BLOUNTVILLE — Residents of neighborhoods around Blountville Middle School and Blountville Elementary School joined together in recent weeks, determined to have a say in what happens to the buildings and other amenities on the 27 acres shared by the two schools once they close for good at the end of this school year.
The group’s first focus has been to gather hundreds of signatures on a petition stating opposition to the site of the schools being considered as a location for a new Sullivan County Jail. They plan to present that petition to the Sullivan County Commission on Thursday.
Sullivan County Commissioner Dwight King publicly raised the possibility of moving the site of the new jail — currently planned as an extension of the existing jail — at a County Commission meeting last month. King did not propose action on the issue but promised to keep bringing it up.
Preliminary estimates the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office shared with the Times News indicate changing the location of the new jail facilities would increase the total cost of the project by tens of millions of dollars and push the completion date of the new facilities into the future by as much as two years.
County Mayor Richard Venable told the Times News on Friday that the idea of moving the new jail’s construction to the site of the two schools isn’t likely to advance, based on feedback he has gotten from other commissioners since King raised the issue.
The Times News has interviewed members of the neighborhood group several times over the past two weeks. They range from young couples with young children who are fairly new to the neighborhood, to middle-aged homeowners looking forward to retirement — who view their homes as their major financial asset, to senior citizens.
The majority list safety concerns as their number one concern if the new jail were to be built in the middle of the residential area now occupied by the two schools. Future use of the property is the secondary concern of most. They want it to be something that serves the community, and they have a lot of ideas. Finally, they are concerned about how what happens to the school property will impact the market value of their homes.
Regardless of whether King’s idea of putting the jail there gets traction or dies, members of the neighborhood say they will remain active and do whatever they can to have a say in what does eventually happen to the school property.
They have many ideas for its use, including: county offices; county archives; expansion of the Sullivan County Public Library, which sits next door to the schools; relocation of the Sullivan County Department of Education; training facilities; a community and/or senior center; farmers market events; and keeping the recreational amenities open for public use, perhaps adding a dog park.
One resident said if the school buildings can’t be repurposed, the whole property should become a county park centered around the existing ball fields and track.
County Mayor Richard Venable said he agrees the area’s residents should have input in what happens to the property once it is no longer used by the county school system.
“That’s exactly what ought to happen,” Venable said. “They should voice their concerns. If nothing else, (King’s raising the topic) has brought out the discussion of the future use of the schools and that property.”
Venable said he had been told preliminary estimates are that moving the location of the new jail facilities at this point would make the total cost of the jail jump to between $125 million and $135 million, from the estimated $71 million under the current plan.
According to public records on file with the county’s accounts and budgets office, to date the county has spent $1,755,030.31 on development of the current plan for new jail facilities to be built connecting to the rear of the current main jail, which adjoins the Blountville Justice Center and its courtrooms.
Venable said putting the jail elsewhere, without also constructing new adjoining courts, would simply increase transportation costs for getting inmates back and forth to court.
Venable said the biggest thing to him, however, is that the neighborhood was built around the school and people bought homes there with the reasonable expectation it wasn’t going to become a jail.
“Hopefully, whatever happens with the property, it will be something serving the community,” Venable said. “The usable, maintenance-free part we ought to use, if we have a use for it. I’ve gotten calls from many commissioners who said they don’t think it’s a good idea to talk now about changing plans and not a good idea to delay the jail.”
Sullivan County Jail Administrator Lee Carswell said he had asked the architects working on the design for the new jail how a change in location would change cost and timeline estimates.
Carswell said the answers included: the current design phase was estimated at nine months and is half complete; starting over to design a stand-alone jail on a different site would require 12 months of new work; the current plan has an estimated construction period of two years once the bid process if over; changing to a stand-alone jail would extend that to 36 months of construction after the design and bid processes were completed; an option for a stand-alone jail that was included in a study and presented over a year ago carried an estimated price tag of almost $115 million in 2019 construction costs; a change today to go forward with that plan would likely run $125 to $130 million.
King is from Piney Flats. His County Commission district does not include the Blountville neighborhoods around the school.
The neighbors said they have heard back from each of the three commissioner who do represent them and each — Michael Cole, Joyce Crosswhite, and Tony Leonard — said they opposed moving the new jail there.
Cole wrote directly to the Times News, stating, in part, “We cannot simply change our plans on building a new facility this late in the process. I support my community’s stance on this matter, and will continue to oppose the plan to put a correctional facility in the residential area of the Blountville community.”
Crosswhite also provided a comment in writing to the newspaper: “I have stated to the Blountville Community residents that have contacted me about the Blountville School building and property; I do oppose using that site for a jail complex. I will work with the county commission and the school board to use this building for the betterment of Blountville.”
Crosswhite also said she’d spoken Friday morning with Board of Education Chairman Randall Jones to request a meeting to discuss the school property.
On Thursday during a school board meeting, Jones said he had discussed with three county commissioners the possibility of the county acquiring the Blountville Middle/Elementary School buildings and 27-acre campus. Jones said King discussed interest the County Commission might have in the property. Jones said the site might be suited for extra records storage space and office space for the county government.
“That (jail idea) was not any discussion I had with Dwight,” Jones said, although he and BOE member Michael Hughes said jail use had been mentioned in past years.
“A jail is not on my radar,” Jones said.
In addition, Jones said he’s been approached by a private party interested in the Blountville property.
During that BOE meeting on Thursday, Jones mentioned the possibility of the school board trading the county the Blountville schools property in exchange for the Bishop trust land and building of an access road to West Ridge High School.
“I told him I would bring it up for discussion tonight,” Jones said.
The school board voted to have its attorney, Pat Hull, work with county Purchasing Agent Kris Davis to hire an appraiser to get a value on the school property.
be worth considerably more money that any school we’ve sold,” Jones said.
“If I thought we were going to get a $3 million road (to West Ridge), I’d be very interested,” Hughes said. “This is a very valuable asset.”
If the commission has no interest, Jones said the property could be sold by sealed bid or public auction or through a real estate agent, although with sealed bids and auction the board would reserve the right to refuse any and all bids.
“As the school board, we have no say so in how that Blountville campus is used” if the county acquires it, Jones said, “just like they had no say so over where we put the high school” on Lynn Road off Exit 63 of Interstate 81.
Board member Mary Rouse of the Bristol area said the school board could use money from the sale on an access road. “I think we can at least propose it to see what’s going on,” Rouse said.
Jones said he knows nothing about interest by commissioners beyond King, Herschel Glover of Piney Flats and a third commissioner he would not identify. He said no potential purchase price or interest in the trade proposal were discussed.
Board member Paul Robinson of Bloomingdale asked about putting a deed restriction on the property that it could never be a jail like the restriction on past properties sold that they never could be used as schools.
Hughes said he would look first at what is best for the school system and its students and second on the interest and input from the community and commissioners.
In February 2019, the commission hired Knoxville-based Michael Brady Inc. as a “first phase of trying to build a new jail.” MBI is expected to complete the design of the jail by August.
In September of last year, the County Commission voted to issue $80 million in bond debt, payable over 20 years at an average fixed interest rate of 1.54%, to fund new jail facilities. The debt will be repaid with an…