The 10-Year Development Battle Over Midway Road

Everybody is tired of fighting about a Midway business park. As it comes to a final vote next week, why is it worth the struggle?

"THE DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION had requested that MPC identify potential INDUSTRIAL SITES, which could be developed in the coming twenty years. As a long-range plan, the identification of industrial lands was an appropriate fit for a fifteen-year development. The PROPOSED industrial sites were to be located on the north side of Strawberry Plains Interchange, on the north side Ruggles Ferry Pike at Johnson Road, and on the north and south sides of MIDWAY INTERCHANGE. The PUBLIC was in STRONG OPPOSITION to the proposed development of new industrial sites in the East County sector, outside of Forks of the River."

—p. 39, 2000 East Knox County Sector Plan, Metropolitan Planning Commission


Civic planning documents are not the kinds of texts that people can usually quote from memory, but when it comes to the East Knox County Sector Plan drawn up 10 years ago, Bob Wolfenbarger can come awfully close.

Wolfenbarger, a wiry, bright-eyed former car dealer whose family has been in and around East Knox County for 200 years, was deeply involved in that plan, attending every public meeting, recruiting neighbors to participate, asking questions, offering suggestions. He says he still has all of his calendars from that period, when he was also on a task force for the Nine Counties, One Vision project and heading up a newly formed group called the 8th District Preservation Association (named for the 8th District of Knox County Commission, which covers the still-mostly-rural reaches of East Knox County). If you want to know exactly where or when any meeting happened, or who said what to whom, Wolfenbarger says he can tell you. He is, in short, the kind of civic activist almost guaranteed to give headaches to institutions like The Development Corporation of Knox County.

And that's just what he and his 8th District neighbors did 10 years ago.

The Metropolitan Planning Commission is supposed to update sector plans every five years or so for each quadrant of the county, laying out a broad vision for land use, population growth, commercial development, infrastructure, and environmental protection. Once the plans are adopted by MPC and County Commission, they are hard to change. So if you want to do something like designate agricultural land for industrial use, it helps a lot to get it in the sector plan. As Wolfenbarger remembers it, the East Knox County plan that was put together in the summer of 2000 was nearly complete and headed for its final draft when Ben Kadas, the planner who was leading the effort for MPC, arrived with some unexpected news.

"He said, ‘There's going to be a proposal for a business park, an industrial park, at Midway Road,'" Wolfenbarger says, seated in a Starbucks cafe tucked inside the giant Target store on Washington Pike. "We were all flabbergasted. ‘How can this happen? How can this be?'"

Up until then, the sector plan had called for continued agricultural zoning around the Midway Road interchange with Interstate 40, except for a strip of highway commercial development right around exit 402. Suddenly, a parcel of up to 800 rural acres sprawling across the interstate was being eyed for industrial use by the Development Corporation, the publicly-funded agency that manages six business parks in Knox County.

To make a long prologue short, Wolfenbarger and his fellow East Knox Countians rallied friends and neighbors, hired a lawyer, and through a sequence of noisy public meetings, threats of litigation, and political missteps on the other side, managed to beat back the business park. When the sector plan went to MPC in December 2000, the land around Midway was still marked for agricultural use, as it had been in every sector plan before.

Now, it's December 2010, and Wolfenbarger and his fellow East Knox Countians once again find themselves battling a proposed business park at Midway Road. At its meeting on Monday, Dec. 13, County Commission is supposed to finally vote on the latest revision to the East Knox County Sector Plan, this time with nearly 400 acres of fields and hills around Midway and Thorngrove Pike marked for "light manufacturing, offices and locally-oriented warehouse/distribution services." MPC approved the plan in February, and since then Commission has repeatedly kicked the can, most recently at the request in September of fledgling Mayor Tim Burchett, who called for two more public hearings on the issue.

The word in September was that neither side was sure it had enough votes on the 11-member Commission to either pass or block the proposal. Heading into next week's meeting, the question is still officially too close to call. Few commissioners have committed themselves publicly. But on all sides of the issue, there is a sense of a sort of fevered exhaustion, a 360-degree siege mentality in which everybody seems to feel somehow victimized, vilified, or misunderstood. Ten years is a long time to fight over a few hundred acres of land. So on the eve of what is either the final or, at least, the next stage of the battle, it is worth asking again why each side thinks this particular fight is so important.

