By Leslie Agron and Pat Fain
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Oak Ridge is on the cusp of a renaissance; Oak Ridge is in its worst-ever financial shape. Despite the looming risk of the guillotine for questioning the conventional wisdom here, we want to examine where Oak Ridgers are coming from when they speak of our future. To do this we, conveniently, will compare these possible futures for Oak Ridge with two present day Tennessee cities: Farragut and Chattanooga.
Farragut is a place most Oak Ridgers are fairly familiar with. It is mostly new and upscale. It tends toward sprawl and toward heavily developed strips, but has no real heart. It has low taxes, but is not a full-service city. Chattanooga is an older city with a downtown and outlying neighborhoods of varying ages. It is a full-service city with commensurate taxes. Chattanooga has done an outstanding job of revitalizing some of its older neighborhoods. The neighborhood in the vicinity of its Aquarium is particularly noteworthy in this regard.
When Oak Ridgers speak of the older neighborhoods being blighted, they are speaking for the possible future of tearing out a lot of homes and remaking Oak Ridge in a more gentrified model, à la Farragut. This is the mindset which has brought the proposal for a land bank forward; it is in preparation for a significant amount of demolition and replacement. Possibly this is also a voice for replacing the mall with a shopping center more like Turkey Creek. Although there is no stated course set for the development of Oak Ridge, this seems to be the direction in which we are headed.
Chattanooga is marching to a different drummer. It saw its older buildings as assets, not only in the sense of preserving the character of the city, but in a literal economic sense. They knew what Habitat for Humanity and a number of savvy homeowners have also been telling Oak Ridge: even with most of the ugly older buildings which some would call “blighted”, it is possible to renovate them into modern, energy-efficient, attractive buildings for a substantially lesser amount than the expense of razing them and building anew.
So this is a one-question survey. Which do you want Oak Ridge to become more like: Farragut or Chattanooga? Your responses go not to us, but to the city manager and the City Council. They have not asked you what you want, but they are in the midst of formulating a strategy for economic growth that contains assumptions about our desired future. Which is to say, if you don’t want to come out more like Farragut, now would be an excellent time to speak up.
Leslie Agron and Pat Fain are Oak Ridge residents and columnists.