Knox County Eyes Land-Swap Deal to Place Walmart at Nicholas Ball Park (Updated)

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Update 11/9/15: Knox County has withdrawn its rezoning request, killing the project.

Update 11/1/15: According to Knox County spokesperson Michael Grider, the county is going to ask MPC to delay considering the park zoning change until next year because they’ve decided to wait until after the holidays to hold the public meeting.

Walmart’s frenzy of “neighborhood market” expansion has touched yet another nerve locally, as a developer has approached Knox County about building a grocery store on part of what is now a neighborhood park in the Ball Camp area near Karns.

County and Metropolitan Planning Commission officials say Gusto LLC wants to build a 46,000-square-foot grocery store at the corner of Ball Camp and Middlebrook pikes. Gusto has the same address as Chattanooga-based Hutton Co., which custom-builds stores for national chains like Family Dollar and AutoZone. Gusto is one of several LLCs with almost identical names seeking to build grocery stores in Tennessee. Other LLCs also affiliated with Hutton, most of them with names including the word “Polestar,” are building dozens of grocery stores across the South; those that have been identified are all Walmart Neighborhood Markets, a smaller model that Walmart is promoting heavily as sales slide at its superstores. MPC planner Michael Brusseau says Gusto has never identified the retailer, “but everyone seems to know it’s a Walmart.”

Gusto has asked the county for 7.5 acres of the 28-acre Nicholas Ball Park—directly across the street from Ball Camp Elementary School and a few blocks away from a Food City supermarket—to accommodate the new store.

In exchange, Gusto has taken out an option to buy 103 acres of farmland for a new park on Hardin Valley Road near the intersection with Marietta Church Road, says Doug Bataille, director of parks and recreation for Knox County. The grocery store project would eliminate one of Nicholas Ball Park’s two soccer fields and a small parking area, but would not affect softball fields, the playground, or the adjacent AYSO youth soccer fields, he says.

Many local residents have heard something about the possible new development, and the public response is mostly negative. A “Save Nicholas Ballpark from Walmart” Facebook page has more than 1,300 likes, and on Thursday residents of nearby neighborhoods such as Trails End and Denton Place offered to take petitions opposing the deal to their neighborhood association meetings. County Commissioner John Schoonmaker says the proposal was a hot topic at a community listening session held by several of his fellow commissioners earlier last week, although he noted several misconceptions: Many people seem to think the new store will be a Super Walmart and that it will take all of Nicolas Ball Park.

For the project to proceed, the park land, as well as three houses, would have to be rezoned from agricultural to general business, Brusseau says. The area’s sector plan would also have to be amended from low-density residential and greenspace use to commercial use, says MPC senior planner Liz Albertson. Both Gusto and the county have requested the changes, but this week asked that the commission delay considering it until December, he says.

Michael Grider, communications director for Knox County, says the delay was requested so a public meeting could be held to explain the proposal and answer questions. This meeting is not only “very much desired” by county Mayor Tim Burchett and County Commission Chairman Brad Anders, it’s also required by the state and federal government because Nicholas Ball Park was acquired using federal funds, Bataille says.

The land was purchased in 1978, with half the cost covered by a federal Land to Water Conservation Fund Grant of $72,182, Bataille says. The county can’t sell it for another use unless it acquires a park property of equal or greater value and acreage. State officials have done an official review and indicated everything looks good so far, he says. Still, he adds, “This process will not go fast. It will take at least a year to get approval.”

Bataille says he would like to have held a public meeting earlier, but the Hardin Valley property was also being considered as a location for the new Hardin Valley Middle School. The land, which had been advertised for sale by the Long family, is at 11952 Hardin Valley Rd. (Bataille says he’s not sure how long the Gusto option lasts; the company first made the offer to the county about six months ago.)

Officials in the county purchasing department have recently indicated the land doesn’t look favorable for the middle school, “because other properties are probably closer in and easier to develop,” Bataille says, so a November public meeting will probably be held on the park proposal.

The park is not the only controversial spot Walmart developers have pursued in East Tennessee this year. Hutton-affiliated limited liability companies, which build stores to company specifications and then lease them to the retail tenant, also set their sights on a North Broadway location. That project would involve demolishing a century-old Craftsman home to make way for a Walmart Neighborhood Market parking lot. Another neighborhood market, which has not yet prompted any high-profile opposition, is planned for the intersection of McKamey Road and Western Avenue. A Super Walmart is believed to be angling for a site in Blount County next to the last drive-in movie theater in East Tennessee, whose owner says its bright lights would put him out of business.

Kim Trent of Knox Heritage says Hutton officials told her last month they are abandoning plans for the North Broadway store, which met with opposition from neighbors concerned not only about the Howard House but also about traffic impacts. Brusseau says MPC has never received any official application or site plan related to that store.


NEWS_1029_NicholasBallpark1Brusseau says MPC staff is “highly unlikely” to recommend approval of the zoning change Gusto requested, which would allow the store to be built with no further public review. It also wouldn’t be required to submit a site plan with details such as whether the store would have a fuel center, Albertson says.

“We will more than likely recommend a planned zone, in which there would be a traffic study,” Brusseau says. Traffic already backs up when school lets out, and a nearby railroad crossing worsens the problem. “Then results of study would be incorporated into that plan review process. That’s where we’re heading.”

Ashley Thrift has lived across from Nicholas Ball Park for most of her life, and her daughter now plays softball there just as she did. In her letter to MPC protesting the project, her biggest concern was “traffic in that area and down Ball Camp is already beyond the level of dangerous…. The line to pick up and drop off children at the school sometimes reaches Whitmont Road.”

Anders says because Ball Camp Pike is already slated for widening to four lanes, with construction planned to start within the next 12 months, traffic shouldn’t be a big obstacle.

Brusseau says MPC has already received a lot of correspondence from neighbors like Thrift protesting the project for its impact on the park, traffic, and character of the neighborhood.

Josh Ballard wrote MPC in an email, “My 6-year-old daughter plays soccer there, plays on the playground, rides her bike, we take walks … we’re all over that park and I do not want to see any part of it go away,” noting that there are multiple grocery stores and Walmarts nearby already. “WE DO NOT NEED A COMMERCIAL PROPERTY IN PLACE OF OUR PARK!”

But Lynn Davis, commissioner of the AYSO Region 275 soccer organization that uses adjacent fields, says development at that busy intersection may be inevitable. “I think it’s almost an offer they can’t resist,” she says. Although she says she’s concerned about the store further complicating traffic around Ball Camp Elementary, she also sees new construction as a source of local jobs.

“If it was bad for families, for kids, (or) for exercise, I would jump on that band wagon (against it) so fast,” Davis says. But she trusts Bataille, who used to coach for AYSO 275 and lives in the area. She finds the new park possibility intriguing and notes that most people in West Knox County are used to driving to parks anyway.

Still, she does have questions she hopes will be answered during the process: Will the Walmart be open all night? If so, will that create dangers at the park? Will the park be fenced to keep children playing there separate from the parking lot?

In fact, Bataille says the county has talked with Gusto about maintaining the walking loop, which currently wraps around the soccer field that would be destroyed, and also tying it to the sidewalk. Preserving the loop would make it hard to gate the park off from the grocery store and the existing Weigel’s, which would remain.

Davis notes that Karns maintains a rural feel, and the land swap may set up a kind of showdown between Karns and the richer Hardin Valley neighborhoods that would benefit from the big new park. “You’re taking this part of West Knoxville that still has this small-town feel, and people are willing to fight for that small-town feel,” she says.

Swapping Little for Big

NEWS_1029_NicholasBallpark3While neighbors of Nicholas Ball Park are mostly focused on the drawbacks of the project, county officials are also excited about the possible benefits.

“From (Mayor Burchett’s) perspective, he has long had a position of taking publicly owned property, and if it could be better used in private hands, getting it back on the tax rolls, using it to fund schools and other projects,” Grider says. “Here in this situation we’ve got a piece of property that is currently being used as park land and it could be put to higher use by opening it up for commercial development, and at the same time we have potential to take 8 acres of park land and leverage it for over 100 acres. That makes a lot of sense, especially because that (Hardin Valley) land is potentially undevelopable” because of the slope.

Not everyone agrees that commercial development is a boon to the tax base. In an email to MPC, Jake White argued that while rezoning might increase county tax revenue in the short term, commercial development might eventually drive down the value of the many nearby residential properties. “I am concerned in the longer term a rezoning like this could actually lead to increased property taxes due to the eroded tax base,” wrote White, whose family lives off Ball Camp Pike.

From a recreation perspective, Bataille is enthusiastic about the big park the land swap could provide to a rapidly-growing part of the county with almost no parks.

As envisioned, the new park would include two soccer fields close to the road, and the rest would mostly be hiking and biking trails, Bataille says. “The acreage climbs up to a gorgeous hill view into Oak Ridge,” he says. A dog park and disk golf could also be included.

“As a whole, you look at Hardin Valley, and you would think a lot of people would support having a park in such a high growth area,” Bataille says.

The soccer field at Nicholas Ball Park that would be eliminated by the new grocery store is used mostly by FC Soccer Alliance. Bataille says the league supports the possible land swap because they would appreciate the two new fields in exchange for the old one (although it’s likely the Hardin Valley park would not be developed for some time).

The complex at Nicholas Ball Park actually includes three properties: Two soccer fields, parking lots, a playground, and a tennis court owned by the county; four softball fields that are privately owned and leased by the county; and soccer fields closer to Hitching Post Road, which are leased from the school by the county but operated and maintained by AYSO.

There is recent precedent for this kind of park sell-off: About six years ago, the county sold another soccer field across Middlebrook Pike that was once part of Nicholas Ball Park and used the money to buy 32 acres from the Knoxville Utilities Board on Hickey Road about half a mile away. That park, which is in the final planning stages now, is supposed to be a new passive park nearby with trails that will be built this year.

Anders, who represents the district that includes Hardin Valley and Karns, says he has heard “a lot of feedback” from residents who are mostly opposed to the swap. He says he hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether he supports it.

“As a county business deal, it’s a good deal,” he says. “As far as how it affects the community, we’ve got to measure that.”

Updated 10/28/15 to include more details about the rezoning process, the previous proposed Walmart in North Knoxville, and to clarify the park’s location.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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