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Seven Days

Wednesday, April 17
Lay Packing Co. tells its employees it's shutting down its meat-packing operation here after more than 80 years. Vegetarians rejoice. Others, including almost 100 workers, bemoan the closing.
Some band called the "Eagles" says it has booked Thompson-Boling Arena for July 4. Anybody heard of the Eagles?
The E.W. Scripps Co., through its local organ, the News-Sentinel, announces that it's not moving its headquarters to Knoxville. The announcement came from some senior vice president, who said moving here from Cincy has "absolutely" never been discussed. Ken Lowe, the company's president and a former Knoxvillian, was not quoted. Good thing. It was once an idea attributed to Lowe.

Thursday, April 18
Squeezed by state budget and tax inaction, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission reveals its plan to limit enrollment in the University of Tennessee system by raising admission standards. It will also cut state money for athletics programs. It's quickly countered that UT's football program is not involved. Too bad. If the state had to cut a few football scholarships or face up to tax reform, guess what would happen.

Friday, April 19
The Community Action Committee says it will have to cut some people from its food-for-needy-senior-citizens program here because of state fund reductions caused by a failure of the Legislature to reform the tax structure. Oh, well. They're old anyway—the needy, not the legislators, who will eat regular meals in spite of their failure.

Saturday, April 20
A TBI report says crime is up on the state's college and university campuses by almost 8 percent. A sure way to reduce that crime is to limit enrollment, which is already planned, creating a major benefit from the state's unwillingness to accept tax reform.

Sunday, April 21
Former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier picks several former UT Vols from the NFL draft for the Washington Redskins. Uhhhh, yeah.

Monday, April 22
Mayor Victor Ashe says there won't be a need for a city tax increase unless the state cuts back on revenues it now shares with cities. Any bets on that one?

Tuesday, April 23
Spread the alarm! the N-S's big headline reads: "Plutonium route could cross state." Wait a minute. Oak Ridge is in the state.

Knoxville Found

(Click photo for larger image)

What is this? Every week in "Knoxville Found," we'll print the photo of a local curiosity. If you're the first person to correctly identify this oddity, you'll win a special prize plucked from the desk of the editor (keep in mind that the editor hasn't cleaned his desk in five years). E-mail your guesses, or send 'em to "Knoxville Found" c/o Metro Pulse, 505 Market St., Suite 300, Knoxville, TN 37902.

Last Week's Photo:
"I'm afraid I know the outcome of this rather dire situation," writes Councilman Rob Frost, who's been reading nursery rhymes to his son Sonny lately. "It is never good to have people sit on a fence; you might have to postpone a vote because of that." However, Rob was unsure exactly which wall this Humpty Dumpty is sitting on, so that left it to reader Brianne Johnson. She correctly identified the fanciful if endangered figure as a resident of Sir Goony's Golf & Go-Carts, 10925 Kingston Pike. For her attentiveness, Johnson will receive an equally fanciful desk thermometer, courtesy of Christus Gardens in Gatlinburg.

Meet Your City
A calendar of upcoming public meetings you should attend

Monday April 29
6 p.m.
Moses Teen Center Auditorium
Mechanicsville Boys and Girls Club
220 Carrick St.
The Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement is hosting a meeting to explain and discuss "all the ideas that have been generated so far" by Zone Advisory Councils across the city.

Tuesday April 30
7 p.m.
City County Bldg.
Main Assembly Room
400 Main Ave.
Regularly scheduled meeting.


Lyons' Share
How a UT prof turned Market Square around

When City Council gathered on Market Square for a special meeting last week, there was harmony in the air. Every Council member in turn rose to wax nostalgic about the Square's history and/or rhapsodize about its future potential. At the end of the personal testimonials, the Council voted 9-0 to approve the general outline of the Kinsey-Probasco development plan for the Square and surrounding downtown blocks. The audience, made up mostly of Market Square property owners and historic preservation advocates, applauded loudly.

