture, you may endanger the bear,â” Kramer says. She says mothers have been known to abandon their cubs because the babies were tainted by the scent of human contact.

⢠Don't feed the bears. In addition to direct feeding, this caveat extends to steps such as cleaning up campsites and keeping trashbags out of reach. â“Bears can smell anything that's touched foodâ"garbage, paper plates, even bird feeders,â” Kramer says.

Due to an unseasonably cool April, Kramer says the animals' natural food resources are scarcer right now, so extra vigilance is required from campers and residents who live on the outskirts of the Park. â“If we don't watch our habits, we can initiate behavior patterns that can't be reversed,â” she says.

In Knoxville, the NPCA is planning a handful of events related to Bear Awareness Week, including an educational display at Knoxville Zoo on Saturday, May 19, and a program at Carpe Librum bookstore that same day at 2 p.m.

â" Mike Gibson

As residents of the South Knox Vestal community look forward to Saturday's 7th Annual Vestival arts and culture festival, they're also setting sights on the long-term commercial reinvigoration of the area through the Commercial Area Redevelopment Plan. The chief focus of the planâ"a revamping of the intersection at Ogle Avenue and Martin Mill Pike in the heart of the communityâ"should swing into action within the next two to three months, according to officials at Knoxville's Community Development Corporation (KCDC).

â“The plan should be a significant step forward for Vestal, maybe a transformative one,â” says Joe Hultquist, City Councilman from South Knoxville. â“The place has a unique character, and it's in a great location as far as potential for the future is concerned, close to the waterfront.â”

City Council approved the redevelopment plan in mid-January, though not without a measure of controversy. Some residents fretted that the plan left property owners open to possible abuses, should KCDC choose to acquire any of the property in the designated redevelopment zone via eminent domain. The plan allows condemnation procedures to take placeâ"should that option become necessaryâ"with regard to properties that meet the state standard of â“blighted.â”

Hultquist says he believes most residents' fears have been eased since then, and added that the Vestal project isn't funded at a level conducive to eminent domain property acquisition. Vestal has received $500,000 from the city's federal Empowerment Zone funds to rehab the intersection with amenities such as sidewalks, sidewalk furniture, trees, curb parking and improved public right-of-way. Those improvements alone could conceivably cost several times that amount, he says, and the city has yet to identify additional funding sources.

â“Our resources are limited, and you can't take property through eminent domain without paying for it,â” he says. â“We've made a lot of effort to reassure people we don't have that in mind, and I think we've alleviated most of their concerns.â”

Hulquist sees the redevelopment area, which is inconclusive of a couple of abandoned buildings as well as other blighted properties, as a prime location for a specialized retail districtâ"perhaps an arts district, for instance. â“It doesn't have much potential as a standard commercial destination, like a grocery store or a gas station,â” he says. â“Those things are already available elsewhere.â”

In the meantime, KCDC officials look to clean up any remaining problems left over from the site's previous commercial uses. One of the properties at the Ogle/Martin Mill intersection was formerly home to a gas station with an underground tank. KCDC Redevelopment Administrator David Cook says some standard soil sample tests and other measures will be necessary to see whether environmental remediation will be required before work on the intersection begins.

â“There are some standard issues raised, anything you might expect that would involve an old gas station,â” Cook says. â“We're looking at the underground tank, an above-ground tank, the possible presence of lead-based paints or asbestos. But these are all what we consider small things. Nothing in the initial environmental reports was huge.â”

Vestal's Vestival celebration begins Friday evening, May 12, and runs Saturday from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. on the site of the Historic Candoro Marble Company. Festivities include a Black and White Art Show on Friday and two stages of continuous live music on Saturday. Among the 14 scheduled musical acts will be local favorites Sara Schwabe, Christabel and the Jons, and the Hector Qirko Band.

â" Mike Gibson

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