Commission finalizes $3 million sale for Highway Department property

Blount County shoppers are one step closer to having more stores to patronize and the Blount County Highway Department is a step closer to having a brand new facility.

Blount County Commissioners voted during the Jan. 17 meeting to turn over the Highway Department property to the Blount County Industrial Development Board. The deal gives the county $3 million for the property and ultimately nets county coffers $350,000 annually in sales tax.

The Industrial Development Board will sell the land to developer Jay Dunlap for the $3 million. Dunlap said he will now be able to complete that portion of the Hamilton Crossing shopping complex where the highway department currently sits.

Dunlap said he hoped the purchase could be concluded within 30 days. “That land is critical for Dicks (sporting goods) and then we’ll begin planning for a big box (retailer) that will go in there in as soon as we commence construction for Dicks,” he said.

Dunlap said there is about 18 acres involved in the purchase. “From a shopping space (perspective) we ought to be able to accommodate 125,000 square feet of retail, and then we’ll have room for hopefully two or three restaurants,” he said.

The Highway Department will build on property where the Alcoa Municipal maintenance facility is being constructed in Alcoa. Commissioner Joe McCulley asked when the current Highway Department property was appraised and whether the county was getting enough money for the land.

Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said property appraiser Fred Metz appraised the property in September of 2006. County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he spoke with Metz about the property before the meeting. “He indicated that, ‘If you can get $3 million for that property, you better take it and run,’” the mayor said.

Bryan Daniels, executive vice president of the Blount County Economic Development Board, said part of the property was once a landfill. “You can’t just build on top of trash,” he said. “It is not a piece of property you can grade. If you could, the value of the property could be much more.”

Bennett said the deal was a “win-win”. “(Highway Superintendent) Bill Dunlap gets a much needed new building, and we’re moving him into property already off the tax rolls. We’re taking property that’s off the tax rolls and putting it back on,” Bennett said. “The sales tax generated is going to be about $1 million a year. I think this is a terrific opportunity, and I think we’re getting the value of the property.”

In other county commission news, commissioners voted to defer action until next month on creating a 60-foot setback from streams in the county that would act as a buffer to ensure water quality. Commissioners stipulated that the measure be considered by the planning commissioners first.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Cunningham gave what he said was a ‘State of the County’ address to commissioners. “I want to share where we stand, and what I believe the future holds,” he said.

The mayor said much work had been done to open up government. “All finances and budget data are now online as much as we can bring it online. As I promised, we recently, within the last 45 days, finally put online information relating to credit card expenditures. It’s going to show you when, where and what was paid for,” he said. “If I have a lobster lunch, it will be there. That’s kind of thing we want to be there for citizens to see. Openness in any organization drives accountability.”

The mayor praised the planning commission for their work. “We struggle as we grow to make sure infrastructure keeps up with population growth. It’s difficult,” he said.

Cunningham said that as of June 30, 2007, the county ended with a fund balance of $3.1 million. He took to task “amateur prognosticators” who last year predicted the county would be $7 million out of balance, and he credited county departments for working efficiently. “By the end of this year we should have a fund balance approaching $6 million. I feel we need $8 to $9 million in this fund. We need to continue to build this fund,” he said.

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