The Observer’s Get To Know Your Leaders Q&A

The Oak Ridge Observer is currently running a series on elected officials in Oak Ridge. The following were my responses to their questions which ran in last week’s edition.


What do you see as a driving force in propelling Oak Ridge to prosperity in the next ten or so years?

The health of the national and regional economies will drive what happens locally. Tennessee is well-positioned to remain competitive because our low cost of living and minimal taxation attract people and businesses from other states. Oak Ridge would be wise to learn from our state’s model.

Much has been discussed about blight throughout the city. How do you define blight and what do you feel should be done to address what are considered blighted properties?

However one defines blight, the problem is best addressed through private transactions. The best governmental approach is to ensure fair and consistent application of the Housing Code. I am hopeful that our recent passage of the Rental Inspection Program will encourage increased responsibility among our landlords and, in turn, improve the conditions of deteriorated rental properties.

Should the Manhattan Project National park come to fruition, what do you want to see the city do to capitalize on those tourism dollars?

The Oak Ridge story has two key components:  the scientific  and the anecdotal. The Denise Kiernan story has demonstrated that the personal stories of the Manhattan Project workers and their families have the widest appeal.  A successful marketing strategy would emphasize the anecdotal and include measurable ways to capitalize on that draw. The Convention and Visitors Bureau needs to develop and implement a 10-15 year marketing strategy  that is revenue-focused, appeals to the broadest market segment and can demonstrate return on investment.

How do you envision the completed Jackson Square Revitalization?

I am excited about the progress we’ve already seen at Jackson Square. The state grant prompted new interest and investment which has resulted in a steady, bustling lunch crowd. With improved accessibility and an enticing water play area for children, I can foresee increased nightly and weekend traffic through new merchants and extended hours of the existing ones.  I can also see us capturing a tremendous amount of revenue from the ever-increasing crowds drawn in by our beloved Oak Ridge Wildcats!

Are there any particular businesses are industries you would like to see brought to Oak Ridge?

I welcome ALL businesses to Oak Ridge, especially those that rely on a private-sector customer base. Their presence would facilitate a path towards our independence as well as a buffer for our local economy during periods of instability.

Do you envision a way to make Oak Ridge a more business friendly environment and more competitive on the regional level?

The ongoing insistence by some that we put our image before the truth is wearing thin. The only way that council can contribute to making Oak Ridge competitive is to start listening to our constituents. When they tell us repeatedly that the city is too expensive and that certain decision makers are uncooperative or outright combative, we MUST listen and we must respond.

To regain their confidence and, thus, our competitive position, we must reduce the cost of doing business here for ALL, not just those whom we deem worthy of tax incentives. We can reduce our tax rate, fees and utility rates by eliminating the known waste and abuse found in both houses.

We must also jettison the people who have forgotten that they are public servants. We have some truly wonderful, dedicated, hardworking employees. But you know what they say about one rotten apple. All of council is fully aware that we have some bad apples. It’s time that we hold the city manager accountable for plucking them out of the barrel.

How would you attract new residents to Oak Ridge?

By making Oak Ridge more affordable. Our homeowners are paying the rack rate to live here. Many are leaving and more will follow if we don’t cut spending and reduce our taxes.

What can be done to attract younger families with younger children to the city?

In spite of possessing many of the amenities that we are told appeal to young families, we’ve been unsuccessful in attracting and retaining them.  A different approach is needed. I’m currently working on an initiative to market some of our under-performing assets  to a specific niche. I will share more details in the coming weeks.

The school system is the pride and joy of Oak Ridge. The high school debt is a black cloud looming over the city and the district. Allegations have been made by a former council member that the debt is ten months in default. Is this an accurate statement and how do you propose to fix the situation?

Any solution that does not fully uphold the referendum will cost the taxpayers more money. Therefore, mediation is not the answer. The evidence is irrefutable and commands  a swift, legal opinion from the courts.  The city has provided evidence on our website,, that unequivocally disproves the BOE claim that they are entitled to withhold the revenues collected from outside of the city:

In the May 17, 2004 video at approximately 37 minutes in, then vice chair Tracy Larabee says in reference to the anticipated county move to supersede, “Half of this debt won’t even be paid by residents of Oak Ridge….a lot of the funding will come from people outside of the City of Oak Ridge.” In that same video at approximately 44 minutes, then chair John Smith says that the BOE “fully supports the proposed funding model.” That funding model included monies collected from outside of Oak Ridge after the county superseded and is viewable on page 8 of Exhibit H where those monies were represented by the blue portion of the bar graph entitled “New Sales Tax Schools.”