There are still several hurdles to clear before the plan moves forward, most notably contract negotiations with the city and subsequent Council approval of about $20 million in public funding. But the unanimity of Council members and the goodwill of property owners at last week's meeting represent a major shift from the tension and distrust that prevailed on Market Square less than a year ago. How that happened—through dialogue, discussion and maybe most important respect—is an all-too-rare (for Knoxville, anyway) object lesson in civic behavior. People involved in it hope it can be applied elsewhere.

"I know a lot of people in government around here watched a lot of this," says UT political science professor Bill Lyons, the man who gets most of the credit for bringing people together on Market Square. "I bet in the [next] mayor's race you'll hear a lot of conversation about the need for public involvement....I think those in politics or in power need to realize there's a lot to be gained from just engaging, even in a rough and tumble way, various perspectives."

The Market Square machinations go back to late 1997, when City Council first asked Knoxville's Community Development Corporation (KCDC) to come up with a redevelopment plan for the historic Square. The idea at the time was to force property owners, some of whom were letting their buildings literally fall apart, to come up with redevelopment plans. Any who failed to comply would have their buildings seized through eminent domain. But after being adopted by Council, the plan receded from view and was never followed through on with city funding or action.

Instead, the Worsham Watkins International proposal for downtown development assumed center stage, pushing everything else to the side for nearly three years. In their various permutations, the extravagant WW plans (which were touted, in modified form, by the Public Building Authority and the Knox Area Chamber Partnership) called for the city to either seize all property on the Square and turn it over to the developers or compel property owners to give up control of at least their buildings' ground floors. In the meantime, many buildings had changed hands, and the new owners were eager to renovate and redevelop.

But WW's plan hinged on hiring Memphis developer John Elkington to run Market Square; after making some initial visits, Elkington decided to make his own pitch to the city, separate from WW. Despite some meetings Elkington held with property owners, distrust between some owners and the city grew. Owners were still afraid their buildings would be taken, and they say they were unable to attract commercial tenants because of the uncertainties about the Square's future.

Finally, last year the city stepped back in. Mayor Victor Ashe refused to recommend the WW "Renaissance Knoxville" plan to City Council, instead asking KCDC to come up with yet another redevelopment plan for the Square. Council voted to rescind the never-enacted 1998 plan, and KCDC found itself in the middle of a stew of angry property owners, disgruntled developers and inconsistent messages from city government.

Lyons was an unlikely candidate to deal with any of it. He had been appointed to the KCDC board a few years earlier, expecting the volunteer position to consist mostly of policy discussions of the agency's public housing programs. Instead, with the resignation of board chairman Raja Jubran shortly after the city brought KCDC back into the Market Square maelstrom, Lyons found himself leading the board into unfamiliar territory.

Traditionally, KCDC board chairmen have not been much involved in hands-on operations. But Lyons had been watching the downtown development plans play out in the media and via the Internet forum k2k, and he knew there was a lot of work to be done. That was confirmed by an initial meeting between KCDC staff and Market Square property owners.

"The tension in the room was extreme," Lyons says. "I determined at that time that I was going to answer every question anybody asks anywhere, if possible. And to treat anybody asking any question with total respect."

As KCDC moved forward with drawing up its new plan, Lyons met with property owners in person and also engaged in lengthy—and sometimes heated—discussions on k2k about what KCDC was doing and how it was going about it. He didn't win converts immediately.

"I accused him of spin and everything else," says Carlene Malone, who at the time was the property owners' only real champion on City Council. She suspected Lyons would push through the mayor's agenda, whatever it might be, and only give lip service to including the property owners.

But through a series of steps—a public hearing before adoption of the plan, relentless posting on k2k, a public meeting run by Nine Counties One Vision a few months later, several informal social meetings with concerned parties, and most crucially the formation of an advisory board to evaluate proposals for Market Square development—Lyons won over the skeptics.

"The advisory board he pulled together was a great group of people," says Susan Key, a Market Square property owner who had been frustrated for years with the city's stop-start approach to the Square and threats of eminent domain. "I think his intent was to put together a really reputable, informed group of people who could arrive at a way to look at the proposals."

