Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image


On “the trail” again

I’m on the campaign trail again, running for re-election to Oak Ridge City Council. The city election is on the November 6 ballot, but early voting starts October 17, and people are starting to get seriously interested in the city election.The League of Women Voters is conducting a candidates forum on October 2 and Democracy for East Tennessee will hold another forum on October 9.

Much has changed in the 5+ years since I was elected…

Happily, I’ve met a number of people who are new to town in the last 5 years. I’m also very aware of the loss of many good people from our community and my personal life.

The economy tanked in 2008. Oak Ridge didn’t fare nearly as badly as many areas, and the community benefited from a Recovery Act projects at the local DOE facilities as well as in the community. City government has put off  addressing some deferred needs in order to avoid over-burdening our taxpayers.

A charter change in 2010 resulted in my term of office being extended by 17 months (it was originally supposed to end in June 2011).

City Council hired a new city manager. Several other key city personnel have retired or moved on, and have been replaced.

The Oak Ridge City Center (former Oak Ridge Mall) is looking even less viable now than it did 5 years ago, but the city is seeing new commercial vitality at Jackson Square and the Woodland Town Center development, and there’s a new Kroger Marketplace development on the horizon.

The city has been challenged by an EPA administrative order that requires big expenditures on our wastewater system.

The Knoxville metropolitan region, of which Oak Ridge is a significant element, is working together more than it did before.

… I could go on and on. I also could list some things that haven’t changed nearly as much as I would have wanted. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to serve my city as part of its elected citizen leadership for these 5 years, and I’m ready and willing to continue to address the city’s needs and challenges for another 4 years, if the voters are willing.


‘Tis the season for political signs

People have been asking me (and sometimes complaining) about the campaign yard signs that started popping up around town earlier this month. This is a perennial issue — see the June 2010 post “Signs Too Early and Signs Too Flashy” on this blog.

In no particular order, here are some answers to this year’s questions:

  • Yes, there are restrictions on these signs in the city of Oak Ridge. City ordinances (specifically, the “Sign Ordinance” section of the zoning code) tell where and when campaign signs can be displayed.
  • Yard signs can’t go up until 30 days before early voting begins in the relevant election. Since early voting for the August 2012 election begins on July 13, signs began to appear legally on June 13.
  • One of the races on the August ballot is a special election to fill the remainder of an unexpired term on the Oak Ridge City Council. This is the seat to which Tom Hayes was elected in 2007. After he resigned last year, Chuck Hope was appointed to serve until a special election to be held on the next regular election date. That turned out to be August 2012. The person who is elected will serve for just 3 months, as this seat will be on the ballot again in November when the regular City Council election is scheduled. Three Council seats (including the one that I hold) will be on the ballot then. I will run for re-election.
  • The two candidates in the special election for City Council are Chuck Hope and Trina Baughn. Both of them are also expected to be candidates in November. (In effect, they will be running for office from now until November.)
  • You shouldn’t be seeing yard signs for me or other November candidates for City Council yet. That’s because we won’t begin campaigning seriously until after the August election. (The situation of two elections 3 months apart is confusing enough as it is – it would only add to the confusion if we started campaigning before the special election!) We can’t legally put up yard signs until the date in mid-September (30 days before early voting begins for November).
  • A city charter referendum in November 2010 changed City Council elections from June of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years. City Council had nothing to do with initiating this. (In fact, I think most Council members preferred the old arrangement.) The proposal to change the election date came from an elected charter commission and it was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters. To make the transition to the new election schedule, the current terms of office for all elected city officials were extended by almost 1-1/2 years.
  • It’s been suggested to me that certain local candidates have signs that are too large, but my experience is that local candidates pay attention to the rules for the size of signs, so the signs they buy are in compliance.
  • Candidates’ eager supporters – for candidates at the national, state, and local level — are a different story. They often are unaware of the rules, so in every election some candidate signs pop up too early or in prohibited locations such as traffic islands or less than 15 feet from the pavement of an arterial street.
  • Not covered in the city ordinance, but something residents should know: Candidate signs shouldn’t be placed on private property without permission. Sometimes, well-intentioned people stick signs for their favorite candidates in the ground without worrying about property owner permission – and, remarkably, I’ve learned that some property owners leave those signs in place because they think they are supposed to accept them. (No wonder people gripe about campaign signs!) Other times, pranksters pull up signs and place them in different yards. If a candidate sign appears in front of your home or business, but you don’t support that candidate or you don’t want to have a sign on your premises, take the sign down. (Particularly if it’s a sign for a local candidate, it would be neighborly to contact the candidate or campaign and let them retrieve the sign.)

