American Legion still looking for home

Matthew Lane • Apr 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT —The American Legion is still in limbo over whether or not the city of Kingsport will sell or lease the old Highway Patrol building on Eastman Road to the local veterans organization.

The American Legion sold its old facility — located behind Legion Pool — to Kingsport City Schools last fall for $327,000. In return, KCS allowed the veterans organization to keep its office in the building for six months until a new home was found.

City Manager John Campbell then approached the American Legion about the old Highway Patrol building at the corner of Eastman Road and Fort Henry Drive. The building now houses the city’s engineering department, and Campbell would like to see the department relocated back downtown.

The initial proposal — a 10-year lease for $150,000 up front — was shot down by the American Legion’s board of directors. Two counterproposals from the American Legion — a $190,000 purchase price or $400-a-month rent — received a cool reception from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen last month.

Since then a month has passed, the six-month agreement with the school system has run out, and the American Legion is still in limbo over whether it will get into the old Highway Patrol building. The topic is not scheduled for the BMA work session today, but KCS has agreed to extend the agreement with the American Legion for three more months.

Alderman Larry Munsey said the BMA should discuss the issue soon.

“It’s been too long. We need to discuss it, make a decision and get on with it. I feel very strongly about that,” Munsey said.

Gerald Cardwell, post commander for the American Legion, said the organization has started again to look at other buildings for their home, including the old Wampler’s Beauty School building on Center Street and the old Jack’s restaurant property on Main Street.

Cardwell said the city got the organization’s hopes up about the old Highway Patrol building.

“They got me excited, and I got the membership excited. Now it’s just drug on and on,” Cardwell said. “We were sort of led to believe that we could acquire it. We had no idea that the building would be available.

“I try to make this point to the city. You guys brought this up. We’re not begging you for the building. It was your idea, so let’s follow through on it.”

Mayor Dennis Phillips and Vice Mayor Ben Mallicote would prefer to lease the building to the American Legion rather than sell it. The reason being the building is in close proximity to Dobyns-Bennett High School and the city and school system’s unofficial policy of controlling as much property near its schools as possible.

“I think that we’re not going to go wrong by helping the veterans to a point. They deserve it. They’ve done a lot,” Phillips said. “We have the obligation to look at how we’re spending money also. This is one situation, irregardless of what we do, some will think we should have done more and some will think we should have done less.”

Alderman Ken Marsh and Pat Shull are opposed to the city leasing or selling the building because of the estimated cost associated with relocating the engineering department back downtown. To renovate the Tri-Cities Linen property and relocate engineering there, as Campbell has suggested, could cost as much as $300,000 or more.

“The engineering building, as far as I’m concerned, is not available. It’s going to cost us somewhere between a third to a half million dollars to move engineering from there, and it makes no sense at all,” Marsh said. “Someone got out of their element when they offered it to the American Legion.”

Shull, a retired U.S. Army colonel, said he thinks Campbell should help the American Legion find another place to relocate.

“I hold our veterans in the highest regard. On the other hand, I’m trying to balance off the best interest of Kingsport, and this is personally tough for me,” Shull said. “I think there’s limits to our generosity with other people’s money.”

Phillips tossed out a lease rate of $1,000 a month during a BMA work session last month, a rate below market level for the building. Campbell said he thinks most of the BMA members would be comfortable with that rate. Mallicote said a lease rate between $400 and $1,000 would be reasonable to him.

Cardwell said he could not agree to a $1,000-a-month rent.

“We could do $400 a month, pay (our secretary $10,000 a year) and our utilities. We’re not going to give them a whole lot of money,” Cardwell said.

Alderwoman Valerie Joh said her personal feeling is to sell the building to the American Legion, especially since it would be beside the new Veterans Memorial, which is expected to be built later this year.

“It doesn’t matter if we sell or lease it. Whatever could be worked out. I don’t think we should let loose of the property because of its proximity to the schools, so I think a reversionary clause is important,” Joh said. “They were not looking at the building until we mentioned it to them. I think we should try and work with them any way we can,” Joh said. “If the city can’t afford to move (engineering) and it’s too much of a burden, we ought to tell the American Legion right now so they can go ahead and make other plans. It’s not good to keep them hanging.”

Alderman Jantry Shupe mentioned a lease rate of $100,000 for 10 years on the property, with that money going toward the new Veterans Memorial project. The committee overseeing the new veterans memorial recently came before the BMA, saying they estimate a $172,000 shortfall on the project.

“The ideal place (for the American Legion) is beside the memorial. That makes sense. The ideal place for the engineers to be is next to the planning department,” Shupe said.

Kingsport is planning an $8 million renovation and expansion project for the V.O. Dobbins Center, adding just over 50,000 square feet of new space to the building. Over half of the new space is designated as a nonprofit center, and this site has been tossed out as a possible home for the American Legion.

However, construction is not expected to begin until September and take 11 to 13 months to complete. Which means the American Legion would either have to stay in its current site for another year and a half or find another temporary home.

Cardwell said he had not heard about that possibility until mentioned by the Times-News.

“That sounds interesting. It sure does. That sounds like a good spot for our veterans service office,” Cardwell said.

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