Bullying in the schools seems to gain a lot of attention on the social media pages related to Oak Ridge. How do you feel we can best ensure that our students have a safe and comfortable learning environment?

First, city and school leaders can set the tone by sending the message that it is o.k. to talk about what is happening in our schools.  Second, we should equip school staff with the policies, procedures and resources needed for them to safely perform their primary job of educating our children. Third, we must unite as a community to address the underlying issues. Our culture has rapidly changed and our children face a myriad of challenges unique to their generation. Community initiatives like Not in Our Town are needed to engage our youth in ways that address their specific problems.


  1. The way to keep young people in Oak Ridge is to provide them with Jobs. No kid is going to graduate college and come back to Oak Ridge to work Fast Food or at Kroger’s for 7.00 an hour.

    1. But they young might come back and work off Dutchtown Rd or Cedar Bluff, happy and secure in their homes in Oak Ridge where the simply life is still simple (well, relatively…).

      I’ve lived here ten years now. VERY rarely had a job actually IN town. No biggie for me. I’d rather live here and commute than live elsewhere.

      But I also know how to balance my budget and live happily within my means. That plays a big role in the issue. You may see me happily working at some fast food joint one day. It can be kind of fun really – in some ways MUCH more fun than being a software engineer – and I can survive on minimum wage when it comes right down to it.

  2. Personally, I don’t mind living in a “bedroom community” where the city ‘backs off’ a bit in their involvement with commerce and industry. The market will bear out, in my mind.

    There are a few central lynch-pins that affect all these issues – integrity, honesty, and transparency. In-fighting (such as between the ORS and the City) causes us to loose our trust in the institutions and the people elected to run them. And it’s grossly apparent that the current mindset of some of our elected and appointed is “the less the public knows, the better”. We should be setting an example of the opposite – the USA needs a counter-example to the DHS paradigm.

    If you want people to live here, create a community based on noble ideals, a place where the residents feel respected, heard, protected. Build a paradigm that where people can trust and believe in their city, be proud of more than just “the cool new school”.

    What does it take do to this? In short, turning the focus of city efforts from “let’s promote business” to “let’s make sure the people who live here are happy”. Turn from “let’s attract the wealthy” to just “let’s be overall attractive”.

    BTW, Jackson Sq’s ‘upgrade’, although great in one sense, is completely counter to the concept of promoting Oak Ridge as a Manhattan Project NP. It’s like taking Perfect Arch in Arches NP and painting it. Sure it might look cool, but people are coming to see it in it’s natural state. In the case of our old town sites, upgrading them to look modern completely defeats the purpose of promoting them in their historical context. This mindset of “saving the historical value” was a driving force behind re-vamping the Alexander Inn. That mindset needs to be applied to the entire town.

    There’s a much bigger picture to Oak Ridge than just ‘sales tax’, ‘property tax’ and ‘local industry’, but we seem to focus so much on those three. Partially because over thirty odd years we’ve had our city mis-managed and our dollars squandered. We need to scale down, simplify, and re-focus.

    Folks, there is a global economic storm brewing. We will never ever again have the prosperity the baby-boomers had. Between population growth and loss of global natural resources, the entire planet is on the razor’s edge. Govts, from the city to the national level need to understand that we cannot keep spending, spending, spending and expect the people to keep paying and paying and paying – it simply is a broken formula now and will get increasingly more broken as the decades tick-off. As the ratio of govt/public grows, so does the ability of the public to supply tax dollars to run said govt. Look at the extreme end of the spectrum – 99% govt workers, 1% non-govt. How can the 1% possibly pay for the rest? In essence this path of large govt is a path to complete socialize where ‘the state’ is all there is.

    it’s time to tighten our belts and re-learn the satisfaction of simply pleasures. Our current path is like a social Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – the more our govts meddle to “improve things” the more they loose sight of the goal (look it up, those not up on historical physics). The more money we spend to fix an economic “problem”, the worse the problem gets, the more needs spent to ‘fix things’, the more entities have to be selfish to “survive”, and the cycle repeats into a positive feedback loop.

    the reason I’m such a big fan of Trina’s, is because I feel she also sees this larger picture.

    1. I agree with you almost entirely Mr. Howe. I take exception with your example(I realize it’s extreme) of govt. workers being paid by private workers. It seems you don’t think govt. workers spend money, pay taxes, buy houses and so on. I’m not sure where this way of thinking came from but it’s wrong.

