East Chattanooga groups differ over efforts to recruit manufacturing jobs to former Tubman housing site

This file photo shows the former Harriett Tubman homes as they were being torn down in October 2014. The future of the site, which is owned by the city, has long been a point of contention, and on Saturday a group of interested parties gathered to push City Council members to agree to refuse support for the sale of the former Tubman public housing site unless the purchaser signs a community benefits agreement.

James Moreland, a key presence in East Chattanooga and a longtime friend of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, spoke before the Chattanooga City Council on Tuesday night and said he wanted council members to know that he does not want a community benefits agreement to limit the city and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's efforts to recruit manufacturing jobs to the former Harriet Tubman public housing site.

Moreland, the former head of the Avondale Neighborhood Association, and Ken Smith, the current head of the Avondale Neighborhood Association, have been in talks with the mayor's office and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce regarding the Tubman site since before it was purchased, said Smith, who was present at the council meeting on Tuesday to support Moreland but did not speak publicly.

Moreland told the city council that he was speaking for the East Chattanooga Improvement Corporation, which he said represents eight different neighborhood associations. His organization spoke for the people of East Chattanooga and Avondale, he said.

"We have had an excellent partnership with the city since when they owned that property," said Moreland. "You saved us. You rescued our neighborhood. We are looking forward to having a great partnership with whatever company comes into that site."

Last week, Moreland, Smith and District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd called a private strategy meeting at the Avondale Youth and Family Recreation Center with less than a handful of East Chattanooga neighborhood leaders - most of whom had no idea why they had been called - to discuss how ECI, which has been relatively dormant in recent years, could thwart the efforts of a recently formed coalition of seven local organizations, which includes Hope for the Inner City and the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.

That coalition, which includes several East Chattanooga neighborhood leaders, is seeking resident feedback and plans to go door-to-door in Avondale to collect opinions about what a community benefits agreement tied to the former Tubman site might include.

An educational meeting was hosted by the coalition at Hope for the Inner City on March 9, and was attended by more than 100 people, including Moreland, Byrd and Smith. Byrd pledged to the crowd gathered that day that he would back a community benefits agreement on the former Tubman site. Although, he also prophesied a long and arduous process.

"We will have some uncomfortable conversations. That is how families work," he told the crowd that day.

A similar coalition in Nashville organized and aroused enough community-wide engagement to win support from 31 of Nashville's 40 council members and secure the city's first CBA last year.

The Nashville CBA targeted the developers who had been working to cut a deal with city officials to purchase city-owned land in order to build a Major League soccer stadium, as well as an adjacent commercial/residential development. Their CBA required the developer to meet goals related to affordable housing, jobs and workforce development and community amenities. For example, the CBA called for 20 percent of all housing built to be affordable and for the majority of those affordable units to be three-bedroom family units and not small, cheap studio apartments.

In Tennessee, and in many other Southern states, state law says city governments cannot require businesses to sign and adhere to CBAs because many of the requirements typical of CBAs infringe on developers' right to do business as they please. That is not the case in many other states. That means city officials cannot be involved in negotiations.

However, CBAs signed when developers face opposition from city councils - hoping to appease angry constituents - are considered legally binding contracts.

Everlena Holmes, a member of ECI and a member of the coalition, was not invited to the strategy meeting called by Moreland, Smith and Byrd but she tried to attend. For the past few years, Holmes has been training block leaders and neighborhood leaders in East Chattanooga, connecting them with data about their neighborhoods and teaching them the ins and outs of local government. When the Regional Planning Agency began the planning process for East Chattanooga last year, Holmes and Cora Lanier, the Boyce Station neighborhood leader who recently passed away, called all the East Chattanooga neighborhood leaders together and formed a caucus to ensure that the historic black neighborhoods had a say in the planning process.

Moreland told Holmes he did not want her at the meeting.

Tiffany Rankin, a Lincoln Park neighborhood leader who attended the small strategy session and city council Tuesday night, told the council that she does not support the ECI effort.

"I am sorry to see that some people were thrown out," she said.

Contact Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfree press.com.