By Pat Fain and Leslie Agron
On a cool Monday evening at a recent Oak Ridge City Council work session, City Manager Mark Watson did something else. He offered the city and the Council a creative and achievable road map to changing the decades-old paradigm that is today’s Oak Ridge. He offered new exciting ideas geared to the 21st century and designed to promote both the fiscal health and the allure of the city.
The focus of the room was total, and one could almost hear the gray cells churning to take it all in. It is really fun to be present at the very beginning of hopeful change. The inertia of the city has been challenged, the status quo has been shaken, and the restlessness of the citizenry has been given a positive direction around which to coalesce.
It would appear that most of the sacred cows have been examined carefully for their return on investment and found wanting. The contracts of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau, and lobbyists have been reviewed and found to be marginal to poor investments for the city, and much of their functions will be pulled in-house. The much-maligned tax abatement policy of the Industrial Development Board has been found to be unproductive. The city’s economic development fund has become a miscellaneous catchall and will be absorbed into appropriate programs. That’s just for starters.
Other proposals included letting contracts for specific development that contain tangible, quantifiable, and measurable deliverables that are time-limited. By bringing the tourism focus in-house, there could be targeted marketing and promotion of sports tourism both team and individual. Further good news is that the Uranium Processing Facility initiative of the federal government will be stretched to eight years, giving the city expanded time to facilitate building teams of stakeholders—perhaps to develop a long-term plan for when the windfall money goes away.
The proposal for doing intensive training of city staff for team-building to lead these challenges is obviously driven by necessity, considering the lack of team spirit or cooperation currently existing between some city staff and the people of Oak Ridge. With strong leadership this is certainly attainable, however. Outsourcing festivals, fireworks, and other community events to private city groups and business to run is particularly interesting and needs greater exploration. It is theoretically possible and could be a boon to private groups if done right.
The unique idea of only paying dues to outside organizations that actually have as a mission the furtherance of city goals is certainly a plan that has long been needed. City funds are very limited now, and the economic development of increased sales tax revenue and an expanded property tax base has to be a first priority for the stability of the future. We just do not have enough revenue right now to support a dozen economic development groups’ good ideas unless they are productive for us.
A February work session is scheduled to allow staff and council to continue this discussion and refine the city’s policies for economic development. In our next column, we will explore possible directions for Oak Ridge’s future that could be reflected in those policies.
Pat Fain and Leslie Agron are Oak Ridge residents and columnists.