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$30 Million Training Facility in Tenn. Needs Planning

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.-- The city s idea of building a $30 million state-of-the-art training facility that regional fire departments and emergency response teams also could utilize seems eminently worthwhile. Chattanooga is the designated Homeland Security coordinator for the surrounding 10-county area, and such a training center would be an invaluable resource. The problem is that Chattanooga Fire Chief Wendell Rowe and Mayor Ron Littlefield want urgently to proceed with the center, and want the County Commission s help to get it started. Yet they have just $250,000 on hand and no plan in place for future funding. Their idea is missing a lot of other integral pieces, as well.

There s been little to no discussion, for example, with the agencies and governing bodies in the 10-county area -- and including Hamilton County s secondary municipalities -- that Chief Rowe says should be involved in using and ultimately helping to pay for the facility.

Neither have the city officials developed detailed land-use, building and business plans for constructing the center on the suggested 35-acre Enterprise South site.

To further complicate matters, the proposed site is admittedly unfit for use by potential industrial plants because of unstable soil and hazardous underground materials left by past use by the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant. That immediately raises skepticism about the city s proposed use of such a site. If it s not usable by private industry, why should the city and county sink $30 million into the site for municipal use?

Another question is whether construction of a training center on the proposed site would deter future industrial development by private companies on adjacent sites at Enterprise South. That s a key issue: The industrial park has long been touted by city and county officials as the community s ticket for securing major economic development by large, well-paying industries. Its viability should not be jeopardized.

These gaps -- in funding, planning and strategic partnerships -- suggest that the city hasn t done its homework for the facility. Why, then, do Chief Rowe and Mayor Littlefield want to rush forward with the plan, and why should county government rush in with them?

Chief Rowe contends -- and Mayor Littlefield and County Mayor Claude Ramsey seem to agree -- that business and industry would profit from the proposed center because of the expertise at managing big emergencies that such a center would give first responders. That may be true, but it s all the more reason to spend time planning precisely how the new center would be built and financed, and how potential partnerships with business, industry and other public entities would be promoted and achieved.

County Commissioner Jim Coppinger, a well-regarded former chief of the Chattanooga Fire Department, has raised these questions, among others. In fact, he began asking a list of pertinent questions when Chief Rowe first appeared before the County Commission in March to discuss the proposed training center.

The city s subsequent failure to respond to those questions at two meetings in November -- the last one occurred just last week -- has needlessly mired the proposal in a controversy of sorts, and left county commissioners skeptical.

There s really no excuse for the controversy. If the proposed center is worth building, the city needs to the planning work upfront -- not on the run after a mismanaged start.

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