Create fertile ground for sustainable, healthy population growth by diversifying our economic and employment base and expanding quality housing choices.
In the 60 years since Oak Ridge became an incorporated municipality, its juxtaposed position and relationship with the facilities and operations of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has remained. Today, the DOE’s Oak Ridge Reservation still covers a little more than half the land area within the city limits, and activity is thriving. As one example, the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex is recapitalizing factories with new technology, safety equipment, and enhanced security, and adding a new Uranium Processing Facility, which on its own ($6.5 billion and 2,000 new jobs) is one of the largest projects in Tennessee since the Manhattan Project.
An economic impact report prepared by the East Tennessee Economic Council states that all DOE facilities located in Oak Ridge attracted more than 50,000 visitors in fiscal year 2017, for business, educational, and science-related programs. However, despite the number of jobs, visitors, and growth in both federally managed facilities and spin-off businesses, the resident population in Oak Ridge has not changed in decades.
Much of the job growth in Oak Ridge has come from two types of spin-offs from work done on the DOE Reservation. Some of it is the growth of new business firms that operate as contractors to carry out research or associated work in support of an ongoing project within the DOE. The second type consists of new business firms whose leaders build on previous experience working for DOE to develop a new product or service. Innovation has been a factor underpinning the creation of both kinds of new firms.
A healthy economic future for Oak Ridge will require the continuation of these kinds of spin off activities. However, there continues to be a need for more diversification. So long as the jobs in Oak Ridge depend directly or indirectly on government-funded activity, the City will be vulnerable to “boom or bust” cycles depending on the annual funding of the Department of Energy. The City’s economy will be healthier if more new jobs are not tied to the DOE. This will require the application of innovation in a broader range of activities, including entrepreneurs, artists, writers, and creative business types. Making Oak Ridge a more interesting and pleasant place for young people to live and work will facilitate the attraction of such people.
Heritage tourism is growing in Oak Ridge, and the industry is poised to expand. The City has been pulled back into the national limelight by the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park (including the Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford sites); the recent National Building Museum exhibition in Washington D.C. of the design and construction of the Manhattan Project; and the popular publication by Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City. New museums are opening, and the boards and foundations of existing museums are interested in working together.
It is an opportunity to revisit the Heritage Tourism Plan that was prepared for the City and the Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2007, by AkinsCrisp Public Strategies to address the potential impact of tourism on the City’s identity, economic and financial success, and continued viability.
The following list of ideas and recommended actions, largely based on community input, are intended to capture and maintain future population and economic growth that will sustain Oak Ridge as a prosperous full-service city.
Stimulate Diverse Population Growth
- Establish a distinct, active city center that includes shopping and entertainment, offices and services, urban housing, and public gathering spaces. Engage owner and developer communities by initiating a market study and design feasibility analysis of the area surrounding Wilson Street, between Tulane and Rutgers Avenues, to spur new development projects and create ‘Downtown Oak Ridge.’
- Attract families and young adults to live in Oak Ridge by increasing housing options and the types of businesses and services they need.
- Increase interesting places and activities to make Oak Ridge more desirable for young people, including entertainment, events, arcades, craft beer and coffee houses.
- Capture Oak Ridge residents from the estimated 2,000 new jobs created by the modernization program of the
Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex, and additional jobs through both Y-12 and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
- Enable a skilled, local workforce by promoting connections to technical education and certification at local institutions and apprenticeship or training programs with employers.
- Recruit the talents and resources within the senior, non-working population, of which almost half have a college degree, to advocate for the needs of the community and prepare a legacy of enlightened citizens.
- Promote niche-marketing to attract individuals and families interested in renovating a legacy home.
- Build upon heritage tourism that has been renewed by the relocated American Museum of Science and Energy, the new history museum at Heritage Center (site of the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plan), and the recently created Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Collaborate with Explore Oak Ridge and local organizations, businesses, and special events to facilitate activities and develop a program for signage, wayfinding, and beautification.
- Enhance the climate for small business growth in Oak Ridge by identifying challenges faced by small business owners, such as zoning or permitting, and enacting appropriate amendments or procedural changes. Encourage incubator programs and facilities that provide start-up support and shared office space, equipment, and meeting rooms.
- Promote a diversity of local businesses and jobs. Collaborate with local leaders of economic development, including educational institutions, the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Development Board, East Tennessee Economic Council, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, ORNL’s Innovation Crossroads, major employers and small businesses to ensure that the various strategies and programs ultimately support a balanced and thriving business environment.
- Support new jobs and capital investment through industrial development and expansion.
- Promote development of a flexible conference center and exhibition space that can accommodate a range of events and activities for up to 500 people.
- Support more creative “Maker” events where artists, crafters, engineers, students, and others can show, share skills, and collaborate on hobbies, experiments, projects.
- Encourage recreation-based businesses, amenities, and services that are located near local biking and walking trails and other recreation facilities.
Attract Investment in Community
- Promote planned revitalization of specific urban areas and neighborhoods by leveraging the financial tools available through the Industrial Development Board (IDB) and Housing Authority, such as tax increment financing, bonds, and grants.
- Leverage private investment in property located in the federally designated Opportunity Zone (disadvantaged census tract in Oak Ridge) through Area Master Plans that identify specific community needs / desired outcomes in those areas. Consider a program that includes some tax relief or abatements passed on to the businesses and tenants that utilize these properties.
- Strengthen property values and desirability of development location through City investment in infrastructure and regulatory decisions that offer fair, predictable, and cost-effective growth for developers.
- Introduce a façade improvement program that awards a small grant or tax incentive or provides design assistance for renovating or updating the exterior of aging commercial buildings and storefronts. These programs are known to increase sales and attract new businesses and shoppers to the area, to motivate additional improvements in the area, and increase property values.
- Prepare for the impacts of potential economic growth described in the Revitalization Plan for the Heritage Center (East Tennessee Technology Park), a 300-acre private sector industrial park that seeks to attract advanced material manufacturing, research and development, freight and logistics, and eco-industry supported by access to interstate highways, rail lines, a proposed airport, and potential water transport. Growth may increase worker and resident population, the demand for public services and infrastructure, and introduce conditions that adversely affect surrounding development or conserved open space.
- Similarly, prepare for the impacts of new development on approximately 320 acres in the Horizon Center industrial park, managed by the City’s Industrial Development Board.
- Along with new and continued economic development success, encourage support for community services for the underserved population of Oak Ridge, such as shelter and medical or rehabilitation services.
big idea: DIVERSITY OF HOUSING/MIXED USE CITY CENTER
In their 2018 study, Oak Ridge City Center, A 2030 Strategy, Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) notes the incredible acreage of parking and other unused space in the City’s core. In their estimation, higher density housing in this core area could add 3000-8000 residents and create new markets to support indigenous restaurants and shops. SOM effectively presents the need for population and economic growth and provides guiding principles for creating a unique downtown in Oak Ridge. Multiple surveys of workers for the major federal employers have identified that a lack of newer, urban style housing in town is one reason that most workers choose to live in Knoxville or other nearby communities. However, SOM notes that the proximity of city government facilities, A.K. Bissell Park, Oak Ridge High School, and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, along with Main Street and nearby shopping concentrations, offers an amazing foundation for a thriving, mixed-use district.