Build Here, Build Now

"The county had funded this," Mike Edwards says, leaning back in a chair in a small conference room across from his office on the second floor of a building on Market Square. It is early on a Monday morning, but the weariness in his voice seems the product of something larger: the repeated efforts he and his colleagues have made over the past few years to explain why they think Knox County needs a business park on Midway Road.

"They said, ‘Here's money, go find and develop an industrial park,'" he continues. "We did. The criteria was we needed a minimum of 100 acres, but really, that could be one deal. So when you look at what our competition's sitting there with, we needed as much acreage as we could assemble. We had to have willing sellers. It had to have reasonable topography. It had to be on the interstate, or it had to have close proximity to the interstate."

Edwards is CEO of the combined Chamber/Development Corporation, the so-called Super Chamber, which is essentially a private-public hybrid dedicated to promoting business interests in Knox County and the nearby region. He joined the Chamber in 2001, after the first go-round on Midway, but with the same reality staring him in the face. There is very little land around Knoxville that meets all of those requirements. Midway Road, the only interstate exit in the county with no development around it, remained attractive no matter what the sector plan said.

Of course, there is a reason Midway Road has not gone the same traffic-clogged route as the exits at Strawberry Plains Pike, Cedar Bluff, or Lovell Road. As the 1995 sector plan observed, the area's "steep, rocky topography and lack of sewer services have hindered development."

The fact that the land in question had been slated as agricultural in the sector plan didn't dissuade the Development Corporation from beginning, in 2005, to start quietly picking up options on individual pieces of property. They offered top dollar, promising sellers that if a rezoning to business use were approved, the sale price would reflect the new, higher valuation. (Commercial land off an interstate exit is worth much more than farmland.) With about 380 acres of Midway land in hand, at a cost of just under $10 million, the Corporation believed that all it needed was approval from MPC and County Commission for rezoning. In the summer of 2006, despite renewed protests from local residents, both bodies signed off on the deal.

But there was an unexpected hitch: The aggrieved residents once again hired a lawyer, and this time actually filed a lawsuit, alleging various irregularities in the whole process. And in 2008, to the surprise of the Corporation and the relief of the residents, Chancellor Daryl Fansler threw out the rezoning, on the grounds that it changed the Sector Plan without sufficient reason. Edwards says he believes Fansler's ruling was wrong, and that subsequent similar cases in other counties have gone the other direction, but in any case, the Development Corporation chose not to appeal. Instead, it encouraged MPC to go ahead with its next planned revision of the Sector Plan, and this time to include a proposed business park at Midway Road. After another year-plus of work and more rancorous public meetings, MPC did exactly that, approving the new plan in February.

Since then, the Super Chamber and the East Knox County residents' groups have been lobbying like mad, duking it out in the local media, and looking for votes first on the old County Commission (until it voted over the summer to defer action on the plan) and, since September, on the new 11-member body.

To Edwards and his colleagues, the case for the park is perfectly straightforward: The Development Corporation is supposed to attract new employers to Knox County; new employers of any significant size will need accessible, easily developable land; the Development Corporation now owns some accessible and (they say) easily developable land right off the Midway Road exit.

As for the timing, Edwards says capital that has been frozen during the recession is going to begin thawing. Companies that put plans to move or expand on hold a few years ago are thinking about them again. "These are jobs that are going to be in the United States," Edwards says. "They've had plenty of time to decide if they're going to go overseas. We're not supposed to be out of the recession and back to where we were pre-recession until 2014. If we can have this ready in three years, we will still be in the queue for a whole lot of opportunities."

But that means moving ahead quickly to put in infrastructure, including an on-site wastewater treatment system because there are no sewer lines in the Midway area. Rhonda Rice, the Chamber's executive vice president, says it's hard to even start recruiting for the site until that prep work is done. Potential businesses "want to know that they can be operational within a very short period of time," she says.

That's why, they say, the Chamber and Development Corporation has put so much emphasis on the Midway park. Its priority is evident from a visit to either organization's website, both of which prominently feature pleas for support. (They even came up with a Midway logo, a green, rounded M that seems to be made of rolling hills, presumably to counter opponents' depictions of the proposal as an asphalt nightmare. Edwards also talks about the walking trails and park space that he says would be part of the project.)

