Can city afford land?

By Thomas Wilson

   The city of Elizabethton's search for additional land to spur industrial and commercial development may be tempered, at least temporarily, by the city's lack of available funds.
   "We need to proceed to find land, but we do not need to proceed rapidly," Mayor Sam LaPorte said during a workshop of the Elizabethton City Council and city administration held at City Hall on Monday night.
   City Manager Charles Stahl said city staff members scouted the county for potential tracts that could be purchased for a new industrial park. However, the city's financial woes of reduced budgets may keep the city from immediately pursuing new developable land.
   "If we find something absolutely perfect tomorrow, we could probably do it with grants and bond money," LaPorte said, "but I'd hate it to fall into our laps tomorrow."
   City officials hope a possible multimillion-dollar development in the city-owned Cherokee Industrial Park is coming via a proposal by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to build a fishery on five acres in the park. Stahl and LaPorte met with members of the TWRA last week to discuss the project and the city's possible compensation for selling five acres of land where the former American Bemberg water processing plant was located to TWRA for the development of a coldwater fish hatchery.
   Stahl said TWRA officials indicated they are interested not only in the five-acre tract but in the remaining 19 acres available in the Cherokee Industrial Park. Stahl said the city has typically sought $10,000 per acre for development in the park -- a figure he added did not seem to discourage wildlife officials. Regarding the property, Stahl said he told TWRA officials, "There is growing interest in it with a Wal-Mart and Lowe's coming behind it."
   However, the timetable on the fish hatchery's development is at least 10 years away, LaPorte noted. The hatchery would be used to stock trout in waterways across the state. Locating the new hatchery in East Tennessee would reduce fish transportation costs, according to the TWRA evaluation study.
   The city is also less than two weeks away from taking possession of the former Carter County Memorial Hospital building and property. City attorney, Roger Day, said previous owner Wayne Graybeal has until Feb. 14 to pay all delinquent personal property taxes, plus interest, to the city to reclaim the property. If he does not, the city takes ownership. The city foreclosed on the property in November of 2001 and effected the seizure on Valentine's Day 2003.
   City Council voted to set aside $500,000 in the city's fiscal year 2004 budget to fund future demolition of the hospital building. Council members approved an environmental assessment of the asbestos content in the building last year.
   City Planning and Development Director David Ornduff said the city has not put out a request for bids on the hospital's demolition.
   "We were waiting until we completely owned the property before we spent any money on it," Ornduff said.
   Councilman Pat "Red" Bowers said any future sale of the five-acre hospital land would not likely make up for the conservative estimate of $500,000 to demolish the building.
   "The taxpayers are going to come out on the short end," Bowers said.