Note: This story was last updated at 7 p.m.
Demolition of the former Oak Ridge Mall began Wednesday with a ceremonial groundbreaking and the knocking down of a wall near the former Goody’s store, starting construction on a 58-acre mixed-use retail development known as Main Street Oak Ridge.
Demolition could last three months, and the construction of two new stores, T.J. Maxx and Dick’s Sporting Goods, could start where the former Sears building is in October. New stores could open in the spring of 2017.
Officials, business representatives, and the community celebrated with a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday. About 300 or more people attended. After the groundbreaking on a hot, sunny summer afternoon, those celebrating, including children and adults, had a chance to spray graffiti on part of the old mall as a fundraiser for the renovation of Blankenship Field.
Main Street Oak Ridge is now the largest multi-tenant commercial retail project in the city, said Parker Hardy, president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
“This groundbreaking ushers in a new and exciting era in Oak Ridge,” Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said. “Its importance to the image and self-confidence of our city—and to the economic vitality of Oak Ridge, Anderson and Roane counties—cannot be overstated.”
Main Street Oak Ridge is expected to create 700-900 jobs, and conservative estimates predict new local sales tax revenues of about $1.5 million per year, Gooch said.
“Going forward, these new tax dollars will be absolutely vital in funding our schools, public safety, and road and infrastructure improvements,” he said. “The most successful chapter of history for our remarkable city is yet to be written.”
Anderson County Commission Chair Steve Emert said Main Street Oak Ridge could generate another $600,000 for county schools each year.
A long list of people and organizations received credit for playing a role in the project, which was called a “team effort.” Besides Gooch and Hardy, those who received credit Wednesday included the new developer, RealtyLink of Greenville, South Carolina, and Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson, Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin, Oak Ridge retail consultant Ray Evans, the city staff, Oak Ridge City Council, Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board, Anderson County Commission, Tennessee comptroller’s office, attorney Mark Mamantov, and three Tennessee banks involved in the $13 million tax increment financing part of the project: Pinnacle Bank, TnBank, and First National Bank of Tennessee.
“We are ready to welcome something new, something exciting,” Watson said.
Gooch said the last 20 years, leading up to the groundbreaking, have been a “long, frustrating, and torturous journey.” The mall has been mostly empty for close to a decade, and two other large retailers that had been there, Goody’s and Sears, have been closed for a while. Mall redevelopment plans had been stalled, at least as far as the public could tell, since about 2002, ever since Oak Ridge voters rejected a $23.2 million bond resolution that would have supported a plan to convert the mall into a town square that would have included new school administration headquarters and a senior citizens center. Since then, Oak Ridge officials have lamented the lost sales and property tax revenues, the drop in the assessed value of the property, and the psychological and economic impact of having a mostly empty retail center in the center of the city.
“But we are not here to dwell on the past, or on the skeptics who predicted that today would never happen,” Gooch said. “We are here today to celebrate the future and to thank the individuals, organizations, elected officials, and companies whose unwavering support and confidence made it possible. This was a team effort, and make no mistake about it, without their collective efforts, we would not be here today.”
The 58-acre site has a new owner after a June 30 sale, and RealtyLink has been moving quickly since the purchase.
RealtyLink Principal Neil Wilson said demolition work will continue Thursday with work by hand to separate the enclosed space between Belk and JCPenney, the two remaining anchor stores. Regular demolition will proceed after that, Wilson said.
Belk and JCPenney will remain open during demolition and construction. Cinemark Tinseltown theater and Walmart, which are not part of the redevelopment, also remain open.
The Main Street Oak Ridge redevelopment could cost $75 million total, and it could include retailers, restaurants, residential units, and a hotel. The first all-retail phase is expected to cost about $40 million.
Later, the project could include a restaurant district and service district. In the restaurant district, Wilson envisions a coffee shop, wine bar, wide sidewalks, and patios. The service district could include businesses like an Edward Jones and a State Farm insurance agency, he said.
RealtyLink bought the mall property from Oak Ridge City Center LLC on June 30 for $6.3 million. The new owner is TN Oak Ridge Rutgers LLC, a company set up by RealtyLink.
Belk and JCPenney, which remain open and accessible, will be part of Main Street Oak Ridge. The existing enclosed space between them will be demolished.
Besides Dick’s and T.J. Maxx, other new stores that have been announced as part of the 600,000-square-foot mixed-use redevelopment are Electronic Express, Maurice’s, PetSmart, Rack Room, Rue 21, and Ulta.
Wilson urged residents to support the stores. Strong sales at those stores will help lead to more businesses at Main Street Oak Ridge, he said.
“When it comes spring, we need you to support these businesses,” Wilson said. “That will get you more tenants and a lot more retail.”
Gooch said a vibrant Main Street will, in turn, help Oak Ridge attract more families, resulting in more homes being purchased and encouraging more investment by existing businesses and new companies that have decided to locate here, including Calhoun’s, Hobby Lobby, and Sears Hometown Store.
The sale of the mall has been in the works for about four years. A previous developer, Crosland Southeast, spent more than two years and $1 million working on the project before RealtyLink took over in September.
“This thing has been going a long time, and it’s really nice to see it come to fruition,” said David Wilson, chair of the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board.
Officials continued to describe the project as very complex on Wednesday, citing financing, covenants and deed restrictions, utilities, leases, and site plans, among other things.
“This is probably the most complex project that I’ve ever worked on,” said David Bradshaw of Pinnacle Bank. “This is transformational.”
Also part of Main Street Oak Ridge is a proposed four-story, 81-room TownePlace Suites by Marriott hotel on 2.6 acres at the corner of Wilson Street and Rutgers Avenue, near JCPenney. The Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission, which has also been involved in the Main Street Oak Ridge development, will discuss a site plan for TownePlace Suites, which could cost about $10 million, during a Thursday evening work session.
The TownePlace Suites will be owned by Chander Bhateja, who is also the developer and franchisee. Bhateja, an Oak Ridge resident, owns three hotels in Knoxville and others in the Southeast. He said hotel guests follow brands, and there is no Marriott brand in Oak Ridge.
“Main Street…will be unlike any other district in our trade area and in East Tennessee,” said Hardy, who pointed out that a development by Guilford Glazier at the city center site was, in 1954, the largest single commercial investment in Oak Ridge. Like Glazier and city leaders more than 60 years ago, Oak Ridge has again realized that “working together works,” Hardy said.
“Today, Main Street’s heart beats once again,” he said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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