The mayoral candidate known for his clean image and crisp talking points deflected questions Friday about the Berke family's property holdings in areas of Chattanooga rife with crime and decay.
An opponent revealed last week that the Berke family owns a deteriorated apartment building in a gang-ridden part of Chattanooga, but a subsequent computer search of city records showed that isn't its only low-rent property.
The father and uncle of Chattanooga mayoral hopeful Andy Berke own about a dozen vacant properties in run-down neighborhoods throughout the Chattanooga area, from a garbage-strewn lot on Glass Street to a vacant Rossville Boulevard property on the south side of the tracks.
Records show that Berke himself owns only his home and a piece of his family's North Shore legal practice, though as mayor his actions directly could affect the value of his family's properties.
In response to questions about the properties, Berke campaign officials emailed a statement that underlined the candidate's commitment "to an ethical, transparent city government."
Guy Satterfield, who is also running for mayor in the March 5 election, called for Berke to disclose all of his family's land holdings, which could pose a potential conflict of interest if he is elected.
"There's a lot about this campaign that's cloaked; it's veiled," Satterfield said. "One of their four key points is transparency. OK, let's be transparent about properties owned and financial holdings."
Satterfield attacked the discrepancy between the Berke who has pledged to fight gang activity and the Berke whose family has an ownership stake in Woodlawn Apartments -- a deteriorated building that lies in one of the city's most intense gang hotbeds.
"If you concentrate on gangs and crime, if that's one of your leading issues ... that's a contradiction," Satterfield said.
Robert Chester Heathington Jr., the city's other mayoral candidate, on Thursday called attention to the Berke family's ownership interest in Woodlawn Apartments, best known for its drug deals and occasional violence.
He called on Berke's family to clean up the building.
In response Thursday, Berke's campaign issued a statement that read: "As one can see from examining property records, Andy Berke has no ownership in the Woodlawn Apartment Complex, either through a partnership or personally. He has no decision-making or management authority and has no personal connection to the property."
The family has declined to discuss what other properties it owns.
But a search turned up Berke family-owned lots on Dodson Avenue, Broad Street, McCallie Avenue and elsewhere. All have one thing in common: They're neglected. The largest is a 10-acre former amusement park on Glass Street that appears to serve only as a dumping ground for mattresses, bottles and buckets of waste.
"At various points in its history, this site has been home to an amusement park, and, prior to that, a drive-in movie theater," wrote architect David Barlew, who is working to help revitalize Glass Street as part of the Glass House Collective. "But without being told so, you'd be hard-pressed to know that from the look of things today."
Though the uninhabited lot -- which is just a few hundred feet from the derelict Harriett Tubman public housing complex -- is covered with garbage, the Berke family could see its property jump in value thanks to a revitalization effort under way on Glass Street.
Chattanooga already has set aside money for new streetlights, a new crosswalk, new bus stops and new planters, according to Teal Thibaud, director of communications for the Glass House Collective revitalization effort.
A new administration would have a chance to do even more.
On Main Street, which had a similar revitalization, even small vacant lots increased in value by hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 1.3-acre lot at 320 E. Main St. sold for $175,000 in 2006. In 2012, the same land sold for $575,000, more than tripling in value. The property at 26 E. Main St. sold in 1991 for $65,000. In 2007 it sold for $800,000, a twelvefold return on investment.
"East Chattanooga gets a lot of bad press and there's a lot of negativity in this area, but there are a lot of good things happening here," said Thibaud. "We're trying to help make Glass Street cleaner and more inviting."
Though Berke's father, Marvin, and uncle, Ronald, could benefit as a result of the city's actions, Berke's campaign did not directly address the potential conflict of interest. Instead, a campaign spokeswoman said that as mayor he would "ensure that there is a conflicts of interest policy for the mayor and also for other government employees."
"Citizens should trust that decisions are being made in their best interests, and we will work to ensure that there is not even the appearance of impropriety," the emailed statement said.
Messages left for Ronald Berke were not returned. A spokeswoman for Marvin Berke said he was unavailable.
Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker was one of the largest property owners in the city when he ran for the office, though many of his holdings consisted of office buildings.
When he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, Corker sold 36 office buildings and more than 250 acres of undeveloped property to businessman Henry Luken to avoid violating Senate rules on conflict of interest.
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...
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