Do You See What I See?

****Links and contact information integrated within this post and to the left***

December is, by far, my favorite month and this year is no exception. I have many reasons to be excited about Christmas, but I’m also finding many reasons to be excited about the future of Oak Ridge. At times, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the negatives, but there are a lot of positives to focus on, you just have to know where to look.

For example, with an eye on addressing blight, City Council recently approved (unanimously) the “Not in our City” initiative. Developed by city staff, it is a comprehensive approach that, over time, may very well change the Oak Ridge housing landscape. Can you see fewer slumlords and more young, vibrant families living here?

We can also appreciate that crime has truly become a major priority for city officials. In a very short time, our new police chief has implemented changes that have resulted in some highly visible and concrete results. Meet him just once and you’ll have no doubt that Chief Akagi is just getting started. Can you see so many officers and arrests that the druggies run away from (instead of to) our town?

You may be surprised to hear this one, but in stark contrast to what is going on nationally, economic growth has not totally shunned Oak Ridge. Drive from one end of town to the other with an open eye and you will spot some new and expanding businesses. But it’s what you don’t see that gives me hope about our future. And that future is right around the corner, literally; like, this weekend.

Starting at noon on Friday and running through the weekend, ORRE is putting on a European-style Holiday Market at Grove Center that promises to be spectacular! According to their website, you can expect workshops, Santa, kid activities and vendors selling a myriad of unique treasures. Shopping locally has never been easier or more fun! Can you see a giant gingerbread house?

Not to be forgotten, Jackson Square is starting to get some love from local officials. They are in the running for a TDOT grant that could provide much needed enhancements like street lighting, additional parking and ADA compliant elements. Such improvements may attract new tenants and will certainly benefit existing ones. Can you see Wildcat fans swarming in droves across the street to celebrate instead of going home immediately after games?

As evidenced by their presentation to council this week, the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board has done some phenomenal work in developing and recommending concepts for the new UT-Battelle funded pavilion at Melton Lake Park. Can you see your friends, family or church gathering on a sunny afternoon for a barbecue at one of the most beautiful spots in Oak Ridge?

Infrastructure costs, which are typically borne directly by the city, aren’t the most glamorous of investments and they surely don’t come cheap. Fortunately, the Industrial Development Board (IDB) recently agreed to offset the expense of an electrical switch, thus enabling Appalachian Underwriters to expand their headquarters here in Oak Ridge. In return, this company will commit to hire a set number of new employees, a percentage of whom must be Oak Ridge residents. Can you see 125 new employees heading right around the corner to have lunch at the newly improved Jackson Square?

Finally, it was announced this week that, upon approval from city council, the city will work with the IDB to assist local developers in constructing a “Woodland Town Center” directly across from the vacant Dean Stallings lot on Illinois Ave. The restaurateurs would invest $4 million to build an Aubrey’s restaurant, an expanded Panera Bread and a building for a yet-to-be identified third tenant. The city would need to make approximately $600K in street, electrical and drainage adjustments that would benefit not only these developers but the nearby home and business property owners as well. They hope to use Tax Incremental Financing (learn more about TIF via the links at the top left corner of my home page) to pay for these improvements which would put the burden back on the businesses who needed them in the first place. Can you see that during the worst of economic times, businesses WANT to come here and they WANT to grow here?!?!?!

Independently, each of these endeavors may not seem like much. But, when viewed from that infamous 10,000 foot perch, you might catch a glimpse of what our city leadership envisions. Combined, these opportunities offer the potential for increased consumer choices, increased jobs, increased city revenue and increased property value without increasing our budget, debt or tax rate. If these implications weren’t huge enough, consider one more possibility. Can you see the mall owner actually doing something when it is no longer profitable for him to do nothing?

Before you dismiss me as a Pollyanna, hear me out. There will be obstacles for sure; but, if recent council decisions are any indication, I am confident that they will work diligently to overcome them. I know from personal communications and watching them in action that each and every council man and woman wants a sustainable future for Oak Ridge. They have learned from prior mistakes and are ready to put the past behind them in order to move forward. I truly believe this.

So what can you do? Get involved! Start to learn more about these and other issues. Talk to your elected officials, city staff, chamber of commerce and other leaders. If they don’t support a particular initiative, find out what they do support that will fuel our economy and get behind them. I will post contact information, links and anything else that you may need to start digging into these issues on my website. Then, share what you learn with others. Can you see a brighter future for living, working and playing in Oak Ridge? I can!

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