Saturday brought about 20 volunteers to Alcoa’s Howe Street Park equipped with deep trash bags, gloves and picker claws.
They dove deep into the brush near West Edison, Davies and West Howe streets, close to a portion of Pistol Creek, pulling out old glass bottles, tires, plastic detritus, even a doorknob.
By early noon, volunteers from Little River Watershed Association (LRWA) and Keep Blount Beautiful (KBB) wrapped up work and stood listening to Blount County Soil Conservation District (BCSCD) Watershed Coordinator Julie Konkel, who had her daughter in a carrier on her back as she thanked them.
The cleanup is part of a larger effort to remove Pistol Creek from Tennessee’s impaired streams list, and Saturday was just the beginning.
Konkel secured a $330,000 grant just as she came on board with BCSCD in July 2018. Now, she’s helming an effort to combine funding, volunteer enthusiasm and community-minded restoration to preserve one of Blount’s iconic waterways.
Pistol Creek weaves through Alcoa and Maryville beside greenways, under roadways and through neighborhoods and farmland. It’s as serene as it is popular but it’s also not without threats.
That’s why Konkel is kicking off serious efforts to restore the stream in the Howe Street Park area: The creek there has been known to breach its banks and cause flooding.
“My job is to manage water and soil and water quality,” Konkel explained after Saturday’s cleanup. “To do that, I look at every type of land use or space, whether it’s forest or city or the stream itself.”
The grant allows her to tackle nonpoint source pollutants, materials that don’t come right out of a pipe, but rather get into the water from the land. That could mean not only some materials volunteers hauled away Saturday but also toxic chemicals and sediments from erosion.
Konkel’s grant-funded mission to improve the Pistol Creek footprint brought her to talks with the city of Alcoa. Leaders there pointed to the areas like the Howe Street Park neighborhood where a stormwater ditch wasn’t draining properly.
“I started looking at how to address those issues,” Konkel said. “It’s not always simple. Sometimes you have to look at the whole area.” She started talking to community members, getting a sense of how stream waters and flooding touched their lives over the years.
Howe Street Park, she emphasized, is “kind of in the middle of it all and so is this forest buffer.” She pointed to the area where volunteers were extracting trash from a tangle of ivy and saplings.
“I saw an opportunity not only to address a ditch and a flooded street but to integrate, as we should, different parts of the whole neighborhood and community to resolve the issue,” Konkel said.
In the coming months, she’ll lead groups to construct forest habitat and gardens to help water that collects in the area to reach Pistol Creek without sediment and pollutants.
But the Howe Street Park project is only the start of Konkel’s Pistol Creek watershed efforts: Elsewhere, the grant will help mitigate issues like bank erosion, e-coli problems and failing septic systems.
Connections between the project and how it will substantively affect people are palpable, Konkel said. Reduced flooding, navigable roads, cleaner water, stable banks all are part of what she called a “holistic approach” to conserving a significant Blount waterway over the coming years.
LRWA Program Director Lydia Turpin and KBB Executive Director Brittney Whipple said after the cleanup that visibility and communication about what’s happening at Pistol Creek are vital to continued success.
“You could just look at this and see woods, but then you go back there and you see how bad it really is, then you start addressing the problem,” Whipple said, noting a large part of her organization’s mission is sustaining community involvement.
“If someone’s not coming in to clean it up, people might think it doesn’t matter,” Turpin said. “But if you come in and take the time to clean up these areas, I would like to think they take more pride in these spaces.”
Blount County Commissioner Jackie Hill agreed. She and her brother Logan Hill were among the volunteers Saturday and she praised Konkel’s work.
“It’s all about setting the right priorities and doing the work,” Hill said. “To me, this shows commitment to the neighborhood. And when you see dollars actually being spent to address issues important to the neighborhood, that sends the right signal. That’s how you create a community.”
Konkel said the project could take between one to two years to complete.
Alcoa’s future is full of changes and needs in almost every department, according to leaders who presented Friday during the city government’s first public budget meeting in more than a year.
The budget workshop featured department reports in which leaders described a complex though quickly evolving fiscal landscape.
Proposed at more than $160 million, the fiscal 2022 budget encompasses both progress and recuperation. COVID-19 took an expected toll on Alcoa, but according to City Manager Mark Johnson’s report on fiscal 2021, there also were some expensive anomalies.
Outstanding among these was a sales tax refund that cost the city $563,715, according to Johnson’s presentation.
He said the city couldn’t legally disclose what company collected this refund, but acknowledged it was disappointing.
This combined with internet sales tax losses of $450,000, property tax losses of $606,762 due to changing assessment values and other difficult-to-measure COVID retail losses painted a rough fiscal 2021 picture for Alcoa.
But there was good news, too.
American Rescue Plan Act money totaling more than $2.6 million will hit city coffers soon along with a Tennessee local government grant of more than $124,000.
Building permit fees are up because of new apartment construction and the recently announced Amazon warehouse on the former Pine Lake Golf Course, where the 1-million-square-foot structure is quickly coming together.