Busy evening

Tuesday evening shapes up as busy. First is a PlanET public forum, “What kind of East Tennessee do we want to pass on to our children?” or “Shared Values and Aspirations for 2040”, 5:30 PM at Anderson County High School. This is one of those events where people sit around a table and talk about their ideas, the comments get recorded, and finally all of the attendees vote on the top ideas. I find it interesting to listen to what people have to say. There’s some data on conditions in the 5-county region at http://www.planeasttn.org/, plus information on what people said at the first round of meetings — on the strengths and weaknesses of their communities and the region as a whole.

I expect to get to the forum for a little while, but I’ll need to bug out early for the City Council work session at 7 pm, back in Oak Ridge. I hope to see a lot of folks at Anderson County High School.


Part of Quincy Avenue to close next week

A press release from the City of Oak Ridge Public Works Department announces that Quincy Avenue between South Purdue Avenue and South
Illinois Avenue (State Route 62) will be closing on Friday, April 27, 2012, to allow construction of the Woodland Town Center commercial development, whose first tenants will be Panera Bread (relocated from its current site in Oak Ridge) and Aubrey’s Restaurant. Project construction will begin during the week of
April 23rd.

The date of the street closure is tentative, subject to inclement weather that could cause a delay. The street will be closed for approximately 4-5 months until a new street is constructed as part of the Woodland Town Center development.

The press release says “Motorists are requested to avoid the area. Motorists that use Quincy Avenue to access the Woodland neighborhood are requested to use alternate routes of travel.” I expect that most people who have used Quincy to get into the neighborhood will instead take either Rutgers Avenue to Manhattan Avenue or Lafayette Drive to Manchester Road.


Our once-a-year chance to get rid of household hazardous waste

Anderson County Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day

Saturday, April 14, 2012, from 9 AM to 2 PM at the Oak Ridge Public Works Building (behind K-Mart in Oak Ridge).

Household Hazardous Waste is anything generated in the household that has a hazardous property such as being flammable, corrosive, toxic or reactive with heat or contact with metals.

Hazardous materials that are accepted include: Household cleaners, drain openers, polishers, disinfectants, adhesives, strippers, thinners, paint removers, pesticides, herbicides, poison, fungicides, wood preservatives, automobile fluids, cleaners, and solvents, old fuel, and anti-freeze. Other household materials you can bring include: rechargeable batteries, Lithium and button batteries, pool chemical, old medicine/drugs, Aerosols, Compressed gas, and chemicals from chemistry sets or photo processing.

Items that they will not accept include: Paint, electronic, alkaline batteries, medical & Infectious Waste, explosives/ammunition, radioactive materials (including smoke detectors), automotive oil, lead acid batteries.

This event is sponsored by Anderson County Solid Waste Management and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. If you have questions contact the Anderson County Solid Waste Office, 463-6845


International Women’s Day Forum at Roane State Oak Ridge

This is a really impressive program line-up.

International Women’s Day Forum
Prepared Girls – Powerful Women
Friday, March 9, 2012
12:00 PM (Registration) to 4:30 PM
at the
Oak Ridge Campus
Roane State Community College

The forum is FREE.
Refreshments will be provided.
FREE parking is available in front of the facility.


