Nine Chattanoogans hold the future of the Chattanooga Village project -- and, perhaps, the long-term economic viability of the Hixson area -- in their hands tonight. After deferring the vote for two weeks, the members of the Chattanooga City Council must decide in this evening's meeting whether to rezone property so Chattanooga Village can be built.
The council members will choose between either granting the wish of an elderly property owner to improve the lives of thousands of people or succumbing to a spurious smear campaign led by disingenuous menaces who want to crush the project.
Jack Lonas, the 84-year-old widower who owns the vacant 190-acre tract near state Highway 153 and Boy Scout Road, wants to sell his land. He also wants what's best for the Hixson community.
In an open letter to Hixson residents, Lonas said that after the loss of his wife, he decided to do something with the land that would have "a lasting impact on the community and provide something for generations to come."
At this point, Lonas can do one of three things with the land:
1) He can keep the zoning as is and sell the property to residential developer who would put over 700 homes on the land. This option, Lonas points out, would leave "little to no existing green space and [create a] major disruption of wildlife."
2) He can clear-cut the trees on the property to make a profit on the timber -- an option that would require no permission, but would create an eyesore and possible environmental harm.
3) He can have the land rezoned and work with developers to create Chattanooga Village, a green-friendly "mixed-use development plan which incorporates existing natural features with housing, dining, corporate office space and retail options not currently available in the area," Lonas said.
Lonas supports the Chattanooga Village plan because, with its promise of up to 280 apartments, 500,000 square feet of retail space and 250,000 square feet of offices, "it will be a place of lasting significance."
While Lonas and the developer behind Chattanooga Village have listened to comments and questions in 18 public meetings and made 30 changes in the plan to make sure the project has addressed all concerns, a faction has worked to kill this exciting dream.
CBL & Associates Properties Inc., the corporate owner of Northgate Mall, doesn't want to see hundreds of homes, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic growth come to Hixson. That's because CBL's leaders are opposed to the competition Chattanooga Village could create for nearby Northgate.
In an attempt to stall the project, the greedy mall development conglomerate enlisted Waterhouse Public Relations firm to inflame concerns about Chattanooga Village and lobby city council members to vote against the zoning necessary for the project.
A Waterhouse employee worked with North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy, a band of environmental activists, to exaggerate environmental fears associated with Chattanooga Village and attempt to sway public support away from the promising development.
As a part of the effort, Waterhouse distributed the green "Don't Chop the Hilltop" T-shirts that are often donned by opponents of Chattanooga Village. Further, a Waterhouse employee circulated questions critical of Chattanooga Village with audience members before a recent public forum about the project. Meanwhile, the employee says that she is a mere "concerned citizen" of Hixson -- even though she is on Waterhouse's payroll.
It seems the grassroots support against the Chattanooga Village project is, largely, a front for CBL's opposition to the development.
To make matters worse, Gregory Vickrey, the Conservancy's executive director, has paraded around as the voice of local opposition to the Chattanooga Village development. It turns out Vickrey's local roots aren't as deeps as they appear. His consulting firm doesn't claim an address in Tennessee.
According to county records, Vickrey doesn't own a home in the Chattanooga area and, as recently as 2007, Vickrey ran for local office in Ketchikan, Alaska. On various websites, he claims Alaska, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and California as home.
When voting tonight, city council members should ask themselves the question: "Do I want to empower a land owner to create jobs, homes and economic opportunity with his property, or do I want to allow a small group of opponents working as a front for a competitor to kill a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Hixson?"
The choice seems obvious.