I commented in a conversation on Facebook that I believe is worth sharing here. A local person started the conversation with a question (edited for brevity):
I was just looking over the updated plans for the next phase of the Jackson Square renovation. The parking lot will be completely rebuilt, and the latest drawings show a splash pad system to be installed in a center courtyard area. My thoughts are about the on-going Mall talks, and how we want to attract more retail to the area, yet in Jackson Square there are empty store locations, a few spots that desperately need work…
So my question to everyone is what do we call downtown? To me, the old Jackson square is technically downtown Oak Ridge, not the Mall, but most of the newer development is around the mall. Does Oak Ridge have an overall development plan for the future? Why work so hard on Jackson Square and then put all of the focus on the Mall rebuild? The mall conversion is basically a design patterned after what Jackson Square already is when you think about it. Could we attract additional construction near Jackson Square to expand the experience there?
Several others commented on bygone days at Jackson Square and the mall site, and another person asked “When is the second part of the renovation suppose to begin?”
The Farmer’s Market at Jackson Square can help define it as a village center.
As long-time Oak Ridgers know, the mall site used to be the “Downtown Shopping Center.” The location was designated to be the city’s commercial center as part of a master plan during the days of federal government ownership of the city. It’s still a logical location for major retail businesses.
In contrast, Jackson Square is currently envisioned as something more like a village center — a neighborhood where residents and visitors can walk between their homes, shops, eateries, offices, churches, entertainment venues, the Roane State campus, the Alexander Inn (soon to be a senior living facility), tennis courts, etc. The Jackson Square neighborhood has “good bones” — the potential to become one of those trendy in-town neighborhoods that many of us admire in other cities. The Jackson Square renovation is supposed to be a step toward making that vision a reality.
The start of construction at Jackson Square is delayed because the bids came in “too high.”
Question 5 from the Progress PAC was about City Council relationships with the Chamber of Commerce and “other business developers.”
Question: What relationship should the city council have with the Chamber of Commerce and other business developers?
My response: City Council should look to organizations like the Chamber of Commerce as good sources of insight and advice on the needs and concerns of the business community, as well as economic development and related matters. Similarly, I hope that organizations like the Chamber – and its individual members – will contact Council members (either individually or as a body) when they want to offer advice or advocate for particular concerns.
I support Mark Watson’s recent changes that ended the close partnership relationship between the City and the Chamber, replacing it with a relationship in which the Chamber is more like a service provider for the City. It appears to me that the Chamber can advocate more effectively for its membership if it isn’t also operating as a quasi-branch of the city government, and I believe that City government should not prefer any one set of businesspeople (in this case, Chamber members) over the business community as a whole. However, I know that the Chamber is often in a unique position to work with city government to perform functions that the city government needs to support, so the two organizations should plan to continue to do business together.
Question 4 from the Progress PAC is about housing. My responses are below. For blog posting, I’ve inserted a couple of hyperlinks into the plain-text response that I provided to the PAC.
Question: Healthy housing is important to a healthy community. What three specific actions would you take to enhance housing in the city?
1. We need greater demand for housing in Oak Ridge in order to stimulate investment in housing. The marketing study (and its followup) that I mentioned in response to question 2 is an important step toward building demand for housing in Oak Ridge. Increased investment in existing neighborhoods, particularly in the central part of the city, is particularly important. The plans to redevelop the mall property as “Main Street Oak Ridge” should make a contribution to stimulating demand for homes, particularly in the center of the city.
2. Owners and buyers of existing homes are in need of practical assistance and financial resources so that Oak Ridge homes from the 1940s through the 1970s (the majority of our housing) will have greater appeal to the next generation of homeowners. To help with this, I recently contributed many hours of my time to a cooperative initiative that developed a grant proposal to TVA to obtain funds for “extreme energy makeovers” on about 300 older homes in lower-income neighborhoods in Oak Ridge. If the proposal is successful, this program will reduce living costs for some lucky residents (more…)
The second question from the Progress PAC was about generating revenue for city services and schools.
Question: What is your plan to generate additional revenue to support or enhance city and/or school services? Give at least two specific examples.
1. At this time, it is critically important for the city to attract a new generation of residents to take the place of the city’s founding generations – and repopulate the homes and neighborhoods that they are leaving behind as they depart the scene. In particular, we need new residents who have both the financial capacity and personal interest to support our city services and our excellent schools. Success in this will require a coordinated strategy with many parts. To help ensure a successful strategy, I believe the city needs to get started with a third-party marketing study aimed at finding out what today’s younger generations are looking for in a community, why people who have located here recently have chosen Oak Ridge, and most particularly why some people who work here don’t live here. All of us have anecdotal information and pet theories on these topics, but I’m not aware that anyone has solid data. Consulting studies have a bad reputation (and, no, I don’t know where the money will come from to pay for this one), but I believe this is a study that we can’t afford not to do. It should go without saying that the community will need to follow up on what we learn from the marketing study, both with promotional efforts and with measures to enhance the attractiveness of the community.