Internet sales taxes may rebound in the coming years, Johnson said, and new restaurants opened their doors in the past few months.
All departments were under budget for fiscal 2021, he reported, and the city has an exciting future of residential and commercial change ahead.
But for the moment, some of that change may rely on proposed bond issuance (borrowing) in fiscal 2022. These include $15 million for Phase 1 of the long-awaited Alcoa Intermediate School expansion, $1.5 million for replacing two Alcoa Fire Department trucks and $350,000 for tennis court repairs at Springbrook.
Despite all this, the city is not raising taxes, though departments are having to tighten belts momentarily.
Alcoa continues to face employment needs in most departments and is still strategizing ways to offer competitive pay.
Human Resources Manager Melissa Thompson noted in her presentation that a total 41 city employees are either currently eligible for retirement or will be come December 2021. A compensation study completed in 2019 led to some entry-level pay increases in 2020, but leaders want more.
They’re proposing raises for firefighters and police officers first and professional staff soon after. Recruitment efforts and new payroll software also are top priorities, Thompson said.
Johnson said in an interview after the workshop he was positive about the future and specifically has an eye on a “paradigm change in the younger generation” and how that may affect Alcoa’s residential growth and, therefore, its tax base.
He noted Alcoa often finds itself in a tight spot when it comes to residential growth. “Even though there’s a lot of vacant land around Alcoa, it’s not available for development,” he noted, adding a significant portion of property is owned by airport entities, Arconic Inc. or the University of Tennessee.
That’s why the city is not burgeoning with new home development right now and often looks to commercial and industrial resources to shape revenue progress.
Johnson spoke to some of the borrowing Alcoa may have to pursue in fiscal 2022 to keep up with necessary projects, noting the pay-off process is spread through generations. “That’s the whole intent,” he said. “It not like going out and charging a new car to your credit card. It’s one of the tools we have. (Bonds) are tax exempt for the most part. You’re encouraged to buy municipal bonds.”
He explained the city is dedicated to assessing its future assets and how they match up to the current debt service plan.
Pointing specifically to Amazon’s advent in Alcoa, Johnson said it’s helpful to have confidence in tax-generating entities that won’t go away any time soon. “We’re in pretty good shape,” he said.
The fiscal 2022 budget will come to the City Commission for first and second readings before it takes effect on July 1.
Just as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end,” the Smoky Mountain Scottish Festival and Games concluded Sunday at Maryville College, capping off two days of bagpipes, athletics and food galore.
Sunday’s schedule included a morning worship service, clan triathlon relay, dog parade, women’s haggis hurl and closing ceremonies. Gates opened at 8 a.m., and events lasted through the afternoon.
Just as the spectacles and happenings were plentiful at the festival, so too were the efforts that went into making it happen. The festival was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bill Kilgore, chair of the nine-member board that oversees the festival, praised the work of the event’s organizers.
“We have a really good group of people. They all handle their end,” Kilgore said. “They have certain job assignments and they get them done, so I really just answer questions.”
Kilgore said he was excited to see the event happen, especially after last year’s cancellation.
“I know that the whole county, the whole state, everybody, wants to get back to normal,” Kilgore said. “And to be able to put on an event as COVID becomes more controlled, to be able to start having things in our community means a lot. It helps benefit the small businesses in our community with filling up a bunch of hotel rooms. ...
“What does that mean economically for our community? People buying gas, people staying in hotel rooms. I think it’s a huge step toward normalcy and it’s a great economic impact on our community to have this many people come to town.”
Last year’s cancellation didn’t affect the way Blount Partnership, which helps promote the festival, went about its marketing tasks this year, Communications Director Jeff Muir said. It did affect organizational efforts, though, for an event he said is a “huge economic driver” for both the city and Maryville College.
“When you get these events on a layoff for a year, (you’re) just trying to make sure everybody’s getting back on the same page and making sure that everybody’s role is ... defined like it was before, trying to put that stuff together,” Muir said. “With the governor releasing all the Tennessee Pledge guidelines and everything like that, this is just kind of back to business as usual when running the event.”
The partnership has been the festival’s lead sponsor since it moved from Gatlinburg to Blount County in 2011, Muir said. Its promotional efforts include building both a website and mobile app for the festival.
“It’s just one of the events that we offer our services to,” Muir said. “(The partnership helped) get them off the ground a few years ago, and now they’ve got a leadership role established, and so they run it on their own. Very minimal help from us anymore (in that role). ... We just help them promote it.”
“Bill Kilgore, (board vice president) Keith Austin, those guys really do a good job of running the event and making sure it goes off well,” Muir added.
Kilgore is well aware of what the festival means to Maryville, a city with strong Scottish and Irish roots; his sixth-great grandfather was born in Scotland and immigrated to the area, he said, and many locals have a similar heritage.
“The cool thing about the Scottish Festival, it’s a lot about heritage,” Kilgore said. “Your family, your lineage and where we’re from ... the Scot-Irish have been here as long as anybody.”
“(Passion for heritage) makes us want to put on a good event,” he said, “so that everybody can learn.”