By Steve Hunley
The Focus has reported on the proposed sale of the Andrew Johnson building and relocating the Knox County School Board to the vacant east TVA tower. We have been consistent in reporting this is not a good deal for Knox County taxpayers. It makes no financial sense to give up a building the taxpayers own out right and will receive only 23% of what taxpayers have invested in it for a building that the taxpayers have to lease and has security requirements that make it difficult for people to attend School Board meetings. If the TVA tower is such a great deal why has it sat unoccupied for the last fifteen years?

Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas has said he is fine to move to a different building but the vacant TVA tower is not a good choice for the school board. School system employees now have private offices and if they move to the TVA tower they become cubicle rats like in a Dilbert cartoon. The TVA tower is not as good a place for the school system as the Andrew Johnson Building is. What if there was another place that would be a good fit and would save the taxpayers a fortune?

As you may have learned last week, East Town Mall, also known as Knoxville Center, is closing along with Regal Cinemas. What you probably don’t know is that East Town Mall was purchased in 2016 for a third of its value for the amount of $10.1 million dollars. This past week it was reported that the mall is 19 months behind on taxes and maintenance and security payments.

Not only is the school board being asked to consider a new home so are the Knoxville Police Department and Knoxville Fire Department. And the idea of moving police and fire to the old St. Mary’s complex is a very expensive $45 to $65 million dollar expenditure, or worse. What if there was another place that would be a good fit and would save the taxpayers a fortune?

East Town Mall is so large and has so much parking it could house the Knox County School Board, the Knoxville Police Department, the Knoxville Fire Department, Knoxville City government, Knox County government, the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, some Tennessee State Offices, and even some Federal Government office. It would also have enough storage for all these entities. With that many employees there daily it could be a tremendous economic boost to this area of Knox County.

Why did East Town Mall die not once but twice? Crime. A criminal element came in and was so pervasive it could not be dislodged. Can East Town Mall ever be a retail center again? People have a “once burned twice shy” approach to having their car broken into or being the victim of strong arm robbery. Once is all it takes and they will never come back. The Public Relations story being put forth by mall owners is the mall is closing to be re-tooled a third time praying the third time is the charm. How realistic is that?

Let’s be pragmatic. The odds are very great that East Town Mall will never be on the tax rolls again. Since it can’t generate property taxes what can be done with it? It could be the anchor to create a new east Knoxville. Imagine, crime is the problem and you have the Knoxville Police Department and maybe the Knox County Sheriff’s Department there. Problem solved. Right off the interstate it is convenient to everyone in the county. It is very convenient to the Knox County Jail which would save a lot of money is gasoline expense for both the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. East Town Mall is so big the court system could be moved there too.

It could become a new beginning for this property. With this many people working there it would create the need for new neighborhoods, shopping centers, restaurants, and mix-use apartments that are the new fad. The mall is so big the upper floors could become apartments. Talk about a safe place to live. How about zero minute response time for law enforcement? It is so big it could house a medical clinic. It has before.

Before we get to far ahead, how much would it cost for all these governments to buy the mall? Most probably, equal to or less than the $10.1 million dollars that was paid for it. What would developers say about this idea? What would Knoxville-Knox County Planning say with the chance to have an opportunity to have a planned community? They would love it. The banks would too. Would it be a tide that raises all boats? Instead of a tide that helps TVA get rid of a vacant building while costing Knox County Taxpayers a fortune? Remember, UT is interested in the TVA tower and they can do it alone. They don’t need Knox County taxpayers to underwrite the UT move to the TVA east tower.

The mall is so big it could have a daycare for employees. It is so big it could have a school. It had a school until just recently. The question is simple; can it ever be a retail center again? The mall is behind by 15 runs and has two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the count is no balls and two strikes. Would you put a store in East Town Mall? No one else wants to. Isn’t it time to think of a new idea?

What about the old St. Mary’s? Where is it carved in stone the City of Knoxville’s job is to rehab old abandoned buildings that could require substantial environmental remediation? That is the job of the private sector. It would make a great veterans hospital. It would make a great place for all the mentally ill people who were forced out on the streets when Lakeshore Mental Hospital closed down so the people of Knoxville could have some prime parkland on the river. It could be a place for permanent supportive housing rather than taking park land from city residents to build expensive new permanent supportive housing. Let’s be realistic, once a hospital always a hospital. It is not the taxpayer’s role to bail out the old St. Mary’s. Contrary to what the current city mayor and her chosen successor think.

Another great benefit is the mall is much more ready to go for government tenants than St. Mary’s. This is where people need to think very hard. On Tuesday the people of Knoxville will elect their new city mayor. We have a choice of a business owner who can think outside the box and see value where others cannot. Or we have a grant writer who sees the world through the lenses of federal and state government grants.

Which of these candidates can see the value in a once in a lifetime opportunity to help the taxpayers at the same time?