  • Power and Priorities, Lori Tucker, News Anchor, WATE-TV
  • Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking: The Unimaginable Physical and Emotional Toll on Women and Girls, Silvia Calzadilla, Community Coalition against Human Trafficking
  • How Have We Gotten Here?!? The History and Politics of Women’s Reproductive Health Care, Corinne Rovetti, Family Nurse Practitioner, Co-Director Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health
  • Immigration: A Women’s Rights Issue, Meghan Conley, PhD candidate, UT Department of Sociology
  • Healthy Women, Healthy Children: Mental Illness and Substance Abuse, Freddie Nechtow, MS, Licensed Professional Counselor and Mental Health Provider and Rachel Cooper-Ross, MS, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Ridgeview
  • International Women’s Day 2012: The View from East Tennessee, Fran Ansley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, UT College of Law

Sponsors are Women’s Interfaith Dialogue Group, AAUW Oak Ridge Branch, League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge, and Altrusa International of Oak Ridge.


Oak Ridge Community Events for Martin Luther King Day, 2012

Oak Ridge commemorates King’s birthday in a big way, but lately it’s been hard to get the details on activities. To help spread the word, here’s an abbreviated version of a schedule that I received today. All items are supposed to be “no charge” and “no reservations needed” except where indicated, but I have a hunch that some of the others might not be free.

Wednesday, January 11
4:00 to 6:00 P.M. “The Labyrinth: A Spiritual Journey Workshop”
Hear the similarities between the principles and teachings of Dr. King and the spiritual journey experienced through the walking of the labyrinth.
St. Stephens Presbyterian Episcopal Church, 212 N. Tulane Ave.

6:00 to 7:00 P.M. Community Soul Food Dinner and Drama Presentation: “Martin and Malcolm”
Oak Valley Baptist Church, 194 Hampton Road

Friday, January 13, 6:30 P.M.
“An Evening with the Clinton 12”
Conversations with our own historic Civil Rights Trailblazers.
Organized by: Children’s Defense Fund ~ Haley Farm (Contact: Theresa Venable 865-457-6466) & Green McAdoo Cultural Center
Haley Lodge, 1000 Alex Haley Lane, Clinton

Sunday, January 15 (Snow date Jan. 22), 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.
Opening Reception, Ebony Imagery XIV: Black Artist of Tennessee
(Exhibition dates: January 15 ~ March 10, 2012)
Music by: AJ Toth, Pianist, Junior ORHS
Oak Ridge Art Center, 201 Badger Avenue

Monday, January 16
8:00 A.M. Annual Fellowship Breakfast
Speaker: Dr. Jody Goins, Principal, Oak Ridge High School
($5 charge for breakfast)
East Tennessee Family Services (Formerly YWCA of Oak Ridge), 1660 Oak Ridge Turnpike

9:45 A.M. The Community Speaks Program
Speaker: Benjamin J. Stephens II, B&W Y12 Plant American Museum of Science & Energy, 300 South Tulane Avenue

12:00 P.M., MLK Luncheon Program “Continue the Dream”
Speaker: Dr. Jody Goins, Principal, Oak Ridge High School
Midtown Community Center (formerly Wildcat Den), Oak Ridge Tpke at Robertsville Rd, Traffic Light #11

2:00 P.M. Personal Testimonies: “What Dr. Martin Luther King Means to Me” & Roundtable Dialogue, Jinx Watson, Moderator
United Church Chapel on the Hill, 85 Kentucky Avenue

3:30 P.M. MLK Reception & Fellowship
Theme: “Seeking Shalom”
Presentation of Humanitarian Award
United Church Chapel on the Hill

4:00 P.M. MLK Interfaith Closing Candlelight Ceremony ~ “A Call to Action”
Speaker: Rev. Leah Burns, Pastor, Haven Chapel United Methodist Church, Powell, Tennessee
An offering will be taken up for the Sallie McCaskill Scholarship Fund
United Church Chapel on the Hill

Saturday, January 21, 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.
Panel Discussion ~ Conversations on Race
“Education,” John Smith, Former Oak Ridge School Board Chair, Moderator and “Housing and Employment,” Ruby Miller, Local Businesswoman, Moderator
Oak Ridge Public Library Auditorium, Oak Ridge Turnpike


TIF for Woodland Town Center?

People are talking — and asking me lots of good questions — about the proposed Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) plan for the development of Woodland Town Center on South Illinois Avenue. I have some questions, too, but I can share some information and thoughts.

