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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The western portion of the former Harriett Tubman Site awaits development.

Today, the 45-acre site of the former Harriet Tubman federal housing complex in East Chattanooga generates no money for its city of Chattanooga owners.

With Monday's announcement that Nippon Paint USA will make a $61 million investment on 30 acres of the property, in due time the site will generate more than $11 million in taxes over 20 years.

From nothing to $11-plus million. That's a big jump.

But there's room — 15 acres of room — for more development on the site, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke believes some of the taxes Nippon will pay could be parlayed into bonds that would help determine what might go there.

What might go there is a wonderful question to ponder since the area has had little investment in many years. But it's a question the neighborhood and potential developers can answer together.

In announcing the potential for development at the site on Wednesday, Berke said that the city will put out a request for proposals for the land along Roanoke Avenue and Southern Street.

The right development there, combined with the 150 jobs Nippon eventually will offer, could be the spark that sets a fire of neighborhood renewal.

Such renewal need not cause the area to lose its identity but to strengthen it. Affordable housing might entice new neighbors. A quality daycare and preschool center could allow residents to get jobs and be confident their children are well looked after while they work. Retail might afford some of those jobs parents could take as well as offer entrepreneurial opportunities for the right people.

Without the use of that new tax money through the creation of a tax increment financing district (TIF), though, the private investment might never happen — or, at best, it might slowly creep in over many, many years.

The way it would work is this: Nippon has agreed to pay all of its city and county property taxes on the 270,000-square-foot complex it will build. Those funds will cover all of the taxes due the public schools and for city and county obligations. And there should be enough of an additional amount to fund a 20-year bond issue of about $3.5 million.

In what would be a 15-acre TIF district, developers would spend money up front for a project, then be paid back — with interest — over a period of time from the tax revenue generated by the new development in the district. Both the city and county must approve the district's creation.

It would be the city's third such district but the first to get the nod from the citizens group Accountability for Taxpayer Money (ATM). The group's president, Helen Burns Sharp, believes such districts should be reserved for economic development in areas that are challenged and not in areas where the development might just as easily have happened without the city.

The city's other two TIFs were created for a road in an upscale neighborhood in Lookout Valley and for the extension of West M.L. King Boulevard to a park near riverfront residences.

But Burns believes the Tubman TIF "can be a catalyst for development that likely would not have happened without the incentive."

In truth, with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency's current focus on its Area 3 sector (Missionary Ridge to Chickamauga Creek to the Tennessee River to Interstate 24), which includes the Tubman property, new investment in the area couldn't come at a better time.

During previous public meetings and stakeholder workshops, many Area 3 residents advocated for mixed-use, walkable retail centers, higher-density housing that also might support businesses, and new industry.

That's what Berke generally has in mind for the 15 acres, but he wants the Tubman neighborhood to continue to have a say in its future, as it did for the desire for manufacturing jobs the likes of which Nippon will bring.

"We're committed to use the general concept" in the Area 3 plans, he told Times Free Press editors and writers last week. But, as to specifically what should go there, "I don't know," he said. "We'll continue to listen to people."

Berke said the messages he and his administration have heard in the more than a dozen meetings about the Tubman property were, simply: "We want our neighborhood to get better."

The jobs created by Nippon will help do that. The infrastructure improvements made by the city on the Tubman property, before and after Nippon arrives, will help do that. So can private development in the area bordering the Nippon property.

"East Chattanooga Rising" is how the potential for the revitalization of the Tubman site has been billed. Now, we hope those who can see the potential will not hesitate to grasp the vision.

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