The business park advocates are well aware of the arguments and proposals made on the other side, and do their best to dismantle them. First, there is the persistent suggestion that the county already has plenty of available property, either in existing business parks or in former industrial sites that could be reclaimed. Not really, Edwards says. Yes, there is open space at Eastbridge Business Park, but it is eight miles from the interstate and a hard sell to modern prospective tenants. (Edwards also disputes the characterization of that park as a failure; given the county's relatively small investment in it years ago, he says, the businesses and jobs it has attracted over time have more than paid off.) And yes, there are those 70 vacant acres at Hardin Business Park out west, but those are small plots, just four to 19 acres, and were set aside specifically to attract small, high-tech businesses that could draw on the nearby resources of Oak Ridge and the University of Tennessee. It's not a place that the kind of light manufacturing envisioned for Midway would go. (That it has so far failed to attract its target tenants is an obvious thorn in the Development Corporation's paw, and a favorite piece of evidence for its critics. The Corporation attributes the slow start largely to the economy. The park opened in 2008.)

As for reusing industrial brownfields, the Development Corporation says they're already doing that, or trying to. Todd Napier, the agency's executive vice president, pulls out a map from a study done a few years ago by MPC at the Corporation's request. It identifies 31 brownfield sites in the city limits, the kind of urban infill spaces that Chamber skeptics say should be the first priority for development. The problem, Napier says, is that A.) most of them are very small, just a few acres; and B.) they are expensive and problematic to clean up, as was demonstrated by the city's many headaches and missteps in reclaiming the Coster Shop site in North Knoxville.

"There's just not that much out there," Napier says. Still, the Development Corporation actually owns the largest of those sites, 19 acres at the old Brookside Mills on Baxter Avenue, and Napier insists there are active efforts to recruit a tenant for it.

And Rice notes that one of the local success stories of recent years, the opening of a Green Mountain Coffee Roasters plant, was an example of the Chamber's attention to reuse. It went into a vacant building in the Forks of the River Industrial Park.

Still, criticism of the Chamber has turned up a notch in recent weeks after the announcement that Chattanooga had attracted an Amazon distribution center. Coming on the heels of that city's successful recruitment of a Volkswagen plant, it added fuel to skeptics' claims that Knoxville's economic recruiters are behind the curve. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Knoxville could have competed for either of those projects—the VW plant is opening in a former industrial site of thousands of acres, of which there is no local equivalent. But Chamber officials say those examples just highlight the need for more developable land here.

"Here's the deal," Edwards says. "We hear, ‘The Chamber's trying just to line the pockets of big business.' Really what we're trying to do is keep business healthy here. The more jobs we bring, the more spending, the more you're gonna have in a tax base, the more healthy your school system's going to be. It is about jobs. And we hope companies are successful, we hope they're profitable, otherwise they're not gonna be here. But it is the jobs that are the end game. The barbershop needs this more than the Chamber does."

All About Sprawl

Elaine Clark, to put it mildly, does not believe that any barbershop or much of anybody else needs a business park at Midway Road.

"What is the pressing need for it right now?" asks Clark, who moved to East Knox County in 2001 and is president of a group called the French Broad Preservation Association. "We're coming out of a recession, Knox County has a shortfall in their budget, they're looking at an industry that has had negative growth in the last few years—manufacturing has had negative growth, warehousing and transportation has had negative growth. Those are not sectors of our jobs that are growing right now. So why would we want to be pushing spending $30 million in a dying industry?"

That's a round-up from the estimated $27 million cost of developing the property, including the $10 million already spent. Clark and other opponents of the plan have suggested an alternative, using money they say is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the conservation of farmland. They say the county could recoup some of the cost of the initial investment, and then use the money for more productive kinds of economic development. (Edwards was already persona non grata to the anti-business-park groups, but he angered them even more when he told the News Sentinel that the USDA proposal was "one of the lamest ideas they've come up with.")

Beyond the Midway park itself, its opponents suspect that it is primarily an opening move toward the massive development of East Knox County, along the lines of what has happened in Knoxville's western suburbs. Initial discussion of the business park included the possibility of a new sewage treatment plant on the French Broad River, which could have provided the infrastructure for commercial and residential growth. The lack of that infrastructure has been, depending on your point of view, either East Knox County's biggest obstacle or its saving grace. From 1970 to 2009, the total population of Knox County grew from about 276,000 to 435,000, an increase of 58 percent. In the same years, the population of the East Knox County sector rose from about 11,500 to an estimated 13,500, a rise of just 17 percent.

Edwards says the Development Corporation has only about $3 million to spend on water treatment, and a new sewage plant would cost more like $11 million. There are currently no plans for the Knoxville Utilities Board to make that kind of investment, which is why the Midway plan calls for on-site treatment (essentially an industrial septic system). But that does not mollify Clark and her allies.

