As a result of writing this blog, I find myself in a number of situations in which I’m out of my element. Yesterday was certainly no exception. I attended the meeting of the Industrial Development Board for the city of Knoxville. A few days earlier I didn’t even know they existed. They do, as it turns out and they sometimes make decisions that have a very large impact on us all.
The topic was the fate of an entire city block bounded by Locust, Cumberland, Henley and Church. The conversation in this particular meeting often veered toward high finance (the various projects under consideration range from $30 Million to $86 Million Dollars) then back to zoning laws, tax incentives and other complicated topics outside my experience. Still, it was an interesting meeting, full of dramatic moments and flashes of high tension.
A couple of the committee members who had backed the Gateway Project explained why this was the number one choice out of the five proposals submitted. They liked the fact that it preserves the old courthouse and that it would provide a bridge over Henley Street. They liked that it is a large, mixed use project and that the financing is in place.
That said, some of that doesn’t appear to be what it appears to be: As Greg (who attended the meeting) pointed out, the pedestrian bridge is essentially a private walk from the hotel in the development into the convention center. Also, after a little questioning, it became apparent the financing may or may not be there.
The Gateway representatives gave a brief overview of their experience and plans then got grilled by Annette Winston, a member of the board. She questioned the representation that these will be condos and was told the project might include “hotel condos,” and noted that this is the portion of the project Mr. Spillers would like to complete. You’ll recall, he’s the person who sent Gameday Condos down in flames.
It went on from there: They claim to have worked extensively together, but it seems less than implied. Harrison Street may or may not financially back the project. Gary Spiller is listed at the top of their organizational flow chart, yet they say he is marginal to the project and may not be involved at all. Which is it?
The other thing that became abundantly clear is that the condos or apartments, whichever they are, are intended to be student housing. Even though the proposal downplayed the issue, Jim Anthony in his presentation used the phrase “student housing” repeatedly. One of his partners explained that the target group would not be students who party, but rather “foreign students.” I know. I can’t explain it, I can only write it. Mr. Anthony suggested anyone concerned should look here for an example of their work.
In the end a decision was made to look further into the top two options I discussed yesterday. The Gateway Project will be considered the number one choice until it isn’t and the second choice will be given a chance to present their proposal in further detail. This is the plan presented by Ethan Orley and Phillip Welker.
Both groups were present for the meeting and each seemed to exit confidently. I heard a member of the Gateway Group acknowledge to Philip Welker that the project could just as easily flip to them. It was all very friendly and they continued the conversation on Market Square.
It appears certain no decision will be reached for sometime. The state has a deadline of November for the property to be transferred, but the board plans to ask for an extension. I hope it doesn’t all fall apart, but I’m very nervous about the Gateway Group. Perhaps their project would be great, but there’s just a lot that doesn’t seem to add up.