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greenways

Chickens again?

Not your grandfather's chicken coopI posted on the Oak Ridge backyard chickens page on Facebook, and might as well repeat it here:

I voted for backyard chickens while I was on City Council.
I see this as one of several examples of new ideas that Oak Ridge needs to embrace in order to meet the needs and expectations of new generations of residents.

Before the early 1990s, I had never heard of greenways, but then I listened to people who supported greenways and got enthusiastically involved in developing Oak Ridge’s original greenways master plan — and I’m pleased with the continuing expansion of our greenways system.

Before about 10 years ago, I had never heard of dog parks (although I now realize I had experience as a dog owner with areas that could have been considered unofficial dog parks), but now it’s important for every community to have dog parks — and fortunately we finally have a good one here.

I guess I first heard about backyard chickens about 7 years ago (and was surprised by the idea at first). I see this as another new idea that Oak Ridge needs to embrace if we want to keep up with the times.

– Click on the “chickens” tag to see my past comments on this topic.

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Clark Center Park

CarbideparkpicnicareaThe future of Carbide Park (officially Clark Center Recreation Area) is on the city agenda right now.

It’s clear why DOE wants to get out of the business of running a community park, and it makes sense that they are offering it to the city of Oak Ridge. It’s a wonderful public recreation resource — 80 acres on Melton Hill Lake, with boat launches, picnic areas, ball fields, swimming area, fishing pier, and access to the Gallaher Bend Greenway. This is an asset that can’t be allowed to slip away. I believe it needs to remain as a public park — and the city needs to say “yes” to DOE. Trouble is that the city will face the same issues of cost and liability that DOE wants to avoid. There’s no room in our city budget to take on new obligations.

When I spoke at the August 25 public meeting, I commented that this is a regional asset, not just a local park, so the city should not “go it alone” in running it. The region should help support its operation and maintenance — maybe through user fees or an annual membership (much like the old days, when use was limited to employees of the federal agency and Union Carbide). It’s costly to hire people to collect fees, though, but there may be a way to implement electronic access controls (think EZ-Pass). I also recommended that DOE should share some of the money it will save by giving away the park with the city. A chunk of the $300,000/year that the federal government spends yearly to run the park would help the city take on this new responsibility — and DOE would still be saving money. There were many good ideas presented at the city’s public meeting on the park (a model for how a public meeting should run — an unstructured opportunity where people had an open-ended invitation to make comments). I think we can make this work — but the community will need to recognize that the taxpayers of Oak Ridge can’t be asked to pay the full cost of a quality public recreation resource that benefits the entire region.

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How East Tennessee stacks up against the world

Earlier this month, I attended the very interesting “East Tennessee Competes” conference sponsored by Plan ET. The moderator from the Southern Growth Policies Board, plus local economic development recruiters, local business leaders, and various community leaders provided perspectives on how the Knoxville metro area (including Oak Ridge) stacks up against the rest of the world in respect to things that matter to businesses considering new locations.
My notes say that site selection considers four key factors: Safety. Education.  Health.  Housing.
Health isn’t just health care. It’s also quality of life. In fact, healthy lifestyle is more important than access to care. Get people outdoors. Greenways, walking paths, etc. Our region stacks up very well in this area, but we need to promote it better in the economic development arena.  Also, we need to use it more. The crowd was asked to grade our region on healthy lifestyle, and gave our region’s citizens Cs and Ds for healthy lifestyle.
Education pays. There’s a $1.2 million lifetime salary  premium for a postsecondary degree. Our region has educational bright spots, but overall education is a weakness in the area. To prepare students for the workforce, Pellissippi State Community College is pushing career tech at that precollege level, as well as at PSCC..
Business community needs to identify the skills they need. That’s happening here. PSCC has put the 110 needs of auto industry into an online testing tool.
Businesses want quantifiable credentials.Good teachers are critical. Data are needed to know where each kid is and what they need.People all over the south are looking at Tennessee to see our innovation in K-12 education. Tennessee is truly a leader.
That leadership includes adoption of common core standards.The housing boom resulted in growth patterns everywhere that weren’t good for residents or government services: low density, narrow streets, etc. There should be a mix of housing options and socioeconomic status within neighborhoods.Someone asked about how business prospects react to homelessness. The surprising was that some businesses ask about how a community addresses its homeless population, because it’s a metric of how the community addresses its needs and problems. Cities and metro areas that do a good job addressing homelessness are also good places for corporate America to do business – who knew? Permanent supportive housing for homeless makes economic sense.Quality of life is critical for business . Business wants to be in sustainable communities.
This region is no longer competing across county lines. (Is that really true?)

