By Pat Fain and Leslie Agron
This is the first of several columns about a different vision for Oak Ridge than has previously existed.
The default development plan Oak Ridge has been operating under, to rely on federal subcontractor and spin-off industry growth, has stalled. The degree to which it will revive as the U.S. economy revives remains to be seen.
The U.S. Department of Energy says the Uranium Processing Facility they are just starting is their last big build in Oak Ridge. Upon its completion the number of employees in this function will decrease by about one-third. Given this and other concerns, it behooves us to consider other possible engines to fuel the Oak Ridge economy. We think that any successful replacement development plan will be woven from a combination of elements, rather than from one major thread alone.
Let’s talk about the future and positive things for a while. We recognize the need to define those things that we need to stop tolerating: slum lords, drugs, poverty, school dropouts, using the streets as holding pens for junk, crime, homelessness, speeders, derelict buildings and dwellings, unenforceable ordinances. We need to name those things we no longer wish to tolerate, but we do not need to be defined as a city by their presence.
So let’s call our adventure into the future, where we think about, address and redress the problems of the past, and create a vision of the future, something else. It’s easy to coin negative labels and hard to find good positive labels that do not sound Pollyanna-ish. So for a while let’s just refer to “Something Else.”
“Something Else” number one is the future economic viability of the city. Within that subject are many sub-texts, not least of which is the future of the historic housing, its long term viability, and its fundamental significance to a stable property tax base. We have been alternately amused and dismayed by the disregard for the reality that the historic homes have not only real economic value to the city but serious historical significance. We have been mystified as to how those pushing so hard for status and recognition through the creation of a three-state national park, recognizing the contributions of whole cities to the winning of World War II, could be so oblivious to the cultural history of the people involved.
War is not just about having the biggest, most lethal weapon. It is also about the daily lives and shared family sacrifices that supported those who built the weapon. Honoring one without also honoring the other is shortsighted and dishonest. In Oak Ridge there has grown up a small but dedicated movement to “take down” and remove from sight the family side of the story. The “Something Else” is finding a better alternative for real historic preservation and doing it with mostly private money.
One possible model is to create a pool of money that can be used by homeowners to fix structural and infrastructure (electric, water, plumbing, etc.) problem areas of their home. This can take the form of outright grants, no-interest loans, and reduced and regular-interest loans to the owners, depending on their financial ability to repay, and can have structured and deferred payback. In order to make this happen, an organization to act as fiscal agent, supervisor of construction, and debt collector needs to be created similar to the Habitat for Humanity model, but with expanded jurisdiction beyond very-low-income customers.
“Something Else” means community financial institutions, corporations, and individual donors would be looked to for the initial funding and the money paid back would be reused for more loans. This model may never be fully self-supporting, but because some payback would be required, the pool of money can be partially sustainable. Thus, both an initial pool of money and long-term charitable donations would be necessary.
There are other models that would also be useful and should be considered, but the bottom line is that fiscal sustainability of valuable historical and financial assets would be protected. The homeowners would be significant contributors to the maintenance of value of property. Most of the owners, of course, are in a financial position to fully maintain their historic homes and do, but many of the original owners and some subsequent owners are not. It is those who would not be able to maintain their homes without assistance that are the primary target customers. The result would be a sustainable economic base of historical, owner-occupied homes in Oak Ridge. This is what defines doing “Something Else.”
We think the strongest thread of this new weave will be a greatly expanded visitor-driven economy. We have become inured to it, but as most visitors and new residents repeatedly tell us, the physical beauty and recreation opportunities here are outstanding. It should be feasible to increase the number of visitors to Oak Ridge substantially just by letting people know what is here. The economic problem for Oak Ridge is not the size of the economy within the city limits, which is quite substantial, but that the economy does not redound to a suitable level of tax revenue for the city government. Encouraging visitors is especially useful for city revenues because they generate three kinds of municipal revenue: sales tax, hotel bed tax, and property tax. Our presumption is that an increase in visitors will result in a commensurate number of hotel rooms being built. And most importantly, visitors are not a particular demand on city services and infrastructure.
First let’s look at what we have to build on. Current inventory:
- Rowing—A national caliber venue and potentially international class with very little improvement.
- Canoeing and kayaking—The same conditions that make ours a outstanding rowing venue also make the waterway adjacent to Haw Ridge and the Three Bend area a great venue for other human-powered water sports, and with a little improvement, it could be of national caliber.
- A Tennessee Scenic River—The Clinch River upstream from Melton Hill Dam to Solway Bridge, including the Three Bend area with its Tennessee Wildlife Management Area is a remarkable natural area.
- Trail biking at Haw Ridge Park is a big draw of regional caliber.
- Our many miles of greenway trails are a Knoxville area draw for bird watching, hiking, and biking.
- The University of Tennessee Arboretum with easy walking well-marked trails, abundant wildlife (including a resident deer population), and marvelous wild flower displays should draw visitors from the entire Knoxville area.
- Clark Center Park—A very scenic facility with extensive picnic facilities, fishing, boat ramps, ball fields, and marked trails to the best fishing spots. There is plenty of unused prime area that could be used for great rustic camping sites.
- With recent additions, paved greenways and bicycle lanes are an under-utilized gem that should draw from the entire Knoxville area.
- Manhattan Project National Historic Park
- We need to harness the world-class expertise at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and make Oak Ridge a demonstration venue for cutting-edge energy projects that could draw eco-tourists internationally.
- We need to add concessions at Solway Park for rental of trail bikes (for use in Haw Ridge), road bikes (for use on the paved Greenway), canoes and kayaks for easy access to miles of still water and prime bird watching sites.
Overall, we see the Oak Ridge waterfront from Elza Gate Park to Melton Hill Dam as having the potential to outshine the very extensive Concord Park in Farragut. In weeks to come, we will discuss other elements to be woven into a new economic vision for Oak Ridge.
Pat Fain and Leslie Agron are Oak Ridge residents.