Major changes are taking place in Kingsport, everything from new shopping centers and restaurants, educational opportunities and housing developments to the growth of the city limits.
With growth and expansion come certain challenges, from road congestion to infrastructure improvements to managing debt load, things city officials are aware of during this time of change in the Model City.
Over the next five years, Kingsport plans to annex more than 3,600 acres in the Rock Springs community. This will be the largest annexation in more than a decade.
The first series of annexations — eight different areas — began last year and are currently working their way through the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approval process. That process is expected to finish up next April. Several lawsuits have been filed by the residents to stop the annexations, but the city is pressing on regardless.
A couple of years ago, Kingsport’s annexation policy focused on the city reaching a population of 50,000 by 2010. To achieve this goal city planners looked at the Fall Creek community and ran some numbers on how much it would cost to annex in this part of Sullivan County. A $91 million price tag came back, and city leaders aimed their annexation sights southward to where a group of local developers were building a 300-home neighborhood off Rock Springs Road.
“We’re not where I’d like to see us be, but we’re developing a more consistent approach, and I hope the board will be supportive. Too often in the past we’ve been going different directions and stop entirely, bouncing back and forth,” said City Manager John Campbell. “If you look at where Kingsport has not realized its full potential over the last 20 years, it’s the fact there’s not been a consistent approach to annexation.”
The approach Kingsport is now taking with annexation is supported by every member of the BMA.
“I think we’re taking an adequate approach (toward annexation). For a city to stand still is not an option,” Mayor Dennis Phillips said. “We have to annex to grow, and I think the key is to provide the services that we say we will, and we have to show the people they can live in Kingsport in peace and harmony without fear of undue regulations.”
Alderman Valerie Joh is a strong advocate of annexation, calling the city’s plans “normal growth.”
“I get very distressed at all of the people that say we can’t or shouldn’t. I remember when Preston Woods fought it tooth and nail, and now they can’t imagine not being part of the city,” Joh said. “I think it would have been very good for Colonial Heights to come in way back when. Right now, I really feel like they’re old rooftops and don’t have the appeal to come into the city. The city doesn’t need them. It did then.
“We’re looking at different places now. Nothing against them, I just think it would have been better for them to be a part of the city.”
The cost associated with upgrading water lines and installing sewer to the Rock Springs properties is estimated to be $2.3 million and $6 million, respectively. Funding for the water and sewer work in the Rock Springs community has been earmarked for fiscal year 2011.
Kingsport’s water plant processes about 15 million gallons of water a day and has the capacity to process 28 million gallons a day. In addition, the city recently broke ground on a $22 million sewer plant renovation and expansion to come into compliance with the U.S. Clean Water Act.
“Every time we see an annexation, we present to the BMA the cost of meeting that service. It’s our intention to grow our ability to meet that service concurrently with what we’re presenting through the annexation,” Public Works Director Ryan McReynolds said. “As areas are annexed and vacant land becomes developed, there’s a lag time between annexation and the need for the service. Our intention is to present the costs to the BMA through the budget cycle.”
Other expenses associated with the annexations in the Rock Springs community include $17 million for the construction of a new 500-student elementary school — which will be paid for by Kingsport City Schools — and a new $2 million, 7,000-square-foot fire station. which came out of a $13 million bond issuance the city did last year.
And these are not the only projects that have driven up Kingsport’s debt over the past year.
The higher education center, the allied health facility, a proposed aquatics center, energy conservation efforts at five city buildings, and the Gibson Mill realignment project have caused Kingsport’s debt to jump by more than $30 million over the past two fiscal years, going from $110 million in fiscal year 2006 to $141 million in fiscal year 2008. By fiscal year 2014 the city’s debt is projected to be below $120 million.
Under Kingsport’s charter, the city can incur debt up to 20 percent of the assessed value of property within the city. Under a stricter BMA-adopted guideline, the city cannot go above 10 percent. With the latest bond issuances, Kingsport’s debt is around 5.5 percent.