Sites for large developments are a big challenge in this area, due to topography. Air quality is a challenge in recruitment.
Lifestyle initiatives here can be a big differentiator in recruitment. Urban wilderness project is big for Innovation Valley. (I wonder if Innovation Valley is sufficiently informed about Oak Ridge’s outdoor assets: Haw Ridge, North Boundary Trail, North Ridge Trail, rowing course, extensive greenbelts, Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement, etc.)

Change is coming in air travel. To increase their cost efficiency, airlines are giving up the 50 -seat planes and will be using more big planes (again). McGhee Tyson Airport probably will lose some flight frequency (that is, we won’t have as many flights), but will have the same number of airplane seats. Some other cities will lose service altogether because they can’t support big planes.

Someone said that airfares are a “killer” for our region in business recruitment. Knoxville is mostly a business airport, which means higher air fares. There’s not much leisure travel here. We need lower fares (to increase leisure travel and attract business prospects).

Asthma incidence is a challenge. Air quality is better, but asthma is up.

First question about trails is always about safety. More crime in the mall than on trails.

Parks are one of the most democratic things we do.

Airport is a pretty diverse place. Suggestion to document traveler diversity on the website.

Transit, access to greenways,  etc., are being asked about more by business prospects that Innovation Valley talks to. Van pools. Zip car.

Carole Evans said this region should market itself as “one big playground”. Pursue low hanging fruit in energy savings.

Energy is a regional strength for Innovation Valley recruitment. The prospects of small modular reactors, carbon fiber, and advanced materials are a positive. Innovation valley needs to hear from people.

Knoxville has been identified as one of three US metros to have recovered to pre-2008 employment status.

Business sees low educational attainment and inequity within the region as disadvantages. Alcoa (the company) thinks the region needs more diversity. The Alcoa rolling mill is cost-competitive, but energy costs here weren’t globally competitive for smelter.

The region needs more skilled workforce, such as electricians. Not enough young people are coming up to replace the skilled workers who are retiring. Skilled workforce is an issue for Denso.

Wampler is marketing globally. It costs less for Denso to produce product here than in Japan. Alcoa thinks globally. Cheap natural gas is now an advantage for the US.

ORNL’s impact on the region include its being major employer. Subcontracting is also a direct impact. R&D is a source of impact. ORNL has affected the industry mix in the whole region. ORNL is now working systematically to improve regional education.

Murray says education is economic development. Need people with communication skills in addition to tech skills. Still not seeing enough girls in STEM. Wampler is much more automated; this changes the workforce need.

Alcoa says companies need to emphasize sustainability. Reduce footprint. Wampler is pursuing sustainable energy.

Is “Innovation Valley” a valid brand? Alcoa says yes; energy is critical to their business and it’s happening here. ORNL’s Thom Mason says we have technology, but not they way some people think of technology these days because it’s not social media and it’s not much biotech. Our tech assets include high performance computing.

Panelists were asked “Do elected officials get it?” Wampler got government help for its solar project. Alcoa had good cooperation when the smelter was going to shut down.

Anecdotes from the panelists: When Anton of the Alcoa company moved into a global job for the corporation, he could choose between this area and several other cities, and he stayed here because his wife prefers Tennessee. You can find the best here, but it’s a mixed bag…. not all of it’s good.

The region is not doing as well as we should on education of workforce. Do well on quality of life. Region has good business infrastructure, including rail and barge.

Wampler’s father used to say he’d rather die by hanging in east Tennessee than die a natural death anywhere else.

Need education and diversity.
Thom Mason: a lot can be done in education outside of public schools.

We’re a whole lot better off than a lot of southern cities.

Need to think and plan long-term.

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Repopulating Oak Ridge

One of The Oak Ridge Observer‘s weekly questions for Council candidates was “What do you feel is Oak Ridge’s biggest problem? And how do you plan to try to fix it?”

My answer (75 words or less) was:

Oak Ridge’s biggest challenge is repopulating our neighborhoods to replace our founding generations (the people who arrived in the city’s first decades, built the city, and are now passing on). There is no simple solution. We must continue recent progress against drug crime and neighborhood blight, maintain excellent schools and services, revitalize retail, promote our quality of life, use “land bank” authority to rejuvenate homes and stabilize neighborhoods, and much more (see www.ellensmith.org/blog for details).

Now for those promised details…

Background. Our city’s founders were bright and hard-working young people who came from all over to help win a war, remained after that war in the government-issue neighborhoods and housing that Skidmore Owings & Merrill had laid out, and invented many aspects of community as they went along. They were joined over the post-war years by other young people much like them. Early residents treasured their government-issue homes and the unusually egalitarian neighborhoods (mixed by income, profession, and “social class”) in which they were set. These founding generations have largely “aged in place”, giving our city an unusually large senior population. No one lives forever, though, and these founders are leaving us. Most of their bright and hard-working kids — products of our city’s fine schools — have found opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. and the world, and they aren’t particularly interested in their parents’ homes.

