Clock ticks on AJ sale

Betty BeanFeature, Inside 640

This month, Knox County Commission will consider a resolution to reaffirm its commitment to a $6 million agreement to sell the Andrew Johnson building, now occupied primarily by Knox County Schools, even though the negotiations to find the KCS administration a new home have stalled.

Putting the iconic AJ back on the tax rolls was one of Mayor Tim Burchett’s top priorities when he took office in 2010. That goal was in sight earlier this year as county representatives quietly negotiated a deal to acquire a now-vacant TVA tower. But now, with less than two months left in Burchett’s eighth and final year as the county’s chief executive, the TVA deal has stalled.

“Nothing has been brought to commission yet regarding the TVA tower,” said Commission Chair Randy Smith. “There appears to be a hold up in the law department.”

Law Director Richard “Bud” Armstrong, who for several months has been the target of rumors accusing him of stalling the TVA deal while promoting Holston Middle School as the new home for the school administration, said his only motivation to question the TVA deal is legal problems.

“I’m not into policy,” Armstrong said. “Where I was having issues was with some of the negotiations around the tower in the TVA complex – easements, time periods – legal issues associated with that lease.

“As far as the Andrew Johnson building is concerned, Bud doesn’t have a dog in that fight. As far as other locations go, I’ve heard (now closed) Rule High School, Holston, Vine Middle School and East Towne. That’s what’s really happening, and they’ve got to point to somebody. We’re not being very successful in working out the TVA tower option and it won’t be completed in Burchett’s lifetime (as mayor).”

Burchett, who is caught up in a heated battle for the Republican nomination to fill the Second Congressional District seat being vacated by Jimmy Duncan, said he intends to keep pushing.

“There’ve been questions the law director has raised from the start, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get everybody to the table,” Burchett said. “I’d like to see it done. People have told me to distance myself because it might hurt my political future, but I’m not going to back away from it. I’m still trying to get it done. I don’t care where (KCS administrators) go, or who gets credit for it. We’ve got to remember the taxpayers first and consider the employees as well.”

County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said the Andrew Johnson resolution is on the July agenda because the prior “intent to sell” agreement with Nashville developer BNA has expired.

“This is an attempt to get them reassurance,” Caldwell said.

Meanwhile, struggling East Towne Mall seems to be gaining favor as a site for the KCS administrators, although school board chair Patti Bounds is a strong proponent of Regal Entertainment Group’s former corporate offices in Halls.

BNA, the developer of downtown Knoxville’s Oliver Hotel, proposes to convert the AJ, which was built in 1929 and was once Knoxville’s fanciest hotel and tallest building, into a boutique hotel with residential units, a rooftop bar and ground floor retail.

The resolution contains four contingencies – that Knox County be given three years to relocate the school system and that BNA must secure any necessary rezoning and/or variances, get legal approval for any public financing (PILOTS or TIFs) and complete all financing arrangements upon closing.

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