ABOUT THE CHATTANOOGA ISLAMIC CENTER
• The land, about 2.7 acres, was purchased on Dec. 17, 2007.
• The 22,000-square-foot center will include 12,000 square feet for classrooms, 6,000 square feet for a gymnasium/community center and about 4,000 square feet for the prayer area.
• It will include a kitchen and day care center.
• The circular, domed building has a diameter of 160 feet with a roof 35 feet high.
• The dome design fits with traditional Islamic architecture and is energy efficient.
Source: Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, Dome Technology Inc.
Construction is under way on Gunbarrel Road for what will become the largest center for Islamic worship and studies in Chattanooga.
Work began a couple of weeks ago on what's still pretty much a flat piece of land. Gravel and sticks form a huge circle, 160 feet in diameter, offering no signs or other clues about what eventually will occupy the 2.7-acre site on the corner of Gunbarrel and Standifer Gap roads.
It's not a secret, said officials with the Islamic Community of Greater Chattanooga, and most neighbors seem to know what it's going to be when completed.
Planning for the building was well under way last summer, when fear and mistrust in Murfreesboro exploded into opposition to construction of an Islamic center there.
Bassam Issa, a member of the Chattanooga nonprofit's board of directors, said the board members weren't concerned as they embarked on site work last month.
"I have lived in Chattanooga for 38 years; all my kids were born here," said Issa, also a local real estate developer.
"I feel like I'm Chattanoogan, a Tennessean and I'm an American," he said, adding that Chattanooga always has welcomed its diverse communities.
When completed in about a year, the $2 million Chattanooga Islamic Center will include a place of worship, a school and an activity center.
The center will accommodate at least 1,200 people. That's the group's estimate for the number of Muslims in the region, including areas as far away as Jasper and Cleveland, Tenn.
Gayle O'Brien, who lives across the street from the site, said she doesn't have any problems with the project.
"None of us [the neighbors] seem to be upset about it," she said.
She said she's against the building of a masjid in New York, near ground zero - site of the 9/11 terrorist attack - but this is different.
Right next to the construction site, Richard Puckett said he believes in freedom of religion, but is a bit worried.
"You hear so much right now about the Muslim religion [having] so many different values and beliefs," he said, quickly adding, "as in every religion," that he doesn't know what to expect anymore, from the people of Islamic faith and from his neighbors.
"I just like to live in peace and quiet," added Puckett who has lived there on and off for 45 years. "As a matter of fact, anything commercial would be upsetting to me."
It took three years to organize and raise money for the project.
"The Islamic community's need for a faith-based school, recreational opportunities for the young people and a prayer room prompted the decision to build a central location," said Issa in a prepared statement.
The community had outgrown a 2,000-square-foot building on Upshaw Drive they have used as a masjid - preferred by Muslims over "mosque" - since the mid-90s.
Islamic Community board member Dr. Arif Shafi said the facility was simply too small for larger celebrations such as Ramadan.
"During Ramadan we have to do it outside and if it rains, [the celebration] gets spoiled," he said.
ABOUT THE CENTER
The Chattanooga Islamic Center is being built by Dome Technology Inc., an Idaho-based company.
The airform roof will be built from the inside out, using weatherproof material attached to the ring beam footing, then inflated with fans, said Barry Ward, construction superintendent.
The Islamic Center will be "a nice-looking building," he said Friday at the construction site.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
The debate over the construction of masjids intensified last year when a group proposed building an Islamic center in New York, 600 feet from ground zero.
Opponents denounced it as an insult to the memory of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists.
In Dalton, Ga., Muslims built their present masjid in 2009, four years after first seeking its permit.
Though there was some opposition in 2005 because of traffic concerns, members of the Islamic Center since have said the community had been very supportive.
When the mosque opened next to Fellowship Bible Church, its pastor welcomed the church's new neighbors with an ice cream social.
In Nashville, the building of a mosque in an old movie theater complex drew little attention, The Associated Press reported earlier this year.
But in Rutherford County last month, a judge granted a motion that allows 14 new plaintiffs to join a lawsuit seeking to stop construction of an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro.
LOCAL MUSLIM COMMUNITY
Muslims have been in Chattanooga from at least the early 1950s, Issa said, but the numbers increased "dramatically" in the 1970s and 1980s when a number of professionals moved to the area.
Local Muslims come from many places - from Pakistan to Bosnia and include native-born Americans, Issa said. They can worship at mosques on Upshaw Drive, Central Avenue and in East Ridge.
Today, "we have a big number of doctors who work in almost every hospital or have their own practice, from pediatricians to cardiologists," he said.
The Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga practices and promotes a "comprehensive, balanced view of Islam," Issa wrote.
"We strive to embody the 'middle path' to which our scriptures call us, a path of moderation, free of extremism and representative of the Islamic vision of a healthy community."
He said the center has been in communication with some neighboring churches, working at building interfaith relationships.
"We are currently working together on ways to help the people affected by [last] week's severe weather tragedy," he said.