Lyons asked the property-owners' group for five nominations to the advisory board, promising to pick two. But he surprised everybody with the two he chose: Carlene Malone and longtime civic activist Lynn Redmon, both of whom are unpopular with the Ashe administration. Malone and Lyons had exchanged harsh words during and after the September Council meeting where the KCDC plan was adopted, but had followed it up with more civil conversations.

Still, Malone says she was "shocked" when Lyons asked her to serve on the advisory board. "When he called me up and asked me, I just about fell over."

"I wanted her on there," Lyons says. "That didn't meet with universal approval [from other officials]...I thought, 'She's got something to add, and she will bring some legitimacy to this thing.' My philosophy was this: let's get all the conflict dealt with organically as we go, rather than structure the result and then try to fight off the conflict."

The 13-member advisory board held several public meetings this winter to devise a fair method for evaluating development proposals. The meetings allowed time for public input as well.

"I wanted everybody who came to those meetings to be able to speak," Lyons says. "I'm just not really interested in trying to control it."

The final result was the board's unanimous recommendation of the Kinsey-Probasco plan, accompanied by a report detailing the proposal's strengths and weaknesses from the property owners themselves.

Jon Kinsey, the Chattanooga developer and former mayor who has headed up the Kinsey-Probasco team here, is predictably pleased with the outcome—but also with the way it happened.

"They really did a very good job of giving everybody an opportunity to be heard," he says. "I think that always gives a better end result."

The Kinsey-Probasco plan allows property owners to develop their own buildings and calls for a public process to redesign the Square's public space, as well as city funding for an extension of Krutch Park and a new cinema on Gay Street.

As for often-voiced local concerns that public processes are too complicated and take too long, Kinsey says, "We submitted our proposal on Feb. 1 and City Council voted on it last week. I would argue nine weeks is extremely fast...You're redoing a downtown area, that's a huge thing. It should take some time and planning."

Lyons says the sometimes rowdy debates of the past nine months are what anyone involved in a public project should expect. "In all honesty, it never bothered me," he says with a shrug. "I like this stuff. It's like if you're a basketball player and you get a really good game. There were a few cheap shots, but most of it was really good...All of that makes it better, as hokey as it sounds. There were a lot of intelligent people who came out with a lot of points that needed to be confronted."

Ashe, who lauded Lyons' work during last week's Council meeting, says, "I think Bill Lyons did a yeoman's job of taking a process that some people thought was a lemon and turning it into lemonade...I think it provides a good model that hopefully people will pay attention to."

And that's a rare point where the mayor and Susan Key agree. "If there's another important decision to be made on something that really affects the community, I would love to see Bill considered as the mentor for that," Key says.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

Dirty Hands?
In January, city officials were in a hurry to move contaminated material out of the Coster Shop. Now, it has come back to haunt them.

There was a sense of urgency surrounding Resolutions 11e and 11f at the Jan. 8 City Council meeting. It was probably happenstance that this was the very first full meeting for the five newly-elected Council members, but Mayor Victor Ashe and his staff had left little else to chance, and were ready for anything the newbies might throw at them—even the two pesky lawyers in the group.

Resolution 11f authorized Ashe to execute a $1.9 million agreement with Blount Excavating for Coster Shop cleanup work; 11e was an amendment to Burnett Demolition & Salvage's contract, which would pay that company an additional $84,200 to haul off rubble and contaminated Coster Shop soil. That rubble, allegedly contaminated with arsenic, PCBs, and lead among other things, has been in the news a lot in the last few days.

At the Jan. 8 meeting, City Development Director Leslie Henderson had called in Melissa Ziegler, director of Knox County's Development Corporation, who was standing by to field questions. (Ashe had acquired a seat on the Development Corporation's board last year, and that organization had thereafter agreed to take on the Coster Shop project). Also in the audience were three North Knoxville citizens who had answered Council member Larry Cox's altar call to urge getting the project done, and done fast.

What the civilians didn't know was that the city was about to lose its anchor Coster Shop tenant. The clock was running on the piece of the project that was the linchpin of the complicated land swap agreement that had given the Knoxville News-Sentinel a parcel in the West View community formerly owned by Eagle Distributing. The swap had kept the News-Sentinel from moving deep into West Knox County and allowed the mayor to save the city's only daily newspaper from the public relations problem of appearing to have abandoned downtown. Eagle Distributing was to get some 30 acres within the Coster Shop, which the city had acquired from Norfolk Southern Railroad for brownfield redevelopment. Eagle Distributing had previously acquired the West View land from the city in exchange for property in the Mechanicsville-Lonsdale neighborhood where the city built a public swimming pool.

At issue was contamination in the old railroad yard. The situation had gotten ugly when News-Sentinel representatives became antsy about looming deadlines, and the city decided to goose the action along by condemning the Eagle property while Eagle was still awaiting assurance of site clean-up at the Coster Shop. The ensuing legal action was messy, still shrouded in secrecy, and probably spawned the dismissal of Henderson's predecessor, Development Director Doug Berry, who allegedly balked at the condemnation action and said so in a deposition.

But back to the Jan. 8 Council meeting: Steve Diggs, one of the citizens who had been asked to speak, says he had no idea that he had been signed up to support resolutions involving costly change orders for Burnett Demolition & Salvage and Blount Excavating. Until Tuesday, he didn't even remember the names of the involved companies well enough to connect Burnett to the toxic waste controversy involving contaminated well water in South Knox County.

"Our neighborhood organization [Oakwood-Lincoln Park] had endorsed the Coster Shop project because we believe it will be good for the area," said Diggs, the founder and director of the highly-acclaimed Emerald Youth Foundation. "That's what we were there for; just to support the project, in general, not to push any kind of change orders for a particular company."

The change order for Burnett Demolition came up for discussion first, and Henderson explained that the additional money was necessary to "clean up a little bit more of the work that was found after the contract was let." Larry Cox moved to approve the resolution and was seconded by new Council member Barbara Pelot.

At that point, Mark Brown (one of the two new attorney-Council members) weighed in with questions about the use of $1.5 million in Empowerment Zone funding, which Henderson explained had been used for site acquisition and replaced. Then South Knoxville's newly elected Council member Joe Hultquist asked for assurance "that no construction will take place on those infrastructure improvements until we have contracts signed with the buyers."

Henderson said that although the city had a "preliminary" agreement with Eagle Distributing, "that 30 acres they are looking at would be suitable...for [other] users."

Law Director Michael Kelley broke in with an emphatic declaration:

"Let me make one thing clear. We have a contract with Eagle Distributing," Kelley said, explaining that the improvements to the site were being made with Eagle in mind. He repeated the contention twice more. But when Hultquist said that Deputy Law Director Debbie Poplin had informed him that the contract "was in process and that you did not have a signed contract at that point," Kelley backed off and admitted that a contract with Eagle once existed, "but because circumstances have changed with respect to when we can get off-site improvements done and so forth and some other delays we've been working toward a subsequent one that we're very close I hope to finalizing."

Next, Cox summoned Diggs and two other speakers, who all urged moving forward with the Coster Shop plan for the good of the surrounding neighborhoods. Hultquist expressed concern that Eagle Distributing would generate only a few low-paying new jobs. Veteran Council member Ed Shouse pronounced the environmental problems "solved" and said the city had "found a diamond in the rough and turned it into a diamond." Burnett got the additional money by a unanimous vote.

Next, Frost and Brown raised serious questions about the portion of Blount Excavating's contract that anticipated future change orders and questioned the policy of allowing such a practice. Frost worried that a city contractor might "attempt to get a city contract and lowball it knowing they might be able to get change orders to increase their take because they know they've got their foot in the door at that point..." Brown urged limiting change orders. Kelley explained that the change orders were included upfront in the agreement because "the timetable is so strict in trying to meet all our various deadlines." This resolution also passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, Donna Black, a grandmother raising two small grandchildren in a mobile home in Heiskell, had agreed to allow Burnett Demolition to fill a ravine behind her home and to spread "topsoil" on her yard. Phil Reagan of South Knox County had agreed to allow the same company to fill a sinkhole on his property. (City officials maintain no soil was removed from the Coster Shop property, only concrete and other materials.)

