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Preserving Land for Economic Growth

by Joe Sullivan

Knox County has a $90 million plan for building a new jail that anticipates growth of its inmate population to the year 2015 or beyond. Yet when it comes to preserving property suitable for industrial and other corporate sites for job creation and economic growth, the county doesn't have a long-range plan.

The need for one is dramatized by H.T. Hackney Co.'s travails in trying to find a Knox location for a new distribution center to meet the big wholesaler's expansion needs. After searching elsewhere to no avail, Hackney bought a 150 acre farm fronting on Washington Pike in East Knox County. But now the surrounding Ritta community is up in arms over the prospect of heavy duty truck traffic on that two-lane road, especially in the vicinity of Ritta Elementary School.

"Initially, some people were willing to listen to Hackney's plan for buffering the facility, but the opposition is mounting," says County Commissioner Mike McMillan, who represents East Knox. He predicts that Hackney will seek postponement of its request for rezoning the property from agricultural to commercial which is scheduled for a Metropolitan Planning Commission hearing on October 12. A Hackney spokesperson says no decision has been made on postponement. But Hackney's CEO, Bill Sansom, has warned that if the Knox site is rebuffed he'll have to relocate the company's distribution facilities—and their 320 jobs—to another county.

Knox County Development Corp., which is an arm of county government, actually has about 400 acres of industrial and business park space available, along with options to purchase an additional 350 acres. But for one reason or another, none of this property fit Sansom's criteria for a campus-type setting.

While the Development Corp.'s existing inventory may be sufficient to meet the needs of most other prospective plant locations for the next few years, its executive director, Melissa Ziegler, is the first to expound on the need for longer-range planning.

"We've got to look at proactive ways to preserve industrial land for the future, to inventory land that may not be needed for 10 years, or otherwise it won't be there," Ziegler asserts. Up to now, Ziegler's charge from her nine-person board of directors has been to keep on acquiring an additional 200 acres per year, which just about equals the pace at which the DC's holdings have been sold for use in recent years.

Looking ahead, though, Ziegler and her board have asked the MPC to identify sites suitable for industrial development looking out as far as 2020. Through some combination of land banking and protective zoning, the DC wants to start securing economic growth prospects for this longer term.

"Each year it's going to become more and more difficult [to acquire sites] because of other growth that's driving up land values in West Knox and the topography of much of the county," says the DC's chairman, Pat Wood.

Yet county government hasn't even addressed how to pay for the 350 acres on which the DC has options let alone any additional acquisitions. The county's five year, $291 million capital improvement plan makes provision for new schools, roads, libraries, parks, and, of course, the jail, but it is totally silent on the subject of economic development funding. (The $5 million that the county did provide on an ad hoc basis in 1996 for the DC's acquisition of its 154 acre Pellissippi Corporate Center doesn't even show up in any budget.)

Given the fact that planning has been County Executive Tommy Schumpert's mantra, this omission seems surprising. Yet Schumpert appears unconcerned. "By 2020 I doubt whether county lines will count for very much where economic development is concerned," he observes. In the meantime, land costs of $50,000-an-acre or more could chew up the rest of his capital budget in a hurry. For example, a 2,000 acre land bank might cost $100 million.

Protective zoning poses its own set of problems. Property owners can hardly be expected to take kindly to having restrictions placed upon the purposes for which they can use or sell their land. And neighboring owners, especially residents, could be expected to protest the prospect of having industrial zoning imposed on property in their environs. Indeed, one of the reasons the DC is hush hush about the location of its property options is to avoid stirring up opposition before it has had time to quell the fears of neighbors.

Ziegler is a past master at doing just that. Both through the design and buffering of the DC's business parks and through her persuasive skills, she has been able to allay concerns and get acquired properties rezoned for industrial and other business uses.

"There are good ways to integrate where people live with where they work," Ziegler says. "I'd much rather live next door to a WestBridge Business Park or a Pellissippi Corporate Center than a big subdivision. There's more green space, less traffic, and no impact on schools."

Paradoxically, Knox County already has a reserve of more than 1,700 acres of land that's been zoned for business parks for more than a decade and remains largely undeveloped. This land is in a Technology Corridor adjoining the Pellissippi Parkway that was established by the state legislature in 1983. The Tennessee Technology Development Authority presides over the corridor and must approve any use of the land within it. But property values in the Pellissippi area have escalated since its formation, and the land is no longer competitively priced for heavy industrial or other users requiring a lot of space.

"The corridor itself can only satisfy part of the [county's overall] need. Due to its location and value, it's only going to be attractive to small high-tech companies concerned with image," says Jim Spencer, chairman of the development authority.

Certainly, the area needs more of them—especially with layoffs continuing in Oak Ridge. But above all else, county government needs to give at least as much attention to meeting long-term economic growth needs as it has to building more jail space.