Note: This is a lightly edited version of a presentation that Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch gave to the East Tennessee Economic Council on Friday, September 9.
It is a pleasure for me to be here this morning as I begin my 22nd month as mayor and to share my thoughts about the positive direction of our city, and why that is important to you and your companies. First, I want to thank you for supporting Oak Ridge and investing your time and your money here.
My family and I have lived in Oak Ridge for 23 years. But my law firm, Kramer Rayson, has been involved in one way or another with Oak Ridge from its earliest days when our founding partner, Russell Kramer, received a call from an old friend in Washington. (Gooch tells a story about a telephone call with President Roosevelt.)
By any standard, the last seven days have been great for Oak Ridge and have increased the excitement that is being expressed about the momentum of our city.
First, demolition has accelerated at the old mall as construction for Main Street Oak Ridge ushers in a new and exciting era for our community. The tax increment financing (TIF) loan for Main Street had closed, and so has the loan for the new Marriott hotel that is being built. The importance of Main Street Oak Ridge to the image and self-confidence of our city and the economic vitality of Oak Ridge, Anderson, and Roane counties cannot be overstated. The success of Main Street and the continued redevelopment of our center city’s retail, residential, and commercial properties is my number one priority. We must work hard to maintain this momentum and take full advantage of it in the coming months. If we are successful, it will help you recruit the new workers you require for your businesses.
Second, LeMond Composites announced its licensing agreement with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and that the company is coming to Oak Ridge to manufacture innovative, high-volume, low-cost, carbon fiber in the Horizon Center Industrial Park.
Third, the National Park Service named Kris Kirby as the superintendent of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Fourth, the Oak Ridge City Council awarded the contract for the construction of the eighth lane for the Oak Ridge rowing course on Melton Lake, which will make it even more attractive for more and larger regattas and enhance its reputation as a top-tier rowing venue.
Fifth, the city and U.S. Department of Energy have held productive meetings regarding outstanding issues between the parties, including the new water contract for DOE facilities, the waste water discharge permit for Y-12 National Security Complex, the CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980) landfill review for the current waste disposal site, and the proposed Environmental Management Disposal Facility, or EMDF.
Sixth, last Saturday, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Oak Ridge Farmers Market, which has grown to be one of the most successful farmers markets in East Tennessee and is truly an Oak Ridge tradition.
Seventh, the Oak Ridge Community Band completed its 72nd annual summer concert season on Labor Day. The Community Band is a true Oak Ridge treasure.
Eighth, and last but certainly not least, our Oak Ridge Wildcats defeated Farragut last Friday night and are ranked second in the latest Associated Press high school football poll. Tonight, we go for our fourth win of the season against Anderson County High School.
All of this in the last seven days! And this does not include the groundbreaking for the Uranium Processing Facility Construction Support Building; the K-27 demolition celebration; the continuous announcements from ORNL about another milestone the lab has achieved that adds to its distinction; the overwhelming success of the new Calhoun’s restaurant, which opened in June; the scheduled opening of the new Hobby Lobby in the old Kroger center in early October; the construction of the new Sears Home Store; and the announcement that Dairy Queen is coming back to Oak Ridge.
Our city staff continues working tirelessly on grant applications with the state of Tennessee, private companies, and organizations for improvements to Blankenship Field, bike trails, and the Peace Bell, just to mention a few items.
Our Community Development department is also working hard to implement our current housing initiatives, the MORE2 program, and the HOME program, which have been funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency in the amount of $3.4 million.
The Land Bank, a 501(c)(3) corporation, continues its exceptions work in redeveloping blighted residential property that has been transferred to the organization by the city. At next week’s City Council meeting, Council will take action on the transfer of nine additional properties to the Land Bank, bringing the total number of properties transferred to 33. Going forward, the Land Bank will be an essential component of our housing initiatives as we address the lack of affordable and attractive housing. This is absolutely critical as thousands of workers come to Oak Ridge to build UPF (Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12). Just as thousands of people came to build, work, and manage the Manhattan Project and put down roots in this community that have endured for 75 years, we need to replicate that over the next few years with UPF, new employees at ORNL, and new physicians and staff at Methodist Medical Center.
The city continues to promote the “Oak Ridge Corridor.” This is Senator Lamar Alexander’s idea, and he is correct when he describes the unique concentration of brain power in the Knoxville metropolitan area as the “Oak Ridge Corridor.” Our city, Oak Ridge, is the heartbeat of that corridor. The Oak Ridge Corridor is symbolized the Pellissippi Parkway that runs through the Knoxville metro area and connects the nation’s largest energy laboratory in Oak Ridge to the Knoxville airport, and to the nation’s most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It is crossed by interstate highways I-40 and 75 and is at the center of two-thirds of the U.S. population. Beginning with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II, the region has become one of the United States’ most prominent centers for advanced research, development, and manufacturing.