The goal. As I see it, Oak Ridge needs to repopulate itself in the coming years — add new people in both the original neighborhoods and the newer ones that were built over the decades since the war.  Ideally we can find new residents of the same caliber of the ones who are leaving us. In particular, this means increasing Oak Ridge’s “market share” of the people who come here for new jobs, as well as attracting retirees and making this a “community of choice” for people throughout the Knoxville metro area.

Doing this means ensuring that our city is an attractive residential location, particularly for members of today’s younger generations who come to this area for jobs. New residents need to be attracted to inhabit existing neighborhoods, whether in well-kept older homes, homes renovated to meet the needs and wishes of new residents, or new houses built on “infill” vacant lots or to replace homes that aren’t good enough to renovate.

What we need to do. This is a big and complex challenge with no simple solution. (Goodness knows that I’ve attended numerous meetings about measures to help address various pieces of this challenge!) My answer to The Observer outlined some of my thoughts on what can and should be done. Here are some more thoughts:

* Confront the city’s negatives. This is the focus of city manager Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative — a collection of efforts aimed at eliminating conditions that are “turn-offs” for visitors and prospective residents. Talking to Oak Ridgers in this election season, I’ve been pleased to hear that people all over Oak Ridge are seeing real progress. More effective law enforcement has eliminated hot spots of illegal drug activity and is helping people feel safer. The enforcement of new ordinances on parking (no parking on sidewalks, no regular parking or storage of boats, RVs, and oversize vehicles on public streets, no parking in front yards except on legitimate parking surfaces, etc.) has removed long-existing eyesores from several neighborhoods, reduced parking-related conflicts between neighborhoods, and made it easier to use city sidewalks.

Those are by no means the only negatives to confront. There are other types of eyesores (like kudzu in greenbelts, other types of junk in yards, and weeds growing along the curb) that ought to be tackled. Lack of shopping opportunities is a longstanding concern that the new Kroger Marketplace will help to address, but will not fully resolve. Other types of negatives exist and should be recognized and addressed, such as people’s fears about living in a city that is a center for nuclear activities. I think that city leadership needs to identify and address the city’s negatives. It was to help address some negative perceptions that, during the 1990s, the Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) crafted a brochure and created a website to disseminate a positive message about the quality and safety of the city’s environment. As an EQAB member and contributor to that effort, I felt it was important for both residents and outsiders to know that the serious contamination that DOE is working to clean up is isolated to DOE-controlled areas and is (with few exceptions) not in our residential community. For example, almost all of the land we live on was never used for any kind of industry, the water we drink is clean (and obtained upstream from any federal facilities), and our environment is exceptionally well investigated and monitored, giving us a solid basis for being confident that it is safe (we know more about the safety of our environment than the residents of most U.S. communities do).

The rebuilt Cedar Hill Park playground is a positive feature of the city for new residents and old.

* Maintain and enhance the city’s positives. Positive attributes of Oak Ridge for residents include our excellent public schools, our full range of quality city services, our unique history, an exceptionally large amount of public open space for a community our size, an unusual array of human-powered outdoor recreation opportunities in our public open space and public lakefront (for example, the excellent rowing course, mountain biking at Haw Ridge, and many miles of greenway trails), the diversity of our population (people came here from everywhere and tend to be open to other newcomers), and exceptional arts/culture (think symphony, playhouse, art center, etc.) and adult education (think ORICL) resources for a city of our  size. The local legacy in science and technology is another asset that forms a basis for future job growth — an important ingredient of residential growth.

That’s a partial list of Oak Ridge’s positives — other people would add to it. We need to recognize these positives so we don’t neglect them, so we enhance them when appropriate, and so we can celebrate and promote them. City government has a particularly important part in ensuring that schools, city services, and recreation facilities continue to be positives for Oak Ridge.

*Improve the housing stock and our older neighborhoods. There are many positive qualities in Oak Ridge housing, but there’s also much room for improvement. On the positive side, much of our existing housing qualifies as “affordable” by most definitions of that term. Many homes — in all price ranges — are in locations (quiet, secluded settings; mountain views; etc.) that are prized in most real estate markets. There are many available lots in recently created subdivisions. On the negative side, today’s homebuyers are looking for features that often are lacking in our existing homes, many homes lack off-street parking, too many houses are in a deteriorated state due to neglect, and most of the very temporary units remaining from wartime (I don’t mean cemestos, but the more temporary housing that is concentrated in the Highland View neighborhood) have outlasted their useful life. Much of our existing housing lends itself to renovation/modernization (for example, the interior walls of cemesto homes are not load-bearing walls, so it’s not hard to knock out a wall to reconfigure the rooms), but the high cost of new construction discourages this. Neighborhood blight issues — including properties owned by negligent landlords — can discourage potential buyers, as well as owners’ efforts to improve individual homes.

Legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2012 authorizes Oak Ridge to establish a land bank — essentially, a nonprofit corporation that could own, maintain, renovate, redevelop, or sell under-utilized property in the city. This is not a cure for every issue with local housing, but it offers a means for keeping newly vacated homes from becoming low-end rentals and for reconfiguring existing homes and neighborhoods for new owners. City Council needs to work with staff to formulate a charter for the land bank that will ensure that it can work for the maximum benefit of the city and its citizens.

* Foster change to make the city attractive to new residents, including “millennials” and future generations. Tastes change over time, and a community that seemed ideal to past generations might not have any appeal for future generations. The “millennial” generation, including my 25-year-old son, has an overwhelming preference for walkable urban neighborhoods. Oak Ridge was like that in its early years when few people had cars, housing was clustered around neighborhood shopping areas to which residents walked, and buses took people where they needed to go outside their neighborhoods. Since then, we have lost the buses and most of the neighborhood shopping, and we have spread (yes, sprawled) away from the original compact neighborhoods. I support efforts to reconfigure and revitalize the Jackson Square shopping center and surrounding areas as a means to reinvent that area as the kind of place that younger generations will want to  be. I have been delighted to watch Jackson Square begin to become a center for dining — particularly for unique local establishments like the Soup Kitchen, Razzleberry’s, the Homeland Food Cafe, the Market House, and Dean’s Restaurant. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing — which is one reason why I am supporting amendments to city ordinances to ensure that restaurants that lack liquor licenses (under Tennessee’s difficult liquor laws) can allow patrons to bring wine to enjoy with their meals. The pedestrian improvements that the state and city have made recently around town, waterfront improvements, and expanded greenways also should help make Oak Ridge more attractive to rising generations. One of the reasons I’ve been engaged with the Plan ET regional planning initiative for the 5-county Knoxville region is my conviction that regional cooperation is necessary to position our city for the future.

* Tell our story effectively. If Oak Ridge is a great place to live, we need to tell the world (or at least the Knoxville metro area, particularly including new hires in Oak Ridge) about it. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau both are involved in crafting and communicating the city’s message (to businesses, prospective visitors, and potential future residents), but I’m not sure that we and they are doing the best job we could. I think the city needs to hear and consider new proposals (from these organizations and from others) for doing that job more effectively.

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Much good news in my e-mail inbox

Two bits of good news in a row:  (1) The Oak Ridge Revitalization Effort now owns the Alexander Inn and (2) an additional trail segment has opened on the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement in westernmost Oak Ridge. Hurray for the people whose volunteer efforts are making good things happen!

On the Alexander Inn, Kate Groover says:

It’s official. The Oak Ridge Revitalization Effort now owns the Alexander Inn/Guest House.

Plans are underway to begin cleaning up the grounds as quickly as possible. The Rogers Group is generously providing 250 tons of gravel to fill the stagnant swimming pool immediately and Robert McNabb is providing the trucks and labor.

We encourage all those interested in this property to join us in City Court on Monday, December 21 at 8:00 AM to show your support during the hearing scheduled to address current code violations.

On the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement, Tom Dunigan says:

For your holiday enjoyment, an additional 0.8 miles of trail have been opened in the NE corner of the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement. See updated trail map and Google maps at this page on Tom’s website.  The new trail includes the boundary gravel road section (0.3 miles) that descends toward Blair Road, connected back to the entrance gravel by 0.5 miles of single-track (Twisted Beech Trail). Trail work and design were guided by TWRA’s Jim Evans and Larry Creech with help from numerous volunteers.

Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement includes 3,073 acres on Black Oak Ridge and McKinney Ridge in the western part of Oak Ridge. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and DOE manage the site. It contains interesting community types and species such as hemlock-rhododendron forest, beech maple forest, cedar barrens, fringe tree, spider lily, spreading false-foxglove, white-topped sedge, Vaseys trillium, Tennessee dace and southeastern shrew. Some of these species are unusual for the Ridge and Valley region. The area currently has more than eleven miles of trails, mostly on gravel roads, which are considered moderately difficult. The trails are open daily from daylight to dusk, and are limited to hikers and bicyclists. No motorized vehicles or animals are permitted, with the exception of motorized wheelchairs and service animals.

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