Now, Reagan's neighbors are complaining of contaminated water. Black's grandson has tested positive for lead poisoning. And in the meantime, Eagle Distributing exercised its option to pull out of the Coster Shop agreement.

—Betty Bean

A Forest for the Trees
Group releases conservation plan for Appalachians

The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition is starting a campaign to return the Appalachian mountains to their former glory by linking several existing conservation areas and preserving them.

"Return the Great Forest," a report the coalition released this month outlines its vision for the region.

The report proposes guidelines for the wilderness areas—which include Forest Service land, national parks and other conservation areas. The idea is to create a wilderness area large enough to "sustain the habitat and ecological processes necessary to all native plant and animal species."

As it stands now, the region's wilderness areas are not by themselves enough to do this, the report found. "In total, [current conservation areas] represent less than 2 percent of the entire regional landscape," the report says. "These protected areas cannot provide the large, connected habitats necessary to maintain ecological processes and a full complement of native species."

But with 2.8 million acres of National Forest land already in existence, the building blocks for such a regional landscape exist.

The report does not estimate specifically how much this vision would cost and says that it might take decades to complete. However, Taylor Barnhill, outreach director for the Coalition, says the habitat is too important to lose.

"The public in general is not that aware of how these public lands are managed and their value," says Barnhill, pointing out they're important in maintaining clean water and air, diverse species and filtering pollution. "Much of the damage is coming in areas that are out of sight."

Protecting the habitat involves stopping development, road building and other destructive practices in these areas and working to reintroduce lost species, such as the American Chestnut (now being bred to withstand the blight), beavers, large predators and other delicate species that once thrived here. It also involves acquiring or preserving new tracts to connect these smaller areas.

A presentation on Return the Great Forest will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris. Speakers include Bill Landry, host of the Heartland TV series, Hugh Irwin, co-author of "Return the Great Forest," and authors Doris Gove and Russ Manning.

Joe Tarr

Money for Five Points
Mayor Ashe puts aside money for Five Points in the budget

This week, Mayor Victor Ashe showed his support for the depressed Five Points area by proposing $600,000 for economic development.

The money would be used to acquire property around the old Cas Walker grocery store site on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. It would also be used for so-called environmental work—checking whether the site is contaminated and dealing with the contamination if it is. The money comes from city taxes.

Leslie Henderson, the city's development director, says the city's commitment might be used to secure funding from other sources for the neighborhood. If City Council approves Ashe's request, property acquisition could start July 1.

"A lot of what we want to try to do is the preliminary leg work that developers do," Henderson says. "We would love it if there were a proposal out there and developers were interested. That's been part of the problem. We're just trying to take away some of the negatives so it's a more positive thing for developers to look at."

For the first time in perhaps a decade it looks as if there are developers interested in taking on the project. In March, a supermarket consultant from Minnesota told City Council that a small grocery store is feasible for the neighborhood. Councilman Mark Brown, who pushed for the funding in the city budget, says the hope is a small plaza can be built at the site, including a grocery store as an anchor along with a few smaller shops and maybe a restaurant.

John Davis, who now operates the Express Mart convenience store right next to the Cas Walker site, hopes to run the grocery store. He says he's negotiating with the Smith and Woods grocery chain, which runs the Village Market in Gettysvue and some Save-A-Lot stores.

The Cas Walker site itself is owned by Neighborhood Housing and Commercial Services, which has been around for more than a decade, helping to fund home improvement and pushing for commercial development.

Another proposal by the Twenty-Two-Fifteen Corp. is for a plaza anchored by a soul food restaurant.

How all these efforts might be incorporated is uncertain. But Davis is encouraged to see things moving along. "I have no doubt that Mayor Ashe wants to put his thumbprint on this area before he leaves office," Davis says.

Joe Tarr

April 25, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 17
© 2002 Metro Pulse