      All the other things you said, I wholeheartedly agree with. I grew up in Oak Ridge and worked at the plants for a few years. Then I lived in Texas, Louisiana and Nashville. Each had their own charms but were too large for me to want to settle down. I came back home when my folks were getting along in years. My idea of a great town would be different from any of the others. I wish Oak Ridge had a town center, with unique shops and places to eat. Areas to walk around and look at whatever (can’t think of what yet). I like to think of people working in Knoxville and coming home to a quiet little community uniquely ours. I’m not very imanginative but some other people are and can come up with something. Back when I was growing up, each neighborhood had a grocery store, drugstore, playground and school. Why was that spoiled? I was thinking something for the whole town like that. NOT an auditorium on the lake and at the arboretum. Why block what’s left of our beautiful scenery? Throwing money at things never solved anything, it just makes folks think the powers that be are doing something. Most times they don’t have a clue what to do.
      You may be right about Trina, I go back and forth on her. We have to maintain our infrastructure, that hasn’t been done and now look at what we have to put out to fix the sewers. That is a prime example of lack of leadership and it went on for years!

  3. What will attract new/younger families to Oak Ridge? This is a topic of heavy discussion in my family. It has become even more of a topic as our utility bills skyrocket even higher. We are a young family already living here but after serving in the military and moving all over the world, the thought of moving again is not a scary proposition. I say this because the same things we are discussing in my house are the same things anybody thinking of moving here looks at. With the internet, getting cost of living info for various towns is very easy as well as the amenities offered. I like it here and mean no slander towards our community but Oak Ridge will spiral down if some changes are not made. Here is a brief description of how we view Oak Ridge today and where it is currently going. I’m sure our discussions are not unlike others or more to the topic, those considering Oak Ridge as a place to live.

    1. Our utility bills continue to go up exponentially faster than my wages. It was at the high end of “bearable” and with the recent vote, will soon climb above that threshold. The average person does not care what the EPA says or what the city did or didn’t do fifteen years ago. They care about what it costs them today and if the next town over is half the price, guess who wins.

    2. Shopping. We came here with a mall which at least had a handful of stores. Countless promises and excuses later we are down to two stores. As the mall continues to die, the only hammers raised to do anything for it is to put more boards across windows and to finally remove that crazy “renovating coming soon” sign on Illinois Ave after all these years. I hear more promises coming down the pipeline but will believe them when I see it. Until then I will continue to buy high priced gas and drive to Knoxville or Farragut.

    3. Holding the title as one of the highest price property tax rates in the state is not something to be proud of. No the amenities are not that much greater than surrounding communities.

    4. The school system here was once great. People seem to lock on the once part and can’t seem to look at the today and tomorrow part. It is still good but it is slipping. It is not a blue ribbon school anymore. When we have problems, there is an attitude of “why fix the best?” Until this attitude changes, and there is an understanding to be the best requires work every year, the schools will continue to slide down. I can give one example I ran into this year. I have a fifth grader who just started middle school. He had troubles adapting. Several teachers admitted to it being a problem throwing children at that age into a middle school environment. Oak Ridge is the ONLY school in the area to do this with fifth graders. While every official I talked with saw it as a problem and distracts the kids from learning, I also realized don’t expect there to be any talk of fixing it. I’ve ran into many more problems over the years but the attitude has always stayed the same. I bring this whole topic up as I hear all the time about the school system being a major selling point to attract newcomers. I’ve got news though, it is not a selling point and while not a bad school, it is average.

    5. Jobs. For the most part, Oak Ridgers face three choices. Work in fast food, have an off the wall degree with a top secret security clearance, or once again, buy high priced gas and drive to another town. The latter begins to really crack down on ‘if I have to drive “there” to work AND to shop, why not just live “there”?’ Oak Ridge desperately needs some good jobs for average people to make a decent living doing the rest of their life.

    6. Parks and bike lanes are nice, but they don’t pay my rising bills, educate my kids, or have a children’s department so I can buy clothes for them. They need to get their priorities straight. At least I would have an abundance of choices of parks to live in should I go homeless over the rising cost to live here. Lets face it, the shear number of acres we have in parks, every resident in town could go there at the same time and still have plenty of room to throw a football. How many baseball fields do we have and the expense of maintaining these? Has there ever been a need when all of them were filled up and in use?

    There is the core nutshell of what my family looks at here or any other community if we look to moving there. I think many in power within Oak Ridge have always lived here and may not have experience shopping for a new town to live. While family “anchors” may override ones decision to move or stay, it has no effect on “new blood” coming into a community. I’ve lived in 16 different communities in my short life. I’ve learned where the priorities are when looking to move.

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