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Staff photo by Mike Pare / The Airport Inn on Lee Highway could be sold to the city of Chattanooga and made over into apartments for low-income people.

In what an official said is a first for Chattanooga, the city is looking at buying a hotel on Lee Highway and potentially turning it into apartments for low-income people.

The Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway would be bought for an amount not to exceed $2.79 million, according to a proposal. Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief measure passed by Congress earlier this year, would finance the purchase.

Joda Thongnopnua, interim chief of staff for Mayor Tim Kelly, said that while the hotel has 74 rooms, it likely would be reconfigured into some kind of housing product for low-income people.

"It's difficult to get the market to provide something affordable and accessible for them," he said.

Thongnopnua said whether the site would be transitional housing or offer some other residential use is uncertain at this point.

"Whether it's folks facing eviction or who fell on hard times and need housing with supportive services, this is a great potential option," he said.

The city council is expected to take up the matter next Tuesday.

The interim chief of staff said the city isn't considering an option such as was eyed by former Mayor Andy Berke and city officials earlier this year that looked at moving the homeless into hotel rooms in Chattanooga and East Ridge.

In March, the city unveiled a plan to rent up to 100 hotel rooms in East Ridge to provide shelter for Chattanooga's homeless population.

The idea was to help Chattanooga's Homeless Services Division provide non-group shelter to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the homeless.

But East Ridge representatives were surprised to learn of that plan, and the idea was later put on hold by Chattanooga officials.

Thongnopnua said the current proposal is significantly different.

"It's not something where folks will be on a week-by-week situation," he said.

Thongnopnua said it's "certainly possible" that some of those who stay at the site may pay rent.

"There are going to be some expectations," he said. "We're trying to figure that out right now."

Thongnopnua said there's still a lot of community engagement that needs to be done to determine how the initiative is designed and who is eligible.

Also, a nonprofit could be attracted to oversee operation of the units, he said.

"We're looking at nonprofit partners to do what they do best," Thongnopnua said, adding the effort could become a public-private partnership.

The hotel sits on Lee Highway just north of Bonny Oaks Drive. There's a string of lower-priced hotels on that section of Lee Highway and other businesses across the street.

A man who identified himself as part of the Airport Inn's ownership group but declined to give his full name said the hotel is still operating. A city document lists the seller as Sunlight Inc. and its managing member as Pradip Patel with a Ringgold Road address.

The hotel with 29,317 square feet was built in 1988, county records show.

Across Lee Highway from the hotel, the general manager of the Chattanooga Harley-Davidson store said that he doesn't think the city's proposal is good or bad. But Shawn Wells said that existing lodging in that area attracts "a bunch of rift-raft."

"It's a constantly evolving drama with police officers and ambulances," he said. "Putting low-income housing across from a Harley shop is a very interesting move in my opinion."

Thongnopnua said there's going to be a need for additional funds for improving the area with rehabbing and landscaping at the proposed site.

He said it would be 2022 before people could get into the proposed housing, which Thongnopnua believes is a first for the city. If the proposal goes ahead, it's possible there could similar moves, he said.

"The mayor has said he wants to try big things and learn from them," Thongnopnua said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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