Historic area in Cleveland, Tenn., awaits its fate

Historic area in Cleveland, Tenn., awaits its fate

July 9th, 2012 by Randall Higgins in News

Broken windows and old brick walls from the former Hardwick Woolen Mill provide the backdrop for what was at one time a stage built to be part of a restoration.

Photo by Contributed Photo

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Questions and rumors swarm around the birthplace of industrial Cleveland these days.

But so far there aren't many answers about what's going to happen to the dozen or more city blocks between South Church Street east to Wildwood Avenue, King Edward Street south to 18th Street SE.

From the post-Civil War years through the 1960s, big plants creating textiles, chairs and stoves loomed over neighborhoods of small homes in what locals call South Cleveland.

But starting in the mid-20th century, some factories began to go out of business, leaving cavernous brick hulks. Others outgrew their old space and moved to new industrial parks.

Now Whirlpool, one of the last giants of South Cleveland, is moving to its ultra-modern and environmentally friendly plant on Benton Pike. And while city and county leaders are grateful Whirlpool is keeping those 1,500 jobs here, they're also looking for answers to a new question:

What happens next in an area Cleveland's working poor have always called home; where empty industrial structures -- some a century old -- dominate the landscape and where neglect and blight threaten to choke out the good that remains?

"The worst thing that could happen for the neighborhood and for the city is to do nothing," said Tom Wheeler, general manager of Cleveland Utilities and chairman of the Southside Redevelopment Committee tasked with helping to chart the area's future.

The committee is made up of business and community leaders, including a representative from Whirlpool.

Neat houses and well-kept yards often sit beside weedy lots and structures that look as if they may fall apart any day.

Not only industries but small businesses have mostly left, too. Some empty spaces once housed fast-food eateries. Among the remaining businesses are a hardware store that's been a Wildwood Avenue anchor for generations and a grocery store that closed, then reopened.

What puzzles Denis Collins is why he doesn't meet people willing to invest in small businesses. Collins is manager of the Bradley Initiative Credit Union. Housed in South Cleveland's former Blythe Avenue school, along with Head Start and other human resource agencies, the credit union is designated a Community Development Credit Union.

The CDCU designation comes from the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, formed in 1979 to revitalize poor neighborhoods. Most major cities, including Chattanooga, have them.

"As a CDCU, we can offer tax credits to anyone who comes in to revitalize a building or create work here," Collins said. "No one has ever approached us."

It could be that investors are waiting to see who goes first, Collins said. Or it could be that the shopping development nearby that includes Walmart and satellite stores discourages other potential merchants.

Another puzzle to Collins is why no one who lives in the area and maintains neighborhood pride was appointed to the Redevelopment Committee.

"It's just not smart," Collins said.

Professional planners, politicians, residents and even local industries are trying to figure out what happens next in the historic neighborhood.

"Who knows?" what the future holds, said City Councilman Bill Estes on a drive through South Cleveland, which is part of his district. "There are so many possibilities that could happen, or could not happen."

As he drives through the neighborhoods, waving sometimes to people he knows sitting on their front porches, Estes recalls comments he has heard from others: a school, athletic facilities, residential development or businesses.

The area is the subject of two planning studies.

The city-appointed members of the Southside Redevelopment Committee are just starting their work.

The committee is looking specifically at the Whirlpool site and its metal buildings, which extend for blocks.

"We have to work together as a community and with Whirlpool," Wheeler said. "It's not going to redevelop itself. Some vision has to take place at the community level."

So far the committee has met only a few times.

"Nothing is imminent," Wheeler said. "Whirlpool could be on the site for two, maybe three, more years."

Worries about more decline are already afoot.

"Empty buildings bring undesirable consequences to a neighborhood," Councilman Richard Banks said at a recent council meeting.

Southside residents are already seeing that. In December 2011, the big brick building that once housed the Cleveland Chair Factory burned to the ground. Investigators said one or more homeless people inside apparently let a fire get out of hand.

Mark Dunn and Mikel Ingram and relatives have been repairing the home of Dunn's father, which was built in 1926 on King Edward Street, a block from the old chair factory. The house has a new roof and new siding after someone tried to burn it recently. Some of Whirlpool's big metal complex sits just yards away.

"Some of the neighbors have heard there's going to be a park," said Dunn. "But I don't know," he said, reflecting the neighborhood uncertainty.

•••

The second study, under way for more than a year, includes all of Bradley County; South Cleveland is one of its focal points. McBride, Dale, Clarion Associates of Cincinnati is developing a growth plan aimed at the year 2035.

The company's Greg Dale told the City Council recently that a comprehensive plan will be ready in a few months for city and county approval. The plan is a guide on how to handle expected growth, based on today's industries from Volkswagen south of Bradley County to Wacker Chemical in north Bradley.

"A comprehensive plan is a statement of policy, a statement of intent," Dale said. "Our next step is drafting a plan and putting it out for public review."

Fliers distributed door-to-door in South Cleveland by the Tea Party of Bradley County, however, allege the 2035 plan is a pretext the city will use to take over the small lots and homes and demolish them in the name of preventing blight.

Mayor Tom Rowland and other city officials denounced the fliers as false and an attempt to spread fear, but Tea Party leader Donny Harwood said the assertion is true.

When asked for a comment about the fliers, people in the community politely said no.

Gale White, who sat on her front porch while a church group roofed the house, did express an opinion.

"It will all be how the Lord wants it to be," she said.