This story was updated Aug. 9, 2018, at 11:11 p.m.
Work started Thursday on a key link from West M.L. King Boulevard to Chattanooga's riverfront that officials said fulfills a century-old dream by city planners.
"The idea came about in 1911," said Mayor Andy Berke, citing old maps showing what was then known as Ninth Street going to the Tennessee River. "We're fulfilling a 100-year-old vision."
Legendary blues singer Bessie Smith grew up in a section of the city near the West M.L. King Boulevard extension called Blue Goose Hollow.
It's also an area where acclaimed blues singer Bessie Smith lived, growing up in a section of the city called Blue Goose Hollow, according to local officials and the Tennessee Encyclopedia. The vastly improved connection to the riverfront will tie into the Tennessee Riverwalk at the Blue Goose Hollow trailhead.
Chattanooga businessman Grant Law, who for many years owned much of the property in and around what's now called Cameron Harbor, said "this one is for Bessie ... honoring her memory."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the extension of M.L. King will provide another waterfront amenity.
Chattanooga City Council has more questions on Cameron Harbor tax break planRead more
Also, he said, the addition of new development in connection with the extension, including 200 more apartments, will spur tax revenues. Before the area was redeveloped with a variety of new housing, it generated about $100,000 in tax revenues a year, Coppinger said. Today that has grown to $2.5 million annually, he said.
The $3.5 million road project will be done by Highland Building Group, which is affiliated with Cameron Harbor developer Evergreen Real Estate of Nashville.
M.L. King extension tax break moves ahead as critics question last-minute changesRead more
Earlier this year, the city approved an economic impact plan for the M.L. King Boulevard development area and enabled Berke to work up a tax-increment financing (TIF) agreement with Evergreen.
It's only the second TIF the city has executed. The first was done about six years ago related to the Black Creek development in Lookout Valley. Under a TIF, developers spend the money for a project up front, then are paid back with interest over a period out of additional tax revenues generated by the development.
However, while the founder of local watchdog group Accountability for Taxpayer Money termed the project a cause for celebration, she said the use of the TIF to fund it is "an embarrassment."
City's downtown Cameron Harbor financing deal challenged [documents, photos]Read more
"This TIF project fails the 'straight-faced' test, the 'but-for' test and, were someone to file a lawsuit, might also be found by a court to violate the 'state law' test," said Helen Burns Sharp in a statement.
She said that "the city's unwillingness to answer questions about this TIF is eerily similar to what we are experiencing on the 'surplus' buildings."
Berke has asked the city council to declare three buildings near city hall as surplus. He hopes they can be sold and redeveloped to advance the downtown Innovation District and potentially provide some moderate-income housing.
On Thursday, Berke said the TIF was the best financing mechanism to build the new public infrastructure extending M.L. King.
"It made sense financially," he said. "It made sense programmatically on every level as the best mechanism."
In terms of potentially using TIFs in the future, Berke said that when there are places where dollars can be used to build public infrastructure, tax-increment financing is one source.
"The important piece is whether it's something that should have public participation," the mayor said.
Immediately south of the new road, a Chattanooga development group recently purchased the former Alstom manufacturing property. Local developers Jimmy White and Hiren Desai paid $30 million for the 112-acre tract.
White has said the oldest production facilities on the north end of the site will be torn down. That side of the parcel will be marketed to office users as light industrial space or as potential retail, hotel and residential space.
He also said West Main Street could be extended much like M.L. King and run through the Alstom site to connect with the Riverwalk there.
But White said on Thursday that there haven't been conversations about a TIF.
"We have to figure out internally what's the best course of action," he said.
White said his group is interviewing firms to provide a master development plan for the Alstom site. He expected a firm could be picked in the early part of next month and the group will seek area input about the master plan.
Chattanooga real estate broker Darlene Brown said plans are to break ground soon on four new million-dollar condominiums in Cameron Harbor. Her husband, developer Eugene "Buck" Schimpf, already has overseen construction of similar units along the riverfront.
Aaron White, of Evergreen Real Estate, said the existing apartment units raised by that firm are essentially filled up.
In terms of homebuyers at Cameron Harbor, he estimated that up to 40 percent have moved there from another city.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.