Johnson City commissioners have approved an application to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation requesting the Keefauver farm property be placed under contract with the state, making its recreational designation transferable to another property.
Last year, TDEC and the National Park Service approved Keefauver as a replacement for the long-defunct Optimist Park. The recreational caveat was in place, and remains in place, because the federal funding used to build Optimist required the terms.
Though the commissioners’ preliminary action did not identify a replacement property, Joe Wilson’s 36-acre parcel located next to Winged Deer Park appears to be a possibility.
“After visiting the site and looking at the follow-up proposed development plan from Lose (Knoxville’s Lose & Associates), the site is suitable for recreation and would be suitable for conversion replacement property …,” TDEC Recreation Services Coordinator April Johnson said in an email last month to Mayor David Tomita, Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl and Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis.
Johnson also said the city can purchase the land prior to the conversion approval, but it cannot use it for recreational purposes until final approval.
Property off Indian Ridge Road and Winged Deer Park’s lakefront property (city-owned) have both been considered for placement of diamond-shaped and rectangular fields to accommodate expansion. The same is true for a combination of Wilson’s property and the adjacent Sells property. Johnson’s communications with city officials do not name a specific property.
Lose & Associates has worked with city officials on various ballfield designs on the Wilson, Indian Ridge Road and lakefront properties, yet it is the $1.4 million sales agreement for the Wilson property that has been on the City Commission’s agenda twice. Action on that purchase was deferred twice.
The agreement is expected to be back on the City Commission’s Sept. 6 agenda, according to Commissioner Todd Fowler, who told The News & Neighbor last week he believed the plan still is to transfer the park acreage from Keefauver to the Wilson property.
“That property is in a remote location from the city growth areas and the demand for a city park at that location is greatly diminished,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “We feel a park expansion at Winged Deer is more convenient to our residents, will be more efficient to operate, and will allow us better opportunity to host major tournament events when new fields there are combined with the existing fields.”
Peterson said he expects it will take up to four months before the application is returned to the city for formal approval.
“We have a 12-month period to conclude getting all the information to the state,” Peterson said at the Aug. 16 City Commission meeting. “It requires final approval by the National Park Service. They would ultimately get a recommendation from the state and consider, deliberate – and whatever else they do in Washington, D.C. – before we get an answer.”
Peterson’s tone reflects the years city officials had to wait for the Keefauver farm to get a thumbs-up from the National Park Service as a replacement for Optimist Park.
“And by 2025 we should get an answer right?,” quipped a smiling Mayor David Tomita.
“I just hope some of us are still alive when we get an answer, based on the last experience,” Peterson replied.
At the tail end of the meeting, Peterson said there are three to four projects that he’s been working on for several years.
“It seems like I’m going to be delivering triplets,” he said. “It seems like they’re all going to be delivered in the next two to three weeks.”
Last year, the National Park Service approved the historic Keefauver farm as a replacement for Optimist Park, which opened the door for a new recreation area with a number of possible uses.
Of the 53.93 acres that comprise the Keefauver property, 51.93 acres were approved for outdoor recreation. Roughly 2 acres, which essentially is the original 1800s farmhouse and some out buildings, is not considered part of the conversion property.
About 30 years ago, Johnson City received $60,000 in federal grant money to use for ball fields at Optimist Park, but that relatively low-dollar gift came with a condition: That property of equal or greater value fill the void left when Optimist Park became obsolete, and that outdoor recreational uses must replace that which was lost.
Washington County farmers have been allowed to graze cattle on the property at Shadden and Hales Chapel roads, and Boones Creek Historical Trust members are still hoping to place its proposed historical museum and old-school Bluegrass venue at the site.
The Keefauver property, which was a long-running family dairy farm, is city-owned but located in Washington County in the midst of a fast-growing residential area – growth realized by the county. There is about a half-mile gap between the city limits and the property.
What once was Optimist Park is now an empty property with visible remnants of ballfields located at at 543 North State of Franklin Rd.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department became the apparent heir to the farm, but city commissioners ultimately determine the uses, activities and dollars spent. Public Works Department employees removed unstable structures, building and silos, but one large building and the house remain.
Nature programming and athletic fields were considered, but a master plan was not developed for the Keefauver property.