From Brickbats to Kudos for Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

few months ago I wrote a column lambasting Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. I accused him of everything from being myopic and regressive to overstepping his authority. These condemnations were based largely on Burchett’s rejection in his budget of funding sought by Knox County Schools for much-needed teacher pay raises and new school construction.

Since then, however, Burchett has moved to redress his regressiveness on school funding and to proceed progressively on several other fronts. And so I need to make amends.

For starters, within a few weeks after giving the school system the back of his hand, Burchett reached a budgetary accord with Superintendent Jim McIntyre that provided an additional $3 million for teacher compensation. The two agreed upon the funding for a new $34 million Hardin Valley Middle School and a $30 million Gibbs Middle School.

The accord took the form of a Memorandum of Understanding that was approved by County Commission and the school board and included several other elements sought by Burchett. For one, the school board agreed to desist from what had become its penchant to seek more funding than the revenue growth generated by its fixed allotments of local property and sales taxes plus the state’s BEP school funding formula. The school system also agreed to seek a relocation of its headquarters from the Andrew Johnson building, thus achieving a Burchett goal to free that landmark edifice for private redevelopment that would further downtown revitalization and put it back on the tax rolls.

In backing a Gibbs Middle School long sought by that community but resisted as unneeded by the McIntyre administration, Burchett greatly augmented his good will in East Knox County. He’d already gained a lot by championing construction of a new Carter Elementary School in 2012 and paying for it with proceeds from the sale of surplus county property after the school board declined to fund it.

Whether by design or not, this good will gained in a section of the county that’s felt neglected has become political capital that’s furthering a recent Burchett economic development initiative to locate a business park on rural East Knox property, which majority sentiment in the area has wanted to keep rural.

With the support of Burchett’s predecessor, Mike Ragsdale, the Development Corp. of Knox County had invested $10 million a decade ago to acquire 340 acres of mostly farmland near the Interstate 40/Midway Road interchange. The Development Corp. had also accumulated an additional $17 million, primarily from the sale of property at its several other business parks, for the infrastructure needed to make the Midway site an attractive addition to its inventory of domiciles for job-creating businesses that was otherwise becoming depleted.

But the development of the site required its rezoning, which was resisted. When the rezoning came to County Commission vote in 2010, it was defeated by a 7 to 4 vote. Burchett, who was new in office at the time, pretty much sat on his hands, and his relations with the Knoxville Chamber, which is joined at the hip with the Development Corp., were chilly for quite some time thereafter. In this spring’s budget speech, however, the mayor went out of his way to salute the Chamber for its job recruitment efforts.

Now he’s out in front of the effort to get the Midway Business Park approved. “It’s going to bring good paying, high tech jobs. And for large tracts of land this is the last available area,” Burchett said on WATE-TV’s Tennessee This Week program recently.

The state’s commissioner of economic and community development, Randy Boyd, reinforced Burchett’s view in an appearance on WBIR-TV’s Inside Tennessee program. “We desperately need a new industrial park in Knoxville,” Boyd said. “When I see new prospects coming into the state, they say they want a 200- to 500-acre site with Interstate and rail… Knoxville’s not even in the game because we don’t have that kind of site. It’s sad to see my home county not participating.”

The outcome when County Commission votes again, probably in December, seems assured. Even the East Knox, Eighth District Commissioner Dave Wright, who spearheaded the opposition last time, now says, “We’ve got kids graduating every year from Carter and the Career Magnet Academy who’ll be looking for a job. I’d rather see them on the Midway Road exit as opposed to Hardin Valley.”

I also was unaware until just recently of the initiatives Burchett has taken in building infrastructure—specifically roads—in other sections of the county. Three projects funded entirely by Knox County stand out:

• A $5.3 million widening of the two-lane stretch of Parkside Drive between Mabry Hood Road and Hayfield Road, which has languished as a bottleneck between Parkside’s highly developed arterial to the east and west.

• $4 million for completion of a Karns Connector to provide a link between Oak Ridge Highway and Hardin Valley Road that avoids a one-lane railroad underpass.

• A multi-phase $35 million extension of Schaad Road from Oak Ridge Highway southward to the junction of Middlebrook Pike and Lovell Road. This represents the largest locally funded highway project ever undertaken in Knox County and perhaps the state. When completed by the end of the decade, this four-lane parkway will provide an alternative way to connect from I-40 at Lovell Road to northbound I-75 at a small fraction of the cost of the billion-dollar I-75 bypass known as the Orange Route that has thankfully been nixed.

While I don’t share Burchett’s goal to become the first Knox mayor ever to avoid any tax increase, he’s done a lot more to back development throughout the county than I had previously given him credit for.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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