Need to get moving is on agenda for mayor; need for more funding at top of Foundation needs

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham conjures up an interesting image when discussing his thoughts on the speed of planning and construction for the new animal care facility for Blount County.

“It is moving about as slow as molasses on a cold day. I can’t seem to get it off dead center. That frustrates us. Back in the summer, I was led to believe we would be ready to break ground in September and for some reason there seems to be a big problem getting plans ready,” he said. “I simply don’t understand that because we were given a set of plans touted as a wonderful set of plans with permission from Loudon County to duplicate what they’ve done down there to start a functional animal shelter.”

The county in March chose to partner with Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation, a group of concerned citizens and animal support groups, to build a new animal facility after the former county commission chose not to pay a higher contract with Maryville Animal Shelter.

“The reason Maryville went up is they subsidized Blount County the last two years and were losing money. They were going in the hole. Of the calls Maryville got, 70 percent were county calls,” Cunningham said.

Blount County loaned the foundation $350,000 and the foundation has since increased that amount to $525,000 in cash donations, pledges and in-kind donations of services.

The mayor said he has “great trepidation and a lot of fears” about the whole animal control situation.

“My fear is when we get the animal shelter up and running we’re going to find out, I’m reasonably certain, it’s going to cost more to run the shelter than had we contracted with Maryville at their higher contract figure,” he said. “I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. There are a lot of good people working hard to make the best of a scenario dumped in our laps. That’s just my honest feel about it.”

Blount County also hired an animal control officer. When Blount County Humane Society president Steve Phipps suggested Blount County work with Loudon County’s animal facility, Cunningham negotiated with the Loudon County mayor and worked out a deal where the Blount County animal control officer could take strays to Loudon County’s facility.

Cunningham said he fears that because no shelter has been built yet, the county could be wearing out its welcome with Loudon County’s animal shelter. “It’s creating a credibility situation between me and Loudon County. By now, had we moved on the situation, we would have at least had the intake portion well along the way,” he said.

Cunningham said he and commission were left with “more than just a bit of mess” because funding was only appropriated through January of 2007 to pay Maryville to handle animal control.

Cunningham said it was three months later before the county had an animal control officer and an agreement with Loudon County’s animal facility. “Everybody knows what we’ve gone through trying to make this work. There were three months without animal control, and we had to play catch up ball. Then our first animal control officer became ill. Then the truck broke down, and we were purchasing equipment from scratch.”

County commissioner and animal control committee chair Steve Samples said he would like to see the kennel portion of the facility up and running in six to eight months. “We are kind of against a time crunch simply because we need to start something to demonstrate to Loudon County that we are serious, and we’re going to build this animal center,” he said.

Cunningham said the issue of animal control has been thrust on his office and the commissioners and that was why they appropriated $350,000 to build the animal facility. Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation is in the midst of a $1 million fund-raising effort to build not just a kennel facility with intake but a larger scale building with more amenities for education, spaying, neutering and adopting.

The mayor said he was ready for action. “I want us to take the $350,000. I want this commission to take over the building portion of the kennel and intake portion of the shelter and get it done. If the commission would do that, what Steve’s talking about is very realistic,” Cunningham said of Samples’ hope to have the facility up in six months.

While showing concern for the slow pace of fund-raising for the new facility, the mayor also praised the volunteer group for their efforts. “Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation is a wonderful bunch of folks, and they’ve brought the project a long way. Chris Protzman and Rick Yeager are dedicated and talented people,” he said of the president and vice president of the organization.

“The project as we’re looking at it now needs $900,000 since the county donated $200,000 for land,” Protzman said. “Between $450,000 and $900,000 is a basic facility that can operate.”

Protzman said he hoped to have final drawings back from architect Michael Brady this month. “We want to be in the position by end of the year to have all our drawings done to have everything complete and have actual prices and know where we stand on construction costs and know if we have to build in stages,” he said.

Protzman said Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation understands the mayor’s concerns. “We feel a high sense of urgency. We don’t want to be depending on Loudon County any longer than we have to. They’ve been generous in their support and that’s contingent on us progressing, and we’re trying to progress as quickly as possible,” he said.

Protzman and the other members of the group have sought funding and donations to help the effort. “If we find a donor who can bring in between $300,000 and $500,000 to our project, we can break ground in a matter of weeks. It could be a corporate donor or gift-in kind donor,” he said. “We’ve been trying to reach out to the trades and construction industry to provide us with what they do best in material and labor.”

During a Dec. 4 fund-raising event at the home of Joy Bishop in Maryville, the Clayton Foundation donated $10,000 to the cause. Carl Koella was on hand to present the check on behalf of Clayton Homes founder Jim Clayton. “This is from the Clayton Family Foundation. Thanks to (Jim Clayton), and the generosity of the Clayton family, this is possible,” Koella said.

Other financial supporters like Tom and Andrea Brunton were also on hand to also lend their moral support. Their company builds “big box” retail buildings and other large commercial structures. “We really love animals. I’ve been a big dog person all my life,” Tom Brunton said.

“It seemed like something that was definitely needed,” Andrea Brunton said of the animal facility.

Protzman said the shelter will be constructed to have 50 large kennels in addition to 32 puppy kennels and 32 cat holding areas and quarantine pods for a total of 136 kennels. It will be an 8,700 square foot facility, he said.

Protzman said the foundation also has designed a very progressive best practices shelter program that will utilize adoption events, Web sites, marketing and cleanliness practices to present the animals in their best light so new adoptions will happen.

The environment also will be quality-controlled so bacteria won’t travel as quickly. The facility will have a modern welcome lobby with retail hours and a community education room for schools. Animal control officers would be based out of a section of the facility, and there would be a quarantine facility to observe animals and facilities for spaying and neutering, he said.

Blount County animal control officer Jason Hinkle can be reached at 865-228-0024.

Alcoa animal control officers Jerry Harrison and Matt Cunningham can be reached at 865-981-4111.

The Maryville Animal Shelter can be reached at 865-681-2241.

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