Ready to Tackle a Tower

Ready to Tackle a Tower

LMU plans to start preliminary work on renovating Magdalen Clarke Tower immediately after the holidays.

by scott barker • November 18, 2019

Magdalen Clarke Tower

Pete DeBusk, chairman of the Lincoln Memorial University Board of Trustees, can’t wait for LMU to buy Magdalen Clarke Tower on the former St. Mary’s Hospital site.

The city anticipates closing on the former St. Mary's Hospital site in early December and immediately transferring ownership of the tower to Lincoln Memorial University.

He probably won’t have to wait long.

City Council will vote Tuesday on a resolution authorizing Mayor Madeline Rogero to transfer ownership of the tower to Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. and to approve the city housing agency’s immediate sale of the property to LMU.

The city plans to close on the former hospital campus, most recently operated as Physicians Regional Medical Center by Tennova Healthcare, in early December. The tower and adjacent parking will then go to LMU in a simultaneous transaction.

LMU plans to move its nursing, business and criminal justice schools into the tower after renovations. DeBusk said work should get started right away.

“We won’t start in the holidays, but we’ll start in the first of the year,” said DeBusk, founder of DeRoyal Industries, in an interview.

LMU owns its own construction company, so renovations can move quickly, though DeBusk said progress might be halting at first because the university-owned construction company will have to coordinate with the city’s contractors. “We can move a lot faster than anybody else can move, so we’ll probably have to wait on them,” he said.

The Rogero administration is moving quickly on transferring the tower to LMU. “We don’t want the building,” said David Brace, the city’s chief operating officer and deputy to the mayor. “They want it, so we’re getting it to them as quickly as possible.”

The city is buying the property from the company that conducts business as Tennova Healthcare, Metro Knoxville HMA, for $1, plus tax breaks valued up to $15 million for two medical facilities on property Tennova owns on Middlebrook Pike. The company has announced plans to build a rehabilitation hospital on the West Knoxville property.

The administration plans to build a new public safety complex on the St. Mary’s site in North Knoxville. The Police and Fire departments, as well as the Pension Board, would occupy renovated buildings on the south side of the campus. A new Municipal Court building would be constructed.

The northern half of the property, excluding Clarke Tower, would be marketed for redevelopment. The city plans to preserve the circa 1930 original hospital, but demolish the rest. 

Brace said the administration would like to see a post-renovation master plan with public input to help guide decisions, but that wouldn’t happen until after Mayor-elect Indya Kincannon takes office next month.

Under the terms of the agreement Council will consider on Tuesday, the city will transfer the property to KCDC via a quit claim deed. LMU will be required to deposit $5,000 in earnest money with the title company. LMU will purchase the tower for $10, plus development covenants secured by a $250,000 irrevocable letter of credit.

Among those covenants are a requirement to invest $2 million in the renovation of the tower. Unless the KCDC Board of Directors approves, for a decade LMU won’t be able to use the tower for other purposes or sell the property.

LMU has agreed to complete plans for the project by Sept. 1, 2020, and the first two floors have to be ready for the nursing school to move in by Sept. 1, 2021. The criminal justice and business schools should be completed a year later, and the entire tower rehabilitated by Sept. 1, 2025.

Though he won’t be able to vote on Tuesday, 5th District Councilman-elect Charles Thomas said the plans for Clarke Tower constitute a positive development consistent with past use in the neighborhood, which he will represent after he’s sworn into office in December.

“LMU would be a very good neighbor,” Thomas said. “They have a good reputation and it’s a solid institution. I think it’s fortunate we’ve found such a compatible use for an abandoned building without delay.”

DeBusk said he’d like to see portions of the property turned into a park after the buildings are demolished. He also said he sees the development of the St. Mary’s site as a catalyst for the development of restaurants and other businesses in North Knoxville. “The things we need to do to make Knoxville look better and better and better is what we need to do,” he said.

DeBusk said staying in the community — LMU’s nursing school has been at the hospital for more than three decades — and expanding its presence is important to the university.

“We’ll make something good happen, I can assure you,” DeBusk said.