This concentration of research and development has created an appreciation of the region’s brain power in a mix of homegrown and relocated companies, corporate headquarters, and manufacturers.
When we say “Oak Ridge Corridor,” we are not talking about renaming the Pellissippi Parkway, we are expressing our region’s greatest asset—the brain power grown and attracted here by our colleges and universities, major federal investments, and an increasing list of corporate headquarters and major businesses. You will hear more about this effort, which is being chaired by Councilman Rick Chinn, later this fall.
I am proud of our city’s accomplishments, but we clearly have challenges. Our population growth is stagnant. Based upon the latest demographic information that was supplied to be by The Strategy House, a leading health care consulting firm in Roswell, Georgia, the population in the Oak Ridge zip code, 37830, is only projected to grow by 553 residents by 2021. That is an increase of 1.8 percent over five years, or less than four-tenths of 1 percent growth per year. According to the Knoxville Business Journal Book of Lists, which relies on Nielsen Claritas, the city’s media household income ranked seventh in the five-county area of Anderson, Knox, Blount, Roane, and Loudon counties in 2012. However, it dropped to 18th in 2015. Based on the latest projections, it appears we are rebounding slightly in 2016.
This drop in median household income and the stagnant population growth is consistent with the recent experience of the Oak Ridge school system. Based upon information provided to me by Bruce Borchers, in 1996, Oak Ridge Schools had 4,900 students. Of those, 907, or 19 percent, were classified as economically disadvantaged. In 2016, the school system has 4,500 students. Of those, 2,400, or 53 percent, are classified as economically disadvantaged. Despited these challenges, the Oak Ridge school system remains one of the very top systems in Tennessee. I quote our friend David Coffey, who earlier this week wrote in The Oak Ridger: “Oak Ridge High School students’ ACT scores still rank above all but a few privileged student bodies; that means rich kids or the select brightest in magnet schools.”
The citizens of Oak Ridge have maintained and will continue their commitment to excellence in our school system, which spends at least $2,000 more per pupil than schools in Knox County, Maryville, Alcoa, Loudon, and Anderson and Roane counties. Likewise, our teachers and administrators have maintained their commitment to the principle that every child, regardless of his or her station in life, deserves the best education we can provide. Our school system is one of the most important assets we have in attracting new families to Oak Ridge. We need to take every opportunity to talk about awards and recognitions that our high school, middle schools, and elementary schools receive and competitions that they win.
Another financial challenge that we face is the loss of the Hall Income Tax revenue. The state legislature passed legislation that phases out the Hall Tax by 2022. The city has averaged about $600,000 in Hall Tax revenue a year. That is almost 3 percent of our current general fund budget. This means that when the Hall Tax is phased out, it would take a property tax increase of seven cents, at our current rate of $2.52 per $100 of assessed value, to replace it, or the sales tax generated from an additional $55 million in retail sales annually to replace that revenue stream.
Despite these challenges, the city has completed $23 million in wastewater infrastructure improvements, and we continue to invest in our schools, parks, bike trails, and recreational venues. Last year, our bond rating was upgraded from AA to AA+. Looking ahead, we hope to replace our 70-year-old water system, build a new Pre-k building to replace the 70-year-old structure it’s now housed in, and to build a long-awaited new Senior Center.
In my opinion, whether we can accomplish this in a fiscally responsible manner is dependent upon our ability to attract new families and new investments to Oak Ridge.
We are in a time of transition. Transition brings change! Change brings challenge, stress, and difficult choices. But we cannot run from change. We have to acknowledge it, own it, and deal with it.
Oak Ridgers have always been resilient, determined, and have risen to challenges, but we cannot do this alone.
Oak Ridge needs your continued help and support, and I am sincerely asking for it. Encourage your employees, at the very least, to consider living in Oak Ridge. It’s in your organization’s best interest and theirs because you will be helping to develop the next generation of unwavering support for DOE missions in Oak Ridge. Your employees and their families will enjoy a great quality of life, and it will significantly reduce their stress from commuting. We all know that traffic is going to get worse and commuting times much longer. For your employees who live outside the city, encourage them to be active in Oak Ridge civic clubs, organizations, and charities. By doing so, they will gain a new perspective and a greater appreciation for our city, and that is good for everyone.
For over 70 years, the best, brightest, most ambitious, hardest working, and patriotic women and men have worked and lived in Oak Ridge to insure that the DOE missions, our city’s quality of life, and the future success of our city and DOE were secured. Oak Ridge was created to be great, not average. Let me repeat—great, not average!
Our region, state, country, your companies, and my law firm have benefited from it. If we have 1) a vision to grow the city; 2) energy to promote Oak Ridge; and 3) a commitment to attaining our goals as a community, great things will continue to happen in Oak Ridge every day.
The great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith said,” There is a point in every contest when sitting on the bench is not an option.” Our city is now at that point. We need every one of you in the game promoting Oak Ridge.
Thank you. I’ll be happy to respond to questions and comments.
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