Council talks downtown water plan at special called meeting

The decision over whether or not Morristown will use roughly $620,000 of federal funds to pay for waterlines that would make it more feasible for downtown building owners to provide fire prevention sprinklers in upper floors will be on the City Council Agenda Tuesday.

At a special called work session city leaders heard from Morristown Utilities’ Mike Howard about a three-phase plan that would save individual building owners who want to hook up sprinklers to the city’s water significant money.

Essentially the new lines would run behind downtown buildings on both sides of Main Street and on the West AJ side, east of Cumberland Street.

Downtown business owners told council members they had consulted with professionals from Knoxville and the Tri-Cities and had been told the city didn’t have the proper water access necessary for upper level sprinklers.

Howard said that’s not correct.

“We have adequate fire flows downtown,” he said. “We have good flow on our hydrants.”

Howard said the city’s six inch pipes carry plenty of water and pressure downtown to service the sprinkler systems. The pipes, however, are buried under Main Street and tapping into those would come at a considerable cost to the building owner.

MU charges $3,500 for a sprinkler hook up and the owner is required to pay additional cost. In addition to cutting through sidewalk and street to tap into the system, there is a tunnel under the sidewalk on the Southside of Main Street that would complicate things.

Howard said MU, which was asked to pay for the lines and declined, would make a connection available at the front of the building. From there, the building owner would bear the additional cost of running the lines under the building to the back where the sprinkler system and all the required equipment could be placed.

The system would open downtown buildings for the potential of more development in the upper floors. Residential housing downtown and many types of businesses would require the sprinkler systems before they could open.

The initial bid for the project came in at over $2.1 million for all three phases. When asked by City Administrator Tony Cox, Howard told the council much more work was put into the new bid by the contractors,

The council divided in several ways.

Councilmember Bob Garrett suggested the business owners in phase II, on the south side of Main Street nearest to the City Center could pay for access to the existing water line running under West Andrew Johnson Highway.

Councilmember Chris Bivens questioned the optics of paying $620,000 that would benefit downtown businesses but provide little to no foreseeable return on investment for the city.

“It’s important to show we’re not doing it for private gain,” Bivens said. “Anytime we want to do a project we want to see what the return is. I don’t see a return except for property owners.”

Supporters of the project responded that while the chance for immediate returns are somewhat muted, the lines are necessary if the downtown buildings are going to develop businesses and residences on the upper floors.

“Does it enhance the overhead sidewalks for investors that are yet to come?” Mayor Gary Chesney asked.

At least two downtown business owners indicated they have been researching the viability of adding upper level sprinklers and would sign on if the city provided the lines behind their building.

Councilmember Tommy Pedigo said that as a business owner with a building on the East side of Morristown he is frequently jealous of the support the city gives downtown businesses. But he added that he also understands why downtown businesses get that support.

“As downtown goes, so goes the rest of this community,” he said. “If we don’t sprinkle downtown, 100 years from now you’re going to have the same thing downtown you have now.”

Pedigo also added that the repercussions of night creating more financially feasible sprinkler hookups could be disastrous.

“If we have a fire the whole damn town will burn down,” he said.

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Fire Chief Clark Taylor said from the back of the room.

While some questioned whether sprinklers could stop a massive conflagration downtown, the consensus was they would be effective in keeping a fire from getting out of control.

“They say having a sprinkler system is like having a fireman in the room,” Howard said.

Pedigo said he’s consulted with a professional and the best way to create downtown sprinkler is through the back.

“The answer is yes, we need sprinklers. Is it a waste of money for the future of Morristown? It is not,” he said.

Asked how he was going to pay for it, Pedigo responded the same way you pay for anything else.

Cox explained the city has access to Community Development Block Grants to pay for most of the money and would use federal dollars the city had received to cover the rest.

“It’s 100% federal dollars,” he said.

Councilmember Ken Smith, who owns multiple buildings downtown, said he had also been told the city didn’t have the necessary water flow downtown but it was not clear if that meant the contractor was unaware of the Main Street lines or simply did not consider them as a viable option due to cost.

“If we don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen,” Smith said.

Kay Senter, who multiple times expressed displeasure with the way council was notified of the plan, said that ultimately the city needs to consider the return on the money it spends, even if it is federal dollars.

Pedigo said there are some things, for the improvement of the city, which will never bring a profit. However, he said, he has been in discussions with a hotel company to bring a 200-room facility downtown. When pressed, he declined to say more.

The issue will be on Tuesday’s council agenda.