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Liquor licensees — changing the rules in the middle of the game?

citysealAt tonight’s City Council meeting some rules got changed in the middle of the game.  That was unsportsmanlike — and it was not business-friendly.

Oak Ridge has an ordinance (dating back nearly 50 years) requiring that owners and operators of retail liquor establishments (liquor stores) must be city residents, unless Council votes to waive the requirement. And Council has routinely waived that residency requirement for everyone who requests a waiver. I’m not aware that anyone was ever denied a waiver — and very few liquor sellers actually live in the city.

Since we don’t require owners of any other type of business to live in the city and since the residency requirement hasn’t been enforced, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep it on the books. It’s just one of several antiquated ordinances related to liquor that need to be updated (a topic I’ve discussed with legal staff). But we have to live with it for now.

Tonight Council considered a request for a residency waiver and a “certificate of good moral character” from two young men (I think they are brothers) who purchased a long-operating local liquor store and needed city council approval in order to get a state license. All the usual checking of police records, etc., had been done to verify that they met the legal requirements for “good moral character,”  and one of the young men even told us that they used to live in Oak Ridge and hoped to move back here (from Knox County) after getting into business here.

I expected they would receive the approvals that are routinely granted to liquor license applicants, but it didn’t happen. One Council member said he wanted to support local small business, and he wasn’t sure he likes  the residency requirement, but he would vote against a waiver because he didn’t like the idea of waiving the residency requirement. He said he understood that it had been waived in the past, but he had never voted for a waiver and he didn’t want to start now. Another Council member apparently agreed with him and voted not to grant the waiver. Two “no” votes was enough to defeat the resolution because it needed 4 votes to pass, and there were only 5 Council members voting (Councilwoman Trina Baughn was absent and Mayor Warren Gooch had recused himself due to a possible conflict of interest).

So Council changed the rules in the middle of the game for these young men. And contrary to that Councilman’s recollection, he had voted for waivers previously. As recently as March of this year, he voted “yes” when 6 members of Council voted to waive the residency requirement for 7 applicants for new or renewed licenses. (It’s recorded in the minutes of that meeting.)

So two young men who invested in a local small business and were eager to get started are being told “no” because of Council members who decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. In my book, that’s arbitrary regulation — the exact opposite of “being business-friendly.” I hope that this action doesn’t lead to the closure of the store these young men bought.

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Both Jackson Square and downtown are important

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?”

Farmer's Market at Jackson Square

The Farmer’s Market at Jackson Square can help define it as a village center.

My response:
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.”

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Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

Building at Kareday ApartmentsQuestion 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?

Response:

Three actions:

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…)

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A bit of vision

Cedar Hill ParkNow that the deadline for answers to the Progress PAC’s questions has passed (and it’s no longer possible for candidates to copy off each other’s papers), I’ll post the responses that I provided to their questions. These were interesting questions — you don’t have to be a Chamber member to be interested in candidates’ answers.

Question 1: Please explain your vision for the City of Oak Ridge for the next 5 years.

My response: Five years from now I want Oak Ridge to be recognized as one of the most desirable residential communities (ideally, the single most desirable community) in the Knoxville metropolitan area. Attainment of this vision will require significant progress in retail development, housing/neighborhood quality, and effective marketing of the community. It also requires maintaining and enhancing the quality of our schools, public services and amenities, as well as minimizing increases in residential property taxes.

An additional vision that doesn’t fold easily into the above: I want the Manhattan Project National Historic Park to be up and running, with national park logos on highway signs leading into Oak Ridge, a revitalized AMSE that is successfully transitioning to nonprofit operation independent from DOE, regular tours (paid for by visitor fees) of Manhattan Project historic facilities, and increased visitor recreational access to federal lands (such as the Wheat community and Freels Bend) that represent the historical landscape where the Manhattan Project was sited.

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Mall site TIF is a partnership to achieve community goals

cityseal 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!

Ellen Smith

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Whither retail Part 2 – the 3/50 Project

The 3/50 Project is giving us all a simple recipe for preserving and promoting commercial activity in our communities: pick 3 independently owned local businesses that you would miss if they disappeared, and spend $50 each month at those businesses ($50 divided among all three). The basic idea is to commit a total of $50 each month to locally owned independent businesses.

The promoters point out that the money spent in independent local businesses returns more money to the community — in taxes, payroll, and other expenditures — than the money spent in big-box stores and franchises. (And the return to the community is infinitely greater than when we spend our money in out-0f-town businesses or online.) Ideally, it also means that local retail areas thrive because they contain one-of-a-kind independent businesses that  customers seek out. (This is particularly important for older shopping areas — like Jackson Square and Grove Center. )

All this is consistent with the concepts of a sustainable local economy and a sustainable environment — for example, the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board‘s draft climate action plan calls for “increasing the local velocity of money” (basically, keeping more money in the local economy and moving it around faster) as one strategy for making Oak Ridge more self-sufficient — and thus more sustainable. With the Jackson Square and Grove Center merchants, Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, and several other local businesses signed on as supporters of the 3/50 Project, it appears that different elements in the community are all together on this.

Thinking about the 3/50 concept, I quickly realized that some independent local businesses that are important to me are unlikely to get my business every month. For example, I’m wearing shoes that came from Edwards Shoe Store and I drive a car that was last serviced at Chuck’s CarCare Center, and even though I value these two businesses, I’m unlikely to spend money with them every single month. On the other hand, in any given month I’m likely to spend $50 or more divided between several independent local eateries (places like Homeland Food, the Magnolia Tree Restaurant, Mediterranean Delight, the Flatwater Grill, and the various Mexican restaurants). Most people are likely to have different “threes” in different months — and spend more than $50 in some months.

I’ve also pondered a bit regarding some of the 3/50 Project’s criteria  — for example, the idea that locally-owned franchise businesses don’t qualify because they have advantages, like preferred vendor lists, specially negotiated vendor pricing,  and a regionally/nationally recognized brand name, that true independent businesses lack. Franchises are less in need of customer support than truly independent businesses. However, if my goal as a city leader is to maintain a vital retail sector and keep money in town, I have to care about the success of locally owned franchises —  partly because they are more likely to succeed (and thus provide a stronger retail sector).

For me, the key idea of the 3/50 Project is that we consumers need to be conscious of where the money we spend is going to end up — and try to make spending decisions that keep more of that money in the local economy. I like having one simple message that tells us to do all that.

I hope that our local independent business owners will return the favor by paying attention to customer needs and wants (different operating hours to better serve two-earner households? offering special ordering to better meet customer needs?) — so we will have more and more reasons to spend our money with them.

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