Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise is buying 33 properties scattered around the perimeter of Tennessee Temple University, which is working to offload large chunks of its sprawling, crumbling campus to local groups.
But neighbors want to know more about the university's plan for its property, which they say could make or break the Highland Park community.
CNE will pay $330,000 -- about $10,000 per lot -- for land that includes more than two dozen residential plots and four dilapidated former dormitories. The nonprofit agency hopes to create affordable housing that will revitalize the Highland Park neighborhood, said Martina Guilfoil, new president and CEO of the local nonprofit.
"Most of them are vacant lots right now," Guilfoil said. "We'll be looking at developing single-family duplexes, either for sale or rental."
Guilfoil's plan is to create the type of high-density housing that could support retail and mixed-use development in the soon-to-be-abandoned campus complex, she said. The plan would be similar to what CNE executed on Chattanooga's Southside, which marked the beginning of a renaissance in that district.
The Ochs Center has said the Scenic City badly needs more affordable housing. The supply of inexpensive homes has fallen since 2000, according to a 2010 report, primarily because the cost of living has risen far faster than income in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.
For renters, the cost of living increased at twice the rate that median income has grown. But by using federal and private grants to offset building costs, CNE can provide lower-cost housing even in areas like Highland Park that have experienced growing demand recently, Guilfoil said.
"We have housing plans ready to go that we can use in these neighborhoods," she said.
Tennessee Temple's is attempting to dispose of acres of unneeded infrastructure that once supported 5,000 students. Following steady enrollment declines in the 1970s, the school this fall enrolled just 417 residential students, or 1,267 if online courses are factored in.
Structures around the university's perimeter, which is marked by an iron fence running through the middle of streets, are empty and dilapidated, or "a lawsuit waiting to happen," said nearby resident Terry Wheeler.
"My lawyer antennae quiver every time I drive by," he wrote in a email to a group of fellow Highland Park residents.
The university planned to tear down several dorms until CNE stepped forward to buy them, Tennessee Temple President Steven Echols wrote in an email. But even before Echols announced in September the university would move away and sell all its land, organizations from around the city had been busy cutting deals to make use of the school's surplus property and open up the fenced-off quad for other uses.
The university sold the former Tennessee Temple High School to the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy in February. A group of local foundations combined land on Tennessee Temple's east side to create the Highland Park Commons sports complex. And Highland Park Baptist Church, which formerly was tightly connected with Tennessee Temple, sold most of its property to Redemption Point, a Church of God congregation, and moved north to Harrison Bay.
Though a drive through the complex reveals empty parking lots and dark buildings, Echols said the school still uses all of its buildings "to some degree."
Even so, Tennessee Temple has signed a memorandum of understanding to move classes to Woodland Park Baptist Church in Tyner by fall 2014, and wants to sell the remainder of its 21-acre core campus in one big chunk, officials say. The university wants $20 million for its remaining land, which Guilfoil says will make it difficult to close any deal for the campus core.
That hasn't stopped Tennessee Temple from talking with potential buyers, including informal talks with the Tennessee Department of Correction, confirmed Dorinda Carter, a spokeswoman for the state agency. Tennessee Temple declined to discuss potential clients for the sale of property.
Neighbors say they hope the aging campus can be repurposed for a mixed-use retail development that leads to a Highland Park renaissance, in the vein of the city's Southside, North Shore and Main Street renewal projects. A state lockup in the center of their neighborhood would be about the worst thing they could imagine.
Mike Wilson, head of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, said hearing about the prison discussions had enraged local homeowners, especially after the school in the spring erected barriers to block through traffic in the neighborhood as part of what it called a "long-term commitment to the community," Wilson said.
"The overall mood within Highland Park has soured to the point with Tennessee Temple that we just want them gone," Wilson said. "People would line up with their cars and trucks to help them expedite their exit from Highland Park."
Neighbors aren't too keen on CNE's plan either, at least not until they've heard the details, Wilson said. Affordable housing sounds good in theory but Highland Park already has many affordable homes for sale, he said. Residents would question any attempt to build duplexes or other cheap housing that would dilute the character of the neighborhood, Wilson added.
Tennessee Temple officials say they've reached out to the neighbors but didn't hear back. Neighbors tell a different story. Wilson and others say the group has invited Tennessee Temple to their meetings but no one ever shows up. With little clarity from Tennessee Temple or any other organization, there's no way to know whether their next neighbor will be a prison or a Whole Foods, Wilson said.
"The campus itself, it's a wonderful opportunity for someone with vision and the financial resources to really have a positive impact here in Highland Park in Chattanooga," Wilson said. "But for now, as a neighborhood, we're in the dark."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315, or firstname.lastname@example.org.