Decisions are coming up fast: The Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board holds a public hearing Monday (12/5) at 4 pm (not my notion of an ideal time for a public hearing) at the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Approval also is needed from both Oak Ridge City Council and Anderson County Commission. City Council addresses it on Monday, December 12 (7 pm at city hall) and County Commission expects to vote on Monday the 19th.

If approved, this will be Oak Ridge’s first TIF. A TIF is a development incentive, similar to a property tax abatement, but with features and restriction that (in my opinion) make it a better deal for the public than the tax abatements that Oak Ridge has used in the past. The idea is that the increased property tax collections resulting from a new development are designated to pay for public improvements to be built in the development area. The city (through the Industrial Development Board) would borrow money to construct improvements in the development area, and any increased property tax revenue from a defined TIF district would be dedicated to paying off that loan. When the public improvements are fully paid for, the property taxes go into the public coffers. As with a tax abatement, there are clear benefits to the developer.  Unlike a tax abatement, there is an explicit contract-type arrangement that sets out both the costs of the TIF and the benefits the community is supposed to derive from it. Also, Tennessee law requires that any TIF  be specifically approved by the governing bodies of the affected local governments (in this case, both city and county) whose property taxes would be dedicated to the TIF. (In contrast a city could establish a tax abatement that affects both city and county property tax without any county say-so — or a county could do that to a city.) I see TIFs as preferable to tax abatements because of greater transparency, the requirement for a public purpose, the clear definition of public costs and public benefits, and the requirement for approval by the elected officials of the affected local governments. Also, they don’t put property owners in the ticklish position of having to deed their property to an IDB (notably, the developers of the Holiday Inn Express that’s now under construction had to relinquish the abatement it had negotiated because it was preventing them from getting a needed loan).

This proposed Woodland Town Center development, between South Illinois Avenue and South Purdue Avenue, across from the former Dean Stallings car dealership, was approved and rezoned as a planned unit development a couple of years ago. Although it’s on the edge of the Woodland residential neighborhood, residents seemed pretty comfortable with the proposal because the developers have been sensitive to their concerns. The developers acquired several properties and took down the houses on them, but the development stalled with the bad economy. Now Panera Bread wants to move there in order to have a bigger location and more parking (Panera is very popular in Oak Ridge) and Aubrey’s Restaurant wants to establish an Oak Ridge location. Those two restaurants would occupy about half of the buildable land in the planned Woodland Town Center area. The TIF district would include the entire Woodland Town Center area plus some nearby properties along South Purdue and the former Dean Stallings dealership.

As people  have read in the newspapers, the public improvements to be funded by the TIF are removing the part of Quincy Avenue between S. Illinois and S. Purdue, building a new road between Illinois and Purdue that would connect up with Phillips Lane (a short cul-de-sac) on the north side of Purdue, installing a new stoplight on Illinois at the intersection with the new road (which would serve as the entrance to Woodland Town Center), storm drainage improvements, and some electric infrastructure. These clearly benefit the development, but I also see some direct benefits for the public at large. The road relocation should mostly eliminate the use of Quincy Avenue as a fast cut-through across the Woodland neighborhood — a benefit to that neighborhood. The storm drainage improvements are needed to correct chronic flooding that affects residents on South Purdue near Quincy. Additionally, the whole package benefits all of us by helping to ensure a higher-quality development than we might see if the developer and the restaurants had to foot the whole bill for the infrastructure supporting their project. I’ve heard from residents who are dismayed by the idea of another stoplight; it bothers me, too, but I’m afraid that it’s inevitable.  I keep hoping for an “intelligent system” to control the series of stoplights on South Illinois to help traffic flow more smoothly — not only to reduce drive aggravation, but also to make it easier for people to get to these businesses.

City staff has estimated the overall TIF cost at $605,000, and they estimate that combined city and county property tax collections would increase by $46,000 per year (split 50-50 between city and county, including $6,000 in tax on “personal property” of the businesses) as a result of the two restaurants, which means it could take 20 years to pay off the TIF.

