“Let’s build a downtown!”

Those were the exuberant words of Alcoa Assistant City Manager Bill Hammon after the city broke ground Monday on the former ALCOA Inc. West Plant site, a project that’s taken two decades to get to this point.

“Twenty years,” Hammon said when asked how long he had been working toward developing the 350 acres where Alcoa Highway meets Hall Road. “If we’re able to do this New Urbanism/Market Square approach, it will give Alcoa a central focus, a focal point. When I say, ‘Meet me downtown,’ you’ll know where.”

Hammon and other city officials hailed Monday’s groundbreaking as the result of the partnership of the city, private developers and Arconic, formerly ALCOA Inc., to bring a combination of commercial, retail, office and residential offerings to the land used for an aluminum fabrication mill from 1920 until 1989. The West Plant was demolished in 1996-97, according to stories in The Daily Times archives.

“It has been a long time coming,” City Manager Mark Johnson told The Daily Times before the groundbreaking ceremony. “It takes a lot of key people lining up to make it happen. We had the right people at Arconic, the right developers and the right city commissioners, who decided to get involved because, if they hadn’t, this property probably would be sitting here empty for the next 20 years.”

Johnson was referencing a move by the city of Alcoa in 2016 to partner with RESIGHT of Colorado, formerly International Risk Group, after Kinsey, Probasco, and Hays of Chattanooga left Airport Center Development Partners (ACDP).

Under a development agreement Alcoa inked with ACDP in November, the city is responsible for managing all the infrastructure including streets, water, sewer, electric, storm drainage and street lighting while ACDP covers costs for site grading, stormwater facilities and environmental remediation.

Alcoa will be reimbursed for its investment by getting 50 percent of the net proceeds from property sales, Johnson told Alcoa city commissioners in October. However, if the property has trouble selling, Alcoa has secured 35 acres, located on the corner of Hall Road and an extended Associates Boulevard, that the city could sell.

Not that those gathered for Monday’s groundbreaking think that will be a problem.

“It has to be attractive to some high-end retailers to bring more revenue to Alcoa,” said City Commissioner Jim Buchanan, looking at the Great Smoky Mountains from the site.

Retired Alcoa Planning Commissioner Mary Baugues agreed.

“I think this is going to be a tremendous, tremendous boon to the economy here,” said Baugues, who served on the Planning Commission for 23 years. “This is just the most gorgeous view of the whole area. It just doesn’t look real, does it?”

Patience pays off

“My grandfather and I set rabbit traps out here when I was a kid,” said Alcoa Mayor Don Mull, who noted he was born in a house on nearby Lodge Street. “This is a very historical place. For 70 years, this site was occupied by a major contributor to the city and the whole community. Today marks a rebirth of the site as a contributor to the economy.”

Mull and others hailed the contributions of the aluminum company, the city, local contractors, private developers and state entities such as the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Department of Transportation coming together to make the long-awaited project a reality.

“You have patiently waited for us,” said Mikk Anderson, principal partner with RESIGHT. “Almost 10 years ago, I stood very near to here and thought we’d have an event like this, maybe two or three years from then. ... We had great plans to begin with, then the great recession happened.”

Monica Trott, director of global real estate for Arconic, praised all the entities’ patience and persistence after “the economy bottomed out” in 2008.

“A lot of developers want to get in, get out and get the return on their investments,” she said. “This shows we picked the right partner.”

Trott also applauded Arconic for choosing to forgo short-term gains for “a creative project” with long-term benefits for the community.

“That says a lot about the company,” she said.

The mayor gave a lot of credit to the city manager, who he said worked for years on the project, including “lots of traveling and working weekends.”

“When you have something this massive and big, you have to have someone steering the ship, even when things don’t look too good,” Mull said of Johnson’s tenacity.

Road work first

Monday’s groundbreaking marks the start of road construction, utility infrastructure installation and site grading on the property, Johnson explained Monday.

“These are exciting times,” said Alcoa Planning Commissioner John “Rocky” Rochelle. “I’m glad to see it underway, and I’m anxious to get it started.”

City Commissioner Vaughn Belcher agreed.

“This is fantastic,” he said. “Finally, after years of waiting, we have another great project for the city of Alcoa and the community.”

The first phase of the redevelopment work will involve the construction of a landscaped boulevard, including utilities, running slightly more than a mile, connecting the existing Hunt Road interchange with the signalized intersection at Hall Road and Associates Boulevard, Johnson said.

The other piece of it will include grading that will open up close to 100 acres for sale and development, he added.

“Seventeen-and-a-half years ago when I came here, on day two Bill (Hammon) started talking to me about the West Plant site, and we’ve been working on it since then,” Johnson said, thanking city employees including retirees Eddie Tramel, Larry Stargil and Chris Hamby, all of whom attended Monday’s groundbreaking. “This has worn a lot of people out!”

Construction is expected to be substantially complete within eight to 10 months, according to a press release from the city of Alcoa. Once the road is significantly complete, property on both sides of the new boulevard will be available for development.

“We’re very happy to see this project moving forward,” said Bryan Daniels, president/CEO of Blount Partnership. “We think having this property developed will help us attract more people to live in Blount County, which helps with our labor force, and will help us grow the economy.”

In the meantime, Alcoa City Planner Jeremy Pearson will be working with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization to secure funding for a revised master plan for the site.

“There have been many master plan renditions over the years, but none of them have come to fruition,” he said. “That’s what’s different about this project.”

Lesli Bales-Sherrod has written for multiple East Tennessee newspapers, as well as working in communications for the federal government in Washington, D.C., twice, in addition to her favorite job as mom of two. She covers Alcoa, Maryville and Townsend.

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