After estimated costs triple, Knox County kills a South Knoxville bike track championed by former Mayor Tim Burchett.
by jesse fox mayshark • march 12, 2019
the old football stadium at south doyle middle school mounded with dirt in november from the creation of new athletic fields.
After months of signaling skepticism about the project, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs on Monday officially pulled the plug on a proposed BMX bike racing track in South Knoxville.
South Doyle Middle School will get new athletic fields and amenities, as promised.
In a news conference in his office Monday afternoon, Jacobs said cost estimates that were more than three times the original $750,000 budgeted made the track an untenable proposition.
“BMX was going to cost significantly more than what was initially estimated and budgeted for, upwards of two and a half to three million dollars for the entire project,” Jacobs said.
But he promised the county would finish new athletic fields and a new track at South Doyle Middle School that were promised as part of the deal.
The project was announced two years ago by former Mayor Tim Burchett, who said it would complement the outdoor recreation amenities being constructed in South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness area. The hope was that by converting an old football stadium on the grounds of South Doyle Middle to a BMX track, the county could attract regional and even national competitions.
But a year ago, Burchett acknowledged the original cost estimates prepared by former county Parks and Recreation Director Doug Bataille were much too low. Bataille had estimated that $750,000 would cover both the cost of converting the stadium to a competition-level bike track and also providing new fields for the school to make up for loss of use of the stadium.
Jacobs put the project on hold for further review shortly after taking office last fall. An estimate prepared in November by local contractor Denark Construction said it would cost about about $2.35 million to build the track and make the stadium usable.
County Commissioner Carson Dailey, who represents South Knox County and has been the most vocal supporter of the BMX project on Commission, said Monday that with the county pulling out he didn’t see another way forward.
“I’d say it’s dead,” Dailey said. “I don’t see another avenue.”
John Edwards, a local chiropractor and the head of Knoxville BMX, a group of bicycle motocross enthusiasts that has advocated for a local track, said Monday night that Jacobs had never seemed receptive to the project.
“We kind of got the feeling from day one after Congressman Burchett had left that they had made their decision,” Edwards said. “Obviously it’s a big disappointment for our group. We’ve put in six years of hard work, and the county’s already spent a lot of money on this project.”
Dailey said Jacobs informed him of the decision at a meeting Friday afternoon. He said he understood the mayor’s cost concerns, but he thought the money involved was still modest in the scope of the county’s total budget.
“I’m just disappointed,” Dailey said. “I think it was a great project, Mayor Burchett thought it was a great project, and seven of the current commissioners thought it was a good project.”
“With jail overcrowding and the needs of the schools, it’s hard to say go forward with this one." – Knox County Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom, on the proposed BMX track
South Knox school board member Kristi Kristy said she was glad Jacobs was fulfilling the county’s promises to the school.
“Mayor Jacobs has been very sympathetic and supportive of the displaced students and athletes,” Kristy said.
She said with the new fields not done and the stadium currently housing a giant mound of dirt excavated to create the fields, the middle school’s track and soccer teams have had to improvise to find practice space.
“Parents do tell me that participation rates for both sports are lower than they would expect them to be,” Kristy said -- possibly because students don’t relish the prospect of running laps in the school parking lot rather than on a track.
County Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom said the original proposal had been appealing, “if you could build it for $700,000.” But at the revised estimates, it had to compete with other major county needs.
“With jail overcrowding and the needs of the schools, it’s hard to say go forward with this one,” Nystrom said.
Jacobs said the new fields next to the school will be finished, with bleachers and new brick restrooms and a concession stand. And once the dirt is removed from the football stadium, the track there will be resurfaced and new long-jump and shot-put pits will be added.
Although that kind of school project is typically covered by the school system’s own capital budget, Jacobs said completing the work on the county’s dime was the right thing to do under the circumstances.
“It’s just one of those things,” Jacobs said. “We did make a promise and I think we should follow through on that.”
Jacobs said the county has already spent about $529,000 on the new fields and related expenses. County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said total county spending on the school facilities should fall within the $750,000 already budgeted in previous years for the entire project.
Edwards said he thought Denark’s cost estimate was off by a factor of at least two. He said his group has an estimate from BMX USA, the sport’s national body, of $800,000 for the track alone, with other costs that could bring it to $1.2 million. He added that besides the possible economic impact of the track, it would have had social benefits in providing access to BMX racing for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
“It’s an investment in our youth, it’s an investment in the community,” Edwards said.
He said he didn’t know if his group would try to find another possible site or funding source for a track in Knox County. He said they have also had conversations with officials in Sevier County about doing something there.
“I think we just regroup and each of us try to recuperate and then make a decision at that point about what to do,” Edwards said.