According to a news story in Thursday’s Knoxville News Sentinel (“Horizon park option runs out”), HN Properties (headed by former auto dealer Herb Newton) was the prospective buyer of the Horizon Center industrial park in west Oak Ridge, and HN’s purchase option has expired. I don’t know what this is going to mean in the long run — and I don’t know what to make of the story’s being released on Thanksgiving Day, when few people are paying attention.
The Horizon Center is a beautiful industrial park. It was established with much political fanfare in 1997 (or thereabouts) on about 1000 acres of DOE (federal) land, to become a high-tech private-sector industrial park as part of an ambitious program of “reindustrialization” in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Only about half of the 1000-acre tract was determined to be eligible for development due to environmental considerations — much of the acreage is floodplain and riparian forest that has high ecological value. The lands earmarked for potential development are now owned by a subsidiary of CROET (although the Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board holds title in order to provide a property tax abatement on the site, CROET is the real owner). To foster reindustrialization, the Department of Energy gave the land to CROET and provided about $11 million in federal money for the construction of an industrial park. I’ve lost track of the other public resources that have been plowed into it over the years. In spite of all those resources dedicated to the park, only two industries have ever located there: Theragenics (large facility that never really operated and is now closed and “available”) and Philotechnics (smaller physical facility including its main corporate offices, in active operation). The scuttlebutt I’ve heard is that CROET set the price of the property too high for the market, so industrial prospects headed elsewhere.
HN apparently hoped to convert the industrial park to “mixed use”, including retail and residential uses in addition to industry. Before this could be considered, DOE would have to relax the deed restrictions requiring industrial use, which would have required DOE to produce a new NEPA environmental assessment (I guess this might be the “exhaustive environmental report” that Newton refers to in the News Sentinel article). The City would also have to change the land use designation and zoning. Nevertheless, the available land in this fine industrial park could not be promoted to industrial tenants for the duration of the real-estate option.
I hope the expiration of the option to purchase will lead to renewed efforts to market the Horizon Center to businesses that will create “basic jobs” for our community — the kinds of businesses and jobs that form the backbone of a community’s economy. Considering all of the expensive public resources that have been plowed into this property, I think the public should get the benefits that those resources supposedly paid for. And although people sometimes assume otherwise, industry is generally more compatible with protecting wildlife habitat than retail or residential uses. (However, AFORR, of which I am an officer, would like for the westernmost “development area” in the Horizon Center to be returned to federal ownership for environmental reasons. This area of about 35 acres is isolated from the rest of the Horizon Center and has had no infrastructure development, and developing infrastructure would be very costly in dollars, environmental impact, and the loss of a large segment of the popular North Boundary Greenway.)
The Horizon Center has an impressive-looking website touting the benefits of the site (“centrally located in the Eastern United States,” “state-of-the-art fiber optic telecommunications system,” “unspoiled greenspace with creekside walking paths”, etc.) and Oak Ridge (“more than 5,000 engineers, 2,400 scientists, 2,300 Ph.D.s, more than 9,000 college students majoring in science, math, engineering or information technology,” etc.). I look forward to renewed efforts to recruit business to the industrial park, instead of merely trying to sell it at a price that will convert public resources into a real-estate profit for CROET.