Harr: Tubman property suited for major employer

photo The former Harriet Tubman Homes site in East Chattanooga, seen here from Missionary Ridge, was built in 1953.

Utilizing the old Tubman public housing site to spur job creation is the highest and best use of the property both for the surrounding neighborhood and the community as a whole.

Early in Mayor Andy Berke's administration, I spoke with him about how our community is losing major economic development opportunities because we do not have industrial parks where new employers can locate. In response, Mayor Berke asked the Chamber to compile a list of brownfields that might be returned to productive use.

The old Tubman site was at the top of our list for these reasons:

• The site consists of 25 acres that are flat enough to accommodate a major employer.

• The old Tubman site is already served with the industrial-grade utilities such as electric, water, sewer, etc. This saves tax-payers tens of millions of dollars in preparing the site.

• The old Tubman site has existing railroad access.

• The site can be re-developed quickly with no environmental remediation.

Put simply, the old Tubman site is one of the very few remaining parcels that can be converted to industrial use at a low cost to the taxpayer, and we believe the investment will result in substantial community benefit in the near future.

By attracting a major employer to the site, hundreds of new job holders would earn millions of dollars in payroll, pay local taxes, and spend their earnings at local businesses. As a result, the property would serve as a catalyst for generating new revenue both for individual job-holders and businesses but also for the community as a whole.

In contrast, other uses of the property will create new costs for the community without generating any new revenue. The Times Free Press reports the Chattanooga Housing Authority has been spending $300,000 a year for security and other costs associated with keeping the property boarded up. Imagine how much it would cost the city to provide police, fire protection and other services for a mega-sized affordable housing project.

To be clear, we strongly support the strategic development of affordable housing, but years ago, the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) determined it was more cost effective to abandon the Tubman site than to keep operating it in the old way.

CHA's new approach does not isolate affordable housing into islands of poverty as happened with the original Tubman development and other old-style public housing projects. We also applaud the many programs lead by CHA and others to encourage the private development of affordable housing that is integrated into the local economy.

In addition, it is important to remember that affordable housing does not mean cheap housing. By linking Chattanooga residents with quality jobs, the Chattanooga Housing Authority can help end the cycle of poverty by boosting the number of families who can afford housing without a subsidy.

In fact, family-wage jobs are the best solution for many economic and social challenges. The Chamber stands ready to work with Mayor Berke along with local and state training partners to prepare local people for the new jobs that would be created by a new industrial park.

With all this in mind, we urge the CHA to see the true cost of simply accepting the highest bidder. The Housing Authority should work with Mayor Berke to return the old Tubman site to productive use that will create new jobs and new economic growth for our city. Time is precious. The old Tubman site has been a drain on CHA's resources for a number of years while our community has lost opportunities to attract a major employer to the site.

Now is the time to turn a blighted and abandoned property into a major asset for our community.

Ron Harr is president and CEO of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.