KNOXVILLE — Marion County and Knoxville joined forces Monday to claim and develop the former Veterans Administration campus. Their alliance was forged in writing just days before a federal deadline to express interest in the abandoned 160-acre site.
City and county leaders met to approve a memorandum of understanding that commits the county to provide money for securing the 160-acre site and demolishing buildings on it. Knoxville will take the lead in razing structures and developing the land, which leaders see as a hotbed for housing and the tax revenue it will generate.
These plans hinge on the federal General Services Administration agreeing to work with the city, said Aaron Adams, Knoxville’s city manager. He’ll be in touch with the feds before 9 a.m. Friday to let them know that Knoxville is “in.”
“There’s a real appetite to have what I’ve been calling local control. There’s a real concern that if we let this property go, we’ll lose our ability to impact it for the future,” Adams told a joint meeting of the City Council and the Board of Supervisors.
“The VA campus will probably be our most important factor for our next hundred years,” he said. “Letting that property go to public auction allows for too much risk.”
The city’s interest will put any other GSA action on hold, Adams said. GSA just would want to know that productive discussions are taking place, he said.
The county, for its part, is eager to support the acquisition, demolition and development of the site, said Mark Raymie, chair of the Board of Supervisors.
“No one’s going to drop a bag of cash on us to be able to deal with this,” he said. “It falls to us.”
The county can borrow within its debt capacity to put up money for the project, Raymie said. According to the agreement, the county would own the property until the city can pay it back. The city will run point on development, and Council Member Megan Suhr said it has a clear goal.
“It’s important to get this back on to the community tax rolls,” she said. “To be able to develop housing and get more people moved into town and get those dollars back on our tax rolls will be a benefit for the entire community and the entire county.
“That’s our end game.”
Adams offered a blunt assessment of the site. The buildings are in rough shape, and it’s likely they’ll all need to be razed, he said. GSA has even told the State Historic Preservation Office that it should give Knoxville free rein to do just that, he said.
“Our expectation is that we will have to remove all the structures,” Adams said. “It’s good to have in our minds, from an expense standpoint, that we’re going to have to take down every building.”
After the meeting, Adams provided a sunnier outlook of what might rise in their place. It’s more than just taxable homes, he said. Those homes will keep people in Knoxville, benefiting local employers and the whole county, he said.
“We will not only reap those tax benefits,” he said. “We’ll have those children in our schools, we’ll have those folks in our communities to join our churches and our volunteer organizations. The benefits that will spill across the county.”
Adams and Mayor Brian Hatch said the county’s support was essential to the step Knoxville will take by Friday. If GSA agrees to negotiate with Knoxville, Monday’s agreement will be the first step in a long, costly process, they said. A GSA appraisal of the site set its value at $5 million to $8 million in the negative, Adams said.
“I think they’re aware of what they have. I’ve called it an albatross before,” Adams said.
“Hopefully we can put this thing together and make something great happen for the city of Knoxville and Marion County,” Hatch added. “We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t turn it around overnight.”