"It's a three-phase project at Midway," Clark says, and she outlines the scenario she fears: "The first phase gets put in, as a testing area, test ground. They build that first phase, they determine that an on-site sewage treatment is not gonna work. Then all of a sudden a regional sewage treatment plant comes up again. And at that point, Knox County has sunk probably $30 million into it, there's no going back."

Instead, she says, Knox County could protect the land, either through the USDA program or some other conservation plan, and establish a precedent for agricultural preservation.

"That is prime soil that has been there for a very long time," Clark says. "The possibilities that Knox County could capitalize on by saving your prime farmland, your prime soils, as we move into the future and we have to start looking at regional production of food, is of huge significance."

Wolfenbarger shares that concern, along with the skepticism that the business park will work on its own terms. He notes that several other projects have at various times been pushed as crucial to the local economy—the "Orange Route" loop road, a downtown planetarium, even the farmers' market that used to be at the site of the very shopping center that now houses the Starbucks-equipped Target store—and failed without causing widespread damage. He also cites the pricey convention center on Henley Street, once touted as crucial to downtown's revitalization and now widely derided. That's why he says the Chamber's sense of urgency rings false to him.

"It's all about urban sprawl," Wolfenbarger says. "These guys are still pushing a business model that's 30 years old. If you talk to any of these people, they still think it's going to come back. Because it's the only model they know."

Rather than trying to compete with Chattanooga or other cities that have geographic resources Knox County can't match, he says, economic development should be built around Knoxville's strengths: the resources at the University of Tennessee, the proximity to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the commitment to renewable energy that gathered momentum under Mayor Bill Haslam.

Of the Midway park plan, he says, "This didn't make a whole lot of sense in 2000, it made less sense in 2006, and in 2010 it even makes less sense, economically and environmentally. And in 2015, it'll make no sense."

The Final Countdown

Matt Murray disagrees with that assessment, at least in principle. Murray, a professor of economics at the University of Tennessee and associate director of the Center for Business and Economic Research there, is the most prominent outside authority cited in the Development Corporation's pro-business-park literature. With some caveats—"I am not an expert on that particular site"—he says the business park model is still an important part of attracting employers and jobs.

"The counties in East Tennessee need to have business parks to support economic development," he says. "Land is getting increasingly scarce. Zoning and so forth limit where businesses can place their facilities."

He agrees that large-scale manufacturing is in decline in the United States, but says that in its place are many smaller operations of the kind that could cluster in an area the size of the Midway Road property. Businesses of that type tend to like to group together, he says, with one attracting another in a complementary industry. "We do need to accommodate manufacturing and the new models of growth," Murray says.

Looking at things from the other end of the development lens, Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, worries about the environmental impact of a business park in an agricultural setting. She says on-site sewage treatment on an industrial scale is still a relatively untested technology, and she shares local residents' fears of pollution in the groundwater. "People with wells have a right to be concerned if it's a huge facility with a lot of flushes," she says, noting the porous karst that underlies the area. "It's like swiss cheese underground."

But ultimately, the only voices that are going to count next week are those of the 11 county commissioners. They did not debate the issue at all during Monday's monthly workshop, apart from some informational discussion of the USDA conservation program. County Commissioner Dave Wright, who represents the 8th District, made his opposition to the business park clear, but that has long been assumed as a given.

Two votes that will be closely watched are those of Commission Chairman Mike Hammond and Commissioner Ed Shouse, who are the new at-large representatives on the body. Because they are not bound to any particular constituency, they are theoretically charged with taking the best interests of the county as a whole into account. Hammond did not return a call for comment. Shouse says he is still weighing all of the factors. He says he found the two informational meetings last month useful, though he added that there was "a lot of disinformation on both sides." He says he thinks the Development Corporation's claims that the site can produce thousands of jobs is "an exaggeration." On the other hand, he says, "I don't believe it is a conspiracy to bring dozens of subdivisions and a municipal sewer system to East Knox County."

Still, Shouse says he does worry about the impact on the landscape. "Many of us talk about urban sprawl," he says, "and gosh, if this isn't urban sprawl, I haven't seen any. It's going out into a virgin area of the county and developing it."

He says he regrets that whatever decision is made, one side or the other will feel wronged. But he adds something, maybe the only thing, that all of the parties involved might agree with: "No one can say it's been rushed. We've had the time to analyze it and dissect it, and study it, and study it some more."

When Commission convenes for the zoning portion of its meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, the studying will be over.