By Heather Mullinix
The Crossville City Council is running out of time to take advantage of about $4 million in grants on the $10 million-plus project to upgrade infrastructure in the downtown Crossville area.
Evan Sanders with Community Development Partners, Inc., told the council Tuesday, "The concern is the time. We've pushed it to about the limit the grant programs will allow."
The proposed project includes updating water lines in the area, some of which could be as much as 90 years old; storm drainage; new sidewalks that are more attractive and also safer than those currently in use; upgraded street lights and traffic signalization; and underground electrical service; as well as aesthetic additions and landscaping.
Melinda Keifer, economic development coordinator for the city of Cookeville, helped that city begin its downtown revitalization efforts in the early 1990s, a process Keifer said was not easy but that has paid the city back in terms of increased tax revenues and increased curb appeal in its historic downtown area.
"You would have thought we had just really created havoc down there," Keifer said of Cookeville's project. "But at the end of the day, we saved our downtown. We did."
Keifer said Cookeville was able to complete the first phase of its project by using its public works and utility department personnel to perform demolition of sidewalks and then contracted labor for installation of new systems.
"It was tough," Keifer said of the decision. "But it will give you the highest rate of return for your community than anything you have done."
Keifer also worked for the state of Tennessee on its Main Street program. Across the state, she could not think of a city that took on an infrastructure improvement project, such as the one being considered in Crossville, that did not see benefits from those projects.
"Once those projects are complete, pride in your community increases. Usually, your rent rates are lower downtown so you can be an incubator for new businesses," Keifer said. The people that come to visit here have some other place to go, so it enhances all of the other things you have to offer.
"It's one of the most satisfying, rewarding and prideful expenditures, and it will pay itself back," she said.
Sanders said there was the possibility of a $4 million loan from USDA Rural Development to assist with funding the project, but a decision on whether or not to move forward needed to be made. Repayment of loans would begin towards the end of the 18-month construction project, he said.
Councilman Pete Souza said he had studied the proposed project for some time and found constituents outside the downtown area were split between support and opposition.
"There is no decision that is not going to be questioned by somebody," Souza said. "We need to make a decision soon. I support this project. I don't like borrowing money but that's the only way it's going to get done."
Councilman George Marlow said the reward of the project would be great, when complete, but that downtown merchants would likely experience challenges during the construction period.
James Mayberry, with Mayberry's Home Furnishing, said only about 2 percent of his customers use the front door of his business, mostly because of the high sidewalk in front of the business.
"It's not going to stop people coming into my business," Mayberry said. "Maybe down the road, people will use the front door."
Jim Crabtree, producing director of the Cumberland County Playhouse, said he supported the project as a member of the downtown community, through the Shanks Arts Center.
"It will be an asset to our ability to develop the arts center," Crabtree said. "We're grateful to be a part of a renewed downtown Crossville."
Jack Chadwell, with Highland Federal Savings and Loan, said he had spent about 40 years working on Main St.
"The most exasperating thing is the water that pours under the building," Chadwell said. "It's not the damage. It's the health issue. We've fought it since we've been there."
The issue is expected to be discussed in the near future.
Also up for discussion at the work session was a request from Souza to transfer a vehicle used by Crossville Fire Chief Mike Turner to the police department and a proposal to require council approval for all catering expenses above $50.
Souza said the SUV was equipped with blue lights and was inappropriate for use by the fire department.
Mayor J.H. Graham III called Turner to podium and asked, "Is this vehicle necessary and incidental in the performance of your job?"
Turner said that it was. He also said the vehicle he uses is equipped with red and white lights, not blue. The fire department does have a vehicle with blue lights that is used by the arson investigator.
Marlow noted Turner was a first responder and an Emergency Medical Technician, often arriving first on the scene of a medical emergency to provide aid.
Turner said, "I serve at the will of the council and the city council. If you told me to drive a Volkswagen, that's what I'd drive."
Interim City Manager Jack Miller said he did not have a strong feeling either way on which department the vehicle should be assigned to.
Graham said the matter could be put on the next agenda of the city council, set to meet May 14 at 6 p.m., for the council to vote.
Souza also address catering for events through various departments of the city government, citing meals at the annual Crossville Memorial Airport fly-in for pilots and meals at golf tournaments.
"The issue isn't in the catering. The issue in itself is oversight. How the city functions is our responsibility," Souza said. "When I see catering, I see what results as a slush fund, for lack of a better word."
Graham said catering for events was budgeted throughout the different departments of the city, totaling $13,208.72 last year.
He said he'd prefer to leave the matter with the department heads, or the city manager. Miller was asked to research the matter more fully, though he said the $50 limit did seem a little low. Graham noted $54 was spent on lunches for judges of the city of Crossville Christmas parade.
Souza asked the matter to be included on the May 14 agenda.