Burchett talks future for Rule High, Sears buildings

Shannon CareyFountain City

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s second term will be up in 13 months, but he’s still making the rounds of local civic organizations to report on all things Knox County. Today, July 12, he visited the Fountain City Business and Professional Association.

We’ve reported on his standard talk a few times. To hit the highlights, there was no tax increase in Knox County this year. The budget increased at about the rate of inflation. He believes in paying down debt. By the end of his term, Burchett hopes to have $53 million in county debt paid off.

But what you won’t hear anywhere else are Burchett’s candid answers to questions from the audience. Here are a few highlights.

Lauren Rider, candidate for Knoxville City Council’s 4th District seat, asked Burchett about the county’s plans for old Rule High School and the Sears building in Happy Holler. Burchett started with Rule, saying that he tried throughout former Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s term to get control of the derelict building, an effort which he said was met with “foot-dragging.” When interim superintendent Buzz Thomas took office, “we had it in six weeks.”

Burchett called Rule a hard-hat area, with light coming through the roofs and most of the floors rotting away. The far west end might be salvageable, but the county has to check it for environmental hazards like asbestos first. He estimated a cost of more than $1 million just to tear things down.

But Burchett would like to see a buyer for the property, ideally one that would build a trade school on the site.

“It’s a terrible blight on that neighborhood,” he said. “We’ve just been terrible stewards to our neighbors and it disgusts me.”

As for the Sears building, Burchett said with the way Happy Holler is booming it might be even more valuable than the Andrew Johnson Building downtown. Plans for that building are in the “very early stages. You can’t just put it on Craigslist,” he said.

Whatever the end game is for the two buildings, Burchett hopes to secure their future no matter what his successor may want to do.

One audience member asked Burchett what Washington, D.C., neighborhood he’ll pick, alluding to the rumors that Burchett will run for Congress after his term is up. Burchett replied that an answer would be “presumptuous,” and besides, “I don’t even know where those are on the map.”

In response to two other questions, Burchett reiterated his stance against debt, giving Carter Elementary School as an example.

“We paid cash for Carter,” he said. “The beautiful people came and said, ‘That’s not how we do things,’ and I said, ‘You go into debt, and your grandchildren will be paying on that thing.'”

Even after paying down $53 million, the county is still $635 million in debt, a figure Burchett called “ridiculous.”

After his term is up, Burchett told another questioner, he hopes to continue in public service in some way.

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