2. User fees alone will not provide all the additional revenue we need, but they can help recoup the costs of certain city services. (more…)
This is a letter to the editor that I submitted to The Oak Ridge Observer on Tuesday. The editorial it responds to (expressing support for plans for mall redevelopment and tax increment financing to help pay for it) isn’t online, but the free paper is still on newsstands:
To the editor:
I thoroughly agree with the headline of your editorial of October 31, which declared “We vote ‘Yes!’” for the mall redevelopment plan and the proposal for tax incremental financing (TIF) to help pay for it. This is an extremely important project to revitalize Oak Ridge’s commercial core – something that has been needed for years. The TIF mechanism is a good way for the city and county to help the project financially without borrowing money or putting public assets at risk. The entire community should vote “Yes!”
I can’t agree, however, with your description of the TIF as a “discount” or an “incentive.” The TIF is not about enticing businesses to build stores in Oak Ridge. (Retailers should want to be here because they can make money selling products and services to local consumers. Not only do Oak Ridgers clamor for more retail, but we have some attractive demographics – like median household income 21 percent above the state average.)
This TIF isn’t about “discounting” Oak Ridge to attract business. It’s about local government leveraging its resources (specifically, the ability to collect property tax) to enable a private developer to help the city accomplish the critically important public objective of revitalizing our city’s commercial core (the mall site). It’s possible that an investor could have bought the mall site and reused it without the help of a TIF, but the community wouldn’t be happy with the kinds of uses that might possibly be commercially viable without the extra help. This proposed TIF starts a public-private partnership aimed at achieving our community’s goals for the mall site as well as the developer’s business goals. Here’s hoping it succeeds for both sides of the partnership!
The special meeting is about proposed amendments to the city budget for FY 2014, which starts July 1, 2013. The agenda for the meeting, plus backup material about staff analysis of the different proposals by council members, is online on the City of Oak Ridge website. Mayor Tom Beehan has asked to have discussion of the ideas before motions are introduced. Other council members are asking to discuss the budget-cutting items before the items that would add to the budget. 5:23 PM
Trina Baughn says her goal is to reduce the property tax rate by 5 to 10 cents. (The total tax rate currently is $2.39, per $100 of assessed value. Single-family residences, farmland, and forest are assessed at 25% of appraised value; commercial and industrial property is assessed at 40% of appraised value. She wants other Council members to state their goals up-front, too. 5:28 PM
City manager Mark Watson said that the last 3 years have seen a lot of shuffling of personnel in the city organization, during which time the city has maintained the same tax rate. He’s been wanting to keep the tax rate level. He hears in the community that people like the way things are going and think they get a pretty good bang for their buck in city government. Good things that are happening include 20% reduction in crime, the upcoming dog park, new roof at Woodland School, traffic improvements paid for by red-light camera money, etc. Finance director is concerned about not reducing reserves. 5:33 PM
Mayor Tom Beehan says people are happy with the services they receive. He doesn’t want to cut services or raise taxes. Cutting services or raising taxes would send the wrong message to people who are considering moving here. 5:35 PM
Anne Garcia Garland says our tax rate isn’t a problem. It’s not egregious. It’s not a burden on most people. It’s lower than a lot of rates in other parts of the country. City manager has been making some significant changes, trying different things, and we need to give that process a chance. He’s proposed some changes in his proposed budget. We’re looking forward to growth there. There are setbacks now due to the federal government, but this is the wrong time to be making cuts. Focus on how the city’s organizations and services are managed, not on cutting what we spend. Keeping our tax rate level for several years has meant that we are cutting things every year because the budget isn’t keeping up with inflation. 5:39 PM (more…)
My email to State Senators Randy McNally and Ken Yager:
As a scientist and an elected official in the city of Oak Ridge, which trades on its scientific reputation, I urge you both to vote against SB 0893, the “critical thinking” bill.
Professional science teachers and the scientific community as a whole correctly interpret this as a bill to legitimize the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, and other non-science-based worldviews as science, by relabeling the real science as “debate”. (Science teachers already can and do discuss the fact that scientific teaching may be at odds with what children have learned at home or in Sunday school — passing a new law won’t help them.)
Mere discussion of this proposed legislation is making Tennessee a laughingstock in the scientific community, both nationally and globally. Passing it will do real harm to the ability of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee to continue to represent ourselves as leaders in science and technology. Please vote against this, in the interest of the economic future of the city of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee.