From a few people who had served on council or were active in the Chamber of Commerce I too often heard laments about the workers on federal projects who wouldn’t even consider living in Oak Ridge. I also heard that the infrastructure was old and crumbling, the housing ought to be leveled so new houses could be built, the population was becoming too old or too poor or too whatever was “not us.” I heard from my neighbors and friends a counter- lament that the leadership was too negative about Oak Ridge.
Since I wasn’t raised here but chose this town, the heavy negatives seemed unbalanced. Last Sunday one friend told me excitedly about meeting a young engineer who, with his wife and two children, had decided to only look in Oak Ridge for a home when they came here to work. The lesson is not that we are right about our town’s attractiveness. It is that we have become discouraged as city leaders bewailed the city’s losses instead of celebrating its assets.
My first vision for Oak Ridge is that city council members will begin to act as a representative body. We need to bring together our disparate views of who Oak Ridgers are and what the town’s assets are and build a joint agenda toward the future.
Second on my list is that we develop a solid financial picture of where we are and how we get solvent. The Charter Commission stalled when given the chance to return financial accountability to the oversight of the citizens. Council still has the opportunity to expand on the effort led by Mr. Hensley last year and to look in deeper detail at our expenditures and indebtedness. Then we need to bring that understanding to a long term planning workshop to look at realistic options and make difficult choices. We need to set priorities together with the direct input of the citizens.
I see Oak Ridge as a place many people will want to live based on a wide variety of lifestyle choices. Across this country (and around the world) are people who prefer to live in a town that is a cross of big city culture and small town relationships. We have a wealth of substantial housing which has either been updated all along or is ripe for creative updating at costs below new housing. Many of those houses are on lots with mature plantings and grown shade trees. We have a plethora of building lots and some lovely new houses for those who prefer them. We have new apartments and more going up and a variety of condominiums and town houses available. We have refurbished apartment homes with the charm of simpler times.
I also see a town that gets tough on landlords who contribute to neighborhood decline through neglect and greed. We need to honor and encourage landlords who take pride of ownership in investing in the city’s renewal.
I foresee outdoors lovers and fishermen and entrepreneurs and retirees. I see folks who want or need to live less expensively than Farragut but who are willing to invest sweat equity. I see a town made up of the broadest possible variety of folks: scientists, skilled craftsmen, laborers, educators; old, young, high energy, relaxed; differently abled and differently engaged.
It may be that this town needs to change its collective mind. When did we lose interest in each other’s ideas? When did we decide that the “other” is always wrong? When did we decide we only wanted one kind of housing, one kind of family, one kind of vision? DOE provides amazing employment and attracts interesting people. So do large and small private companies. Each is an asset.
One of the practical visions I have is the kind that won’t sit well with a lot of people. When 95 is four lanes from I-40 to I-75, Oak Ridge will effectively be the Rainbow Route between the two. I see truck repair shops and 4-wheel services. Perhaps there is room for both an airstrip and a distribution center on formerly federal land. How about hotels and restaurants for travelers? We are halfway between Toledo and Tallahassee for the snowbirds. We are halfway between St. Louis and Savannah for spring break. We are halfway between Baton Rouge and Baltimore, Houston and Hartford, St. Augustine and St. Paul. Perhaps there are entertainments we would like to create that would provide an attractive trip break for those travelers whose interests don’t draw them to Pigeon Forge.
Oak Ridge is already steeped in a love of music, education, art, dance. What if we built on our arts as well as our outdoors? Could we attract the world to our playhouse? To our symphony? To art venues? (People travel hours to get to the galleries of Atlanta, San Francisco, New York.) Wouldn’t this be a lovely place to shop for art? Isn’t it a delightful place for artists to live and work?
Because we already have a large percentage of older residents, we have attracted much better health and support services than most communities our size. Our climate is moderate and our seasons gorgeous. Why aren’t we more excited about attracting replacement retirees for the precious ones we are losing? We have a growing learning community to keep us all mentally sharp. We have clean air, fresh water. Good roads make cities available for the few days we need them. We are lucky enough to be near a small city which is eagerly reinventing itself and with whom we can be partners for area efforts.
So what do you think? Want to float some ideas for us all to consider?