By Tom Griscom
Publisher and Executive Editor
Building public confidence in government, particularly when taxpayer funds are involved, sometimes means sharing information that fully explains the decision process. To some in government it may seem tedious because those asking the questions —; the media —; are not experts in urban planning or environmental contaminants. All the more reason to be more than willing to inform the public.
The recent purchase by the city of Chattanooga of the Farmers’ Market on East 11th Street was a transaction totaling more than three-quarters of a million dollars. City Council members followed the appropriate procedures in deciding to purchase the property.
Mayor Ron Littlefield outlined his plans to place a homeless complex on the nine-acre site. He envisions a development that offers a comprehensive approach to homelessness in the community.
The mayor’s interest in the homeless issue is well documented and deeply rooted. He wrote about his own family connection with the issue, acknowledging that his father spent “some time as a homeless young man during the Great Depression of the 1930s. My dad worked himself out of his condition, but the experience never fully left him.”
There are events that shape people’s lives and for Chattanooga’s mayor, the image of his father’s homelessness apparently left an indelible mark. His homeless mission is grounded in personal experiences.
The Times Free Press reported last week that adjacent to the proposed homeless complex is a site that once housed a coal gasification plant.
“The Farmers’ Market, once the site of a 25-foot-deep clay-and-shale quarry, was used as a dumping ground for coal tar and other polluting by-products of manufacturing.” Times Free Press writer Pam Sohn found this information in a Superfund memo in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation files.
Ashley Holt, manager of TDEC’s Division of Remediation, told Ms. Sohn that “the site needs further testing and perhaps cleanup if people will live there. If the homeless shelter is a residential one, they will have to clean up to that (residential) standard.”
Mayor Littlefield, a former urban planner, noted that a lot of the land in Chattanooga has some type of contamination, but he said that is the case in most urban areas. He even pointed out that the Times Free Press is located in an area that is contaminated. The newspaper is in the vicinity of the Farmers’ Market.
Mayor Littlefield earlier said, “All the authorities think it’s something we can live with as long as we don’t disturb it.”
This is not the first time that the city of Chattanooga has been approached about acquiring the Farmers’ Market property. During the administration of Mayor Bob Corker, an idea was floated for the city to purchase the property, but no steps were taken to complete a transaction.
The city was planning a transfer station to handle garbage. One approach was to contract out the service, but there were others within city government who were interested in having a facility on 11th Street where trucks would deposit waste and then it would be transported to the landfill.
Then-Councilman Littlefield was one of several councilmen who suggested that the Farmers’ Market property be acquired by the city and used as a transfer station. While city officials at the time were aware of environmental issues at the site, no efforts were made to conduct additional tests on the site. The Corker administration did not seriously consider the 11th Street location, opting instead for a facility off Amnicola Highway. The city has a multiyear contract for use of the facility as a transfer point.
Issues involving the Farmers’ Market span at least two city administrations. When the city decides to spend $775,000 to acquire property that carries some environmental risk, it is appropriate to learn more and to ask for information that was part of the decision process. Mayor Littlefield said if remediation is required on the property and it becomes cost-prohibitive, then the site could be used for other purposes such as warehouses.
To some it may seem much ado about nothing, but to others, knowing that the investment is sound also is important. And it may be tedious at times to answer those questions, but that is what public service and public information involve.
To reach Tom Griscom, call (423) 757-6472 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org