VA campus now in local hands

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Members of the Marion County Board of Supervisors and Knoxville City Council are pictured. Seated from left to right are Supervisor Steve McCombs, Supervisor Mark Raymie, Knoxville Mayor Brian Hatch and Supervisor Kisha Jahner. In the back row are council members Jyl DeJong, John Gotta, Dylan Morse, Justin Plum and Megan Suhr. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

The day Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, will go down in Knoxville history. Today, the Knoxville City Council and Marion County Board of Supervisors each adopted paperwork with the state and federal governments to take ownership of the former VA campus.

“All agreements are final,” Board of Supervisors’ Chair Mark Raymie said at the council meeting. Raymie and Knoxville Mayor Brian Hatch each thanked everyone who has worked on the project since both entities agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding in 2018 to take over ownership of the campus. They also thanked others who have worked at least since 2005 to ensure a bright future for the campus and the community.

Mark Raymie and Brian Hatch sign documents that transfer ownership of the VA District to Marion County. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

“This has been a long process for many people,” Raymie added. “It’s an amazing time for us.”

As reported by the Tribune, the City and County have been working with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to meet its requests for saving a portion of the campus for posterity. An agreement was reached Tuesday, according to Hatch.

The agreement with SHPO calls for the local authorities to market Buildings 27 and 28 for 60 days. Any entity who shows interest in one or both of these buildings must maintain its historical significance as these are the two oldest buildings on the campus. A further archaeological study will be done on a few sites on the campus that were noted on a previous study performed by the VA.

“Planning” will be the next step in the development of the campus, with many more details to come.

The 163-acre campus will now be known as the VA District. A website has been developed to help market the plan.

Marion County is the owner of the property now and the City of Knoxville will work as the agent. Raymie says the County has budgeted to invest $15 million on the future of the campus. Razing unusable buildings and adding infrastructure add to the costs. The campus’s utilities are self-contained and not connected to the City’s.

The County is taking on debt to do this project, as well as the Prairie Ridge Development in Pella. Both projects are intended to address the county’s need for more housing. Raymie estimates that, for a $100,000 home, the additional property tax will be $820-850 over 20 years (about $40 a year). It will be less if valuations increase.

In a press conference held at the Grand Theater, shortly after the joint meeting of the elected bodies, Raymie said the value of the campus – once back on tax rolls – could be around $144 million. It is expected to hold 697 mixed housing units, which should increase Knoxville’s population by around 1,600 people.

“We need additional workforce to move into our county,” Raymie said. He also expressed his support for Knoxville Schools’ upcoming bond referendum for a new middle school. He believes the growth on the campus will go hand-in-hand with growth in the schools.

Mike Copeland with the General Services Agency, the federal body tasked with finding new owners for the property presented a certificate to Hatch and Raymie to signify the transfer of ownership. The actual title to the campus is expected to arrive in a few days.

Mark Raymie, Mike Copeland and Brian Hatch. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

Demolition of buildings that cannot be saved is expected to begin in a few months. Bids will be sought soon. Hatch added that the City intends to keep the patriotic street names that service the campus as well.

Marion County got involved in this project because the hospital’s closure had a significant impact on it. After the lack of success in finding other ways to utilize the campus by outside forces, the supervisors believed it was best for them to get involved as it truly has the City’s and County’s best interests at heart.

The County has not taken on significant debt to date, prior to Prairie Ridge and the VA. The most significant debt most recently incurred by the County was around $6 million for the Marion County Law Enforcement Center in 2005.

We will continue to follow the story of the VA District as it develops.