In the latest attempt to purchase the dilapidated Harriet Tubman housing site, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke on Friday offered housing officials $1 million along with a 20-acre site that Howard School supporters had hoped one day would be home to their new athletic complex.
Berke called his second offer to the Chattanooga Housing Authority a "unique opportunity," returning to CHA the former Maurice Poss Homes property that the city had acquired just two years ago in a swap for another piece of property. Berke withdrew his original offer to purchase the 36.5-acre Tubman public housing site in late September 2013.
During talks last year with the authority, Berke said housing officials had expressed interest in the Poss Homes property to use for a future housing project. But at the time, Berke already had offered that property to the Hamilton County Schools.
Officials learned in the fall that the city had failed to pay more than $11 million it owed in liquor-by-the-drink taxes to the county schools system. Berke moved to start paying the taxes this year and to give the school system the Poss site, which has long been eyed as the future home for a replacement Howard athletic complex.
Berke also designated $500,000 to help start an early childhood center, but didn't commit to fully repay the $11.4 million the school system lost out on over the course of nearly a decade.
The mayor said schools officials decided late last year they wouldn't accept the deal. He said his office emailed school officials Thursday that the deal was off the table, but to contact the city if they had concerns.
No one responded, he said.
School board member David Testerman tells a different story about the failed deal. He said Berke has been trying to drum up a deal with the school system to get out of paying back the millions Chattanooga owes.
"They need to pay it to us. They have broken the law," he said. "And they're not willing to step up and pay us back. I think it's terrible."
He said the city is playing politics with the site, which ultimately would benefit students and the Howard community if the school system acquired it for a new stadium and fieldhouse. The city knows the county wants the land, and city officials appear to be holding it hostage, Testerman said.
"It's not blackmail," he said. "But it's not right."
The Howard community has longed for something to replace the current, decrepit football stadium where raw sewage bubbles up near the restrooms.
Several community members and Howard School Principal Zac Brown said they were shocked by the news that the city has offered the Poss Homes property to the housing authority.
"I'm very surprised to hear it," said Howard alumnus Reuban Lawrence. "It's very much needed, a new stadium over there for the whole community."
Meanwhile, CHA officials said they hadn't seen the city's new offer to purchase Tubman and wouldn't look at any deal until after the deadline to accept bids.
Following a Times Free Press story highlighting political delays, a confused vision and repeated inaction that led the agency to ignore millions of dollars in bids for the site in the past two years, the housing authority's board voted Jan. 28 to take over from the agency's executive staff the authority to consider every offer.
In turn, the board agreed to consider all offers on Tubman, whether for low-income housing or economic development as Berke and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce wanted.
CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright said she received an email from Stacy Richardson, chief policy officer for city government, to the housing authority's broker, Dennis Harris. But instead of opening the attachment she forwarded the email to Harris to maintain the integrity of the procurement, she said.
"The way we're doing it now is that we're asking people who want to make an offer to deal exclusively with our broker," McCright said. "We don't want to know about any of it until after the deadline."
After a failed attempt to sell the Tubman property to Chicago-based Lakewood Realty, the board reopened the bidding process through Feb. 14.
Staff writer Yolanda Putman contributed to this story.
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