Ready the drums and let loose the war cries.
More than 15 years of political wrangling, federal legislation and grassroots efforts on building Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District into a 755-acre national park in downtown Chattanooga may have just been ripped from the ground as savagely as grave robbers once looted Native American ceremonial grounds.
Out of the blue Wednesday, city and county leaders acknowledged that they are abandoning a plan to close the 33-acre police firing range and give the land to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which includes the Moccasin Bend park site. Instead of building a new $5 million indoor shooting range on East 12th Street, our leaders will just upgrade the existing firing range — the one that sits smack in the middle of the Bend and the new park.
But this firing range plot isn’t just a few more acres. Sitting just above the toe of the moccasin-shaped river peninsula and snugged between Moccasin Bend Road and Stringer’s Ridge, this acreage is the single-most key piece of land to offer the public a park experience and link downtown Chattanooga to the Bend’s 12,000 years of Native American history and Chattanooga Civil War history.
Why? This piece of property and the adjoining Stringer’s Ridge offer the only logical acreage on the bend that would give visitors an entrance, a visitor’s center, a view and a North Shore greenway access that also does not compromise Native American burials, Civil War gun mounts and other archeological resources. It’s also the piece of land that would keep a park experience separate from our sewage plant.
And now, it’s the very piece that’s slipping away and breaking the dream of this jewel of a park.
What an outrage. How crushingly disappointing for thousands of area residents who’ve worked and cheered for generations to see the potential of Moccasin Bend park realized.
Park officials were taken by surprise at the news, yet they are taking an optimistic — albeit likely naive — view of what city and county officials in Wednesday’s Times Free Press tried to pass off as a money-saving, better idea.
“It’s a setback, but it may not be truly permanent,” said Kay Parish, interim executive director of Friends of Moccasin Bend. “It may be that in the future somewhere down the line they may be leaving the door open for us to talk to them. … We plan to meet with the mayors in September.”
Since the early 2000s, the city and county have promised the National Park Service it could have the firing range tract. Last year, local officials even agreed to give the land to the park once the new range was built.
Now this change of plan is anything but money-saving or better. Especially if anyone takes the long view — $55 million in yearly park-generated economic impact and 771 private sector jobs vs. $5 million to build a new indoor range and perhaps another $1.2 million to clean up the metal debris from the old range.
But long views apparently aren’t the strong suit of our leaders. Rather, they now plan to throw good money after bad to upgrade trailer bathrooms and classrooms at the existing firing range. And don’t you think park visitors will just love the realistic sounds of a firing range? And how quaint will be a park entrance right beside a sewage plant?
Last November, Sheriff Jim Hammond and state spokeswoman Kate Abernathy justified the $5 million indoor range cost by noting that scheduling is a problem at the existing range: It takes 48 days minimum to get 1,200 police officers on the Moccasin Bend range for at least eight hours, they said. And since the officers can’t shoot in the dark or in the rain, “there’s only one effective shift a day that can hold a maximum of 25 officers.”
Yet Wednesday, when city and county leaders were trying to justify abandoning the plan, they said they now believe police don’t want the proposed indoor range and it would be inadequate as it would “fit 25 shooters, while the current range fits 42 shooters,” according to a story by Times Free Press reporters Shelly Bradbury and Joy Lukachick.
Which is it, folks? And if the indoor range is inadequate, why has the city and county already spent $310,000 to hire an architect to design it, prepare the land and demolish existing buildings on a site that can be used 24 hours a day by the city and county’s officers, come rain or shine?
A little sticker shock for the cleanup of lead and metal debris at the existing range is understandable. But dropping of the plan is not.
The National Park Service cannot, by regulation, accept contaminated land that is unremediated, but Parish says one possibility is that Friends of the Park might raise the clean-up money with grants and donations from tribes and Civil War history groups and others.
Local leaders, in the meantime, should not spend one more penny on that existing firing range. Instead take the long view, for once. Win the war for Moccasin Bend Park and police training efficiency — not just this week’s budget skirmish.