People ask me if a 20-year payoff is a good deal for the city and county. I can’t say for sure because I can’t predict the future, but I’d be surprised if it took nearly the full 20 years to pay this off. Staff estimates $4 million private investment in the project. If that full investment got reflected in the tax assessor’s appraisal (it probably won’t), I guesstimate that it would yield twice as much property tax as they are projecting, so I am pretty sure that staff is lowballing their estimate of taxes in order to be on the safe side. Furthermore, if the rest of Woodland Town Center gets built or there’s new development on the Dean Stallings site, property tax from those projects would help pay off the TIF faster.

Staff also estimates an additional $165,000 in “direct and indirect” local sales taxes to city and county each year, over and above what Panera collects  now, which sounds like a valuable thing for the city ‘s coffers. I’m not entirely clear, owever, on how much of that sales tax goes to city vs. county vs. schools, and I don’t know what staff assumed to come up with that number. I want to know more about what they are assuming, because I want to make sure it makes sense.

Other questions I’m hearing:

* Why involve the IDB? It’s my understanding that state law authorizes IDBs to “do” TIFs, but they aren’t allowed for city governments, but I want to verify this.

* What risk do the IDB and city face if tax collections aren’t high enough to pay the TIF bills? I’m not sure — this depends on the form of the security that must be pledged to obtain the loan. Attorney Mark Mamantov explained TIFs to City Council a few months back; if I remember correctly, he indicated that the lender assumes most of the business risk on these deals.

* Why can’t the city insist that these restaurants locate in some of the vacant buildings we have here in town? In general, a government can’t tell businesses where to locate (at least not in the United States) — and it does seem that the two restaurants were attracted to this particular site by the developers’ conceptual plans for the project.

* What will happen to the building where Panera is now? I hope it will be reoccupied quickly. Panera has done very well there, so the location should be attractive to another eatery.

* How will this affect the value of other property nearby? The conventional wisdom is that this project should boost the value of unoccupied commercial property close by. Interestingly, I’m told that it’s also likely to increase the property-tax assessments of other commercial property. I hope it doesn’t inflate the already-too-high asking prices of some of the properties that are currently being offered for sale or lease — excessive prices seem to be one reason why some sites in town are chronically empty. I’m told that it should not affect the tax assessments for residentially zoned property in Woodland. However, there may be some adverse effect on value of the houses closest to the development. That adverse effect can be minimized if the developer does a good job of screening the property to reduce its effect on the neighbors — and for some residents, being close to attractive commercial businesses is a plus.

* Why is the Dean Stallings property part of the TIF district? The new stoplight would improve access to the Dean Stallings property, and could even allow development of a road to connect to undeveloped land behind it.  Because the Dean Stallings property could directly benefit from the TIF improvements, any increased tax revenue from its future use is legally eligible for use in paying for those improvements.

* If the project pays off early, can the tax revenue from the TIF district be used on another project in the district instead of being added to city and county funds? I don’t believe revenues could be diverted to new uses without approval of a new TIF, but this is something I need to know more about.

*Doesn’t subsidizing these two restaurants give them an unfair  advantage over existing local competitors? Maybe… The restaurants will not directly benefit from the TIF improvements, as those improvements will only build the kind of infrastructure every business needs. In general, however, locally owned restaurants (which I generally prefer over chains) are at a disadvantage compared with chains, as the chains (even a fairly local chain like Aubrey’s) have access to more management know-how, as well as high-visibility advertising that builds brand awareness. However, the conventional wisdom says that when there are several restaurants located in the same area, they all benefit. I believe that — if the restaurant where I wanted to eat has a long line or is unexpectedly closed, I like knowing that there are other good options nearby. More restaurants in Oak Ridge increases the chance that people will choose to dine here, particularly in the evening.

* Aren’t TIFs supposed to be used to help with development of brownfields, low-income areas, and urban redevelopment areas? It is true that TIFs were originally conceived (this was decades ago) as a way to help facilitate development or redevelopment of areas that could be described as “social challenges”. The concept has been adapted for other situations over the years, so that’s no longer true. Also, the TIF rules vary a lot from state to state.  In the future, I think that Oak Ridge could use TIF arrangements to help make good things happen in older commercial neighborhoods like Grove Center and Jackson Square.

* How will this affect the “City Center” (former mall) property? I can’t say, but I think this development is close enough to that property that the City Center would share in the general benefits to local business that are expected to result from this new development.

* Why would the City subsidize restaurants, since this kind of business that doesn’t generate high-paying jobs? It is true that the 100-plus jobs expected to be generated by this development are mostly fairly low on the pay scale, but job-generation is not the only purpose of economic development. Retail centers are important to residents and visitors,  the sales taxes they generate are an important source of local revenues, and there are plenty of people who would be happy to get those jobs.  Also, comparative statistics indicate that Oak Ridge is unusually well supplied with good-paying “primary jobs”, but it lags in offering the kinds of retail opportunities and eating-and-drinking opportunities that help convince well-paid workers and their families to live in a community. Most of the people I talk with would like the city to have more of these kinds of businesses.

What questions have a missed? What else should I be thinking about? (Please comment below!)


July 4 fireworks in the center of town this year (2011)

After a few years of fireworks over the water at Melton Hill Lake, this year’s City of Oak Ridge July 4th fireworks display will be shot from A.K. Bissell Park (the park area surrounding the Oak Ridge Civic Center) in the middle of town. The press release came out today and I figure I’d better post it here — every summer this blog gets hits from people looking for information on the fireworks show, so I figure I’d better post something.

The show begins at 10:00 p.m. on July 4th, 2011.

The city press release quotes City Manager Mark Watson on reasons for changing the location: “From a logistical standpoint, shooting fireworks at Melton Lake is a strain on our limited resources. Trying to keep a normal flow of traffic on Melton Lake Drive with spectators parked on the shoulders of the road is not only a physical challenge, but also a real safety concern.”

Also, he says: “The Oak Ridge Community Band will perform its annual 4th of July concert at
the Pavilion in Bissell Park beginning at 7:30 p.m. Families can come to the park, listen to a terrific concert, and not have to drive several miles in order to view the fireworks. It will be a great evening of family entertainment to celebrate Independence Day, and an opportunity for the community to share its patriotic pride.”

Parking will not be allowed on the shoulders of S. Illinois Avenue or Oak Ridge Turnpike. Both roads will remain open throughout the event. Badger Avenue (the road past the Oak Ridge Art Center, RFB&D, and the “peace bell”) will be closed from 9:30 pm until the show is over.

Staff says the best view of the show will be from the east end of Bissell Park. (I understand the show will be at the west end of the park, near ORAU Way — the road formerly known as Raccoon Road.)


Cedar Hill playground goodbye — and hello

Dragon and other play features at Cedar Hill Playground

Last day at Cedar Hill playground (1988-2011)

It wasn’t exactly crowded, but on Sunday afternoon Cedar Hill Park playground entertained several families visiting for the last time before it closed on Monday to be torn down and replaced.

It’s been a wonderful play space since 1988. My family is one of many that have fond memories of good times there.

However,  it’s showing its age — much like the kids who helped design it and build it in the 1980s. The wood is getting splintery and some of the play areas no longer meet current safety rules. That’s why it’s being replaced with a new similar “kid-designed” playground, once again to be built by community volunteers under the direction of Leathers & Associates. The new playground will be similar in design, but it will be built with recycled plastic lumber that should last about 50 years — and can be painted much more extensively than the pressure-treated wood used in the 1988 playground.

The community build will happen Wednesday, May 18 through Sunday, May 22. Hundreds of volunteers are needed each day. There are volunteer jobs for just about everybody — from actual building to child care (so parents can help build) to serving food to the volunteers. I hear that the Leathers folks know how to find useful tasks that even young children in the child care area can feel they are part of the construction process. Sign-up is on this webpage. The 12-hour work day is divided into three shifts: 8 am to noon, noon to 5, and 5 to 8 pm, and volunteers can choose a job that suits their abilities and interest.

I haven’t picked my jobs and times yet, but I know I will be there to help make a new playground that will be as great for tomorrow’s kids as this one was for my son and his friends.