“I think our debt load is very manageable. I think we have a good deal of capacity to go up without affecting the tax rate,” Campbell said. “It’s always a balancing act. Do you want to be competitive as a city, do you want to be attractive, to have good quality growth?
“You have to have certain amenities. You could put that amenity off 10 years, but in the meantime you could have 10 cities pass you. To some degree that’s what’s happened.”
Kingsport’s debt has been a regular topic of discussion among the BMA and city finance officials, with some warning the amount of debt is rising too much and others saying the city’s ability to pay off debt is adequate to handle the additional bond issuances.
Alderman Ken Marsh periodically reminds his fellow aldermen about the city’s debt load and warns the debt level is rising faster than necessary.
“I am really concerned about mortgaging the future,” Marsh said. “Reading the capital improvement plan, it’s more like fiction than fact.”
“The problem this administration has, and I’m part of it, is it doesn’t have any prioritization,” Marsh said. “Any project that comes forward is dealt with in a vacuum. There’s no strategic plan. It’s out of control.”
A majority of the other aldermen don’t see it that way.
“Debt is neither good or bad,” said Alderman Larry Munsey. “It’s not the total amount of debt one incurs, but one’s ability to make payments on that debt. While the amount of debt is increasing, our ability to pay is far outstripping the debt we’re incurring.”
“We’ve got a lot of debt coming off, and we’re now in a position where we can start spreading out and start spreading our wings a little bit,” Joh said. “We’ve got a little bit of play room. Let’s start spending it on things that will make a difference.”
As the new commercial developments come to fruition in Kingsport (Kingsport Pavilion, East Stone Commons, Reedy Creek Terrace) along with the new school, annexations and housing development in the Rock Springs annexation area, traffic will undoubtedly become an issue.
Some projects are already under way to help with traffic concerns — the Watauga roundabout project, the Gibson Mill Road realignment and red light cameras at six busy intersections (with the possibility of more on the way).
Mike Thompson, Kingsport’s traffic engineer, said there are traffic concerns all across the city, from Netherland Inn Road to Kingsport Pavilion to Rock Springs Road.
“We want to address the safety concerns (on Rock Springs Road) as much as we can before capacity concerns,” Thompson said. “We’ve hired out a safety audit and some money to implement some safety changes out there and we’re planning on following up and doing a transportation study for the whole area.”
Other traffic studies are also in the works, Thompson said, such as the Reedy Creek Crossroad Study. It runs from Stone Drive to Brookside to New Beeson Well Road and includes parts of John B. Dennis Highway, Eastman Road and Center Street.
As Kingsport’s city limits continue to grow, mechanisms exist to determine how many additional city employees are needed to provide services. More land and citizens means more police officers to patrol the streets, more sanitation workers to collect the garbage, and more firefighters to response to emergencies.
During the 2008 fiscal year the city plans to add 20 new positions — four new police officers to handle the additional patrol zone along Interstate 81, six new firefighters for the new station in Rock Springs, and various other positions such as a librarian, internal auditor and a building inspector specializing in electrical work.
Campbell said he has always been cautious about adding additional staff to the city’s payroll, but there will be a need to add some people “here and there.”
Despite these challenges and differing opinions, city leaders are optimistic about Kingsport’s future.
“Government is not about taxing people so you can have $100 million in the bank. If you’re going to tax people, then provide a service,” Phillips said. “What we’re being able to do without any projected tax increases ... I think all of the things we’ve done is to bring people back to the community.”
“I think we sat still for a long time, and I understand the reason for it. I think we have a progressive board right now that says it’s time to get off dead center and start doing things that will make people want to live here,” Joh said. “We are in the best shape we’ve been in for years for where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
Alderman Jantry Shupe said there is great excitement about what’s taking place in Kingsport.
“In my circle of friends, young and old, I’m hearing it’s the greatest time in Kingsport that many folks can ever remember,” he said.
And Vice Mayor Ben Mallicote said it’s an “incredibly positive time” for the city.
There is “probably the most excitement in Kingsport maybe in my lifetime,” he said.