The Chamber and county government consider options for the undeveloped East Knox business park, as one possible buyer signals interest.
by jesse fox mayshark • May 19, 2022
The sign at the entrance to the undeveloped Midway Business Park.
There is not a lot to see right now at Midway Business Park.
Local residents want promises kept about low impact on the surrounding community.
The 354-acre site on Thorn Grove Pike in East Knox County has a handsome stone sign at its putative entrance, emblazoned with a logo that features a swooping green “M” perhaps intended to mimic the gently rolling hills of its still-rural setting.
Visible on a lot to the left is a Tennessee Valley Authority electric switch yard and a Knoxville Utilities Board substation, to support eventual tenants. Not visible but installed underground are water, sewer, natural gas and telecommunications hook-ups. There is also a small parking area to allow public access to about a mile of paved walking trails.
It’s not much to show for 16 years of stop-and-go efforts to develop the property since Knox County first acquired it in 2006. Once touted as a prime site to attract major employers, Midway is currently advertised by the county’s Development Corporation as “an exceptionally attractive and employee-focused business park that will aid in the recruitment of both employers and employees to Knox County.”
Now, leaders at the Knoxville Chamber and Knox County government are considering the best path forward for the site, prompted in part by interest from one local businessman.
“We continue to get phone calls from companies, both regionally as well as outside the state, asking us if we have any extra space or extra acreage or extra buildings that we can lease to them,” said Jordan Mollenhour, an entrepreneur and investor whose companies include Red Stag Fulfillment, Lucky Gunner and Mollenhour Gross. “I think it's a very positive indicator of the fact that a lot of people want to move to this area.”
Mollenhour currently serves on the Knoxville Chamber’s board of directors, and the Midway property came up in his discussions with Chamber leaders about available business park space.
“I just asked them, ‘Hey, would you be interested in selling it?’” said Mollenhour, who has become an increasingly visible player in local business and politics. He was named to the state Board of Education last year by Gov. Bill Lee. (Democrats in the Legislature objected because Lucky Gunner, which sells ammunition online, reportedly shipped munitions that were used in mass shootings. But the Republican majority approved Mollenhour’s appointment.)
Mollenhour said he’s not interested in the property for his own needs — Red Stag Fulfillment recently held a groundbreaking for a new 700,000-square-foot warehouse site in Sweetwater — but to develop for other tenants.
“What we were looking for is a large site where we could master design it,” he said, “where we could be thoughtful about things like traffic flow and utility infrastructure, and really make sure that it's designed to be a scaled, large project as opposed to buying one lot here and one lot there.”
One complicating factor is that the property is currently owned on behalf of Knox County by the nonprofit Development Corporation, which is currently winding down and being absorbed by the Knoxville Chamber. For now, the Chamber said it is considering its options for the future of Midway.
In a statement, Chamber president and CEO Mike Odom said, “As it has done with almost every facet of the economic landscape, the pandemic has disrupted the traditional way of thinking as it relates to land development and business parks. This, in turn, has created new opportunities for Knox County with which we have a responsibility to thoroughly evaluate and perform due diligence in order to understand the potential impact to our community. That due diligence effort is ongoing.”
If the Midway property were put up for sale, Odom said, it would have to be through a transparent request for proposals, not just a direct negotiated sale.
Chris Caldwell, the county’s chief financial officer, said County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is involved in talks with the Chamber about the best way to proceed. Among other things, Caldwell said the county wants to make sure it understands any restrictions or limitations placed on the property when it was rezoned in 2015.
Local residents fought against initial efforts to rezone the property, fearing that a large industrial presence would overwhelm their roads and fundamentally change the nature of the community. They succeeded first in court and then at County Commission, so that by the time Commission approved a rezoning in 2015 it was with some protections.
State Rep. Dave Wright, R-Knoxville, was the East Knox county commissioner at the time. In February, he told KnoxTNToday that any sale should include the same protections.
“We’ve got to be sure that the promises made to the community are fulfilled,” he said.
Kevin Murphy of the Knox County Planning Alliance, who has been active for years in rural and historic preservation efforts in the area, said the county needs to focus on its East Knox Community Plan, which was adopted in 2017 alongside the plans for the business park.
“Some of the things that it calls for are doing shoreline easements on the French Broad and Holston rivers, codifying large agricultural zoning,” Murphy said. “There's some concepts about coming up with the nodes (for denser development), and identifying those and working to develop those.”
He said one challenge for Midway as a major employment center is the lack of nearby amenities.
“What I've heard is that we've had potential interested parties look at it and say, ‘Well, there's no housing out here for workers or executives,’” Murphy said. “All right, so if you want housing, housing means they also need services, groceries, fuel, restaurants. Housing brings kids, which brings need for schools. And this place is a long ways out from everything.”
Mollenhour said that if there is an RFP process and he puts in a bid, he will work to understand the concerns of the community. He also said that he won’t mind if the Chamber ultimately sells the property to someone else, as long as they have a viable plan.
“If someone else buys it and develops it out and offers a bunch of great space for businesses to come in and move into this area, I'm 100 percent happy with that outcome,” he said. “What I would not want to see is for someone, especially an outside party, to come in and land bank. Come in, buy it and it sits there for another 10 years, when all the jobs coming to our area get turned away and go somewhere else.”