City close to closing on Tennova site, council to vote on future of Tower next week

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Nearly one year since the former Physicians Regional Medical Center closed, the City of Knoxville is in the final steps of acquiring the site. A city council meeting agenda packet shows the deal is set to close no later than Dec. 15.

Current plans for the site, still known by many as Old St. Mary’s, will drastically alter what you see when you drive by the former hospital today. Knoxville leaders have allocated $46.5 million for the project.

The bulk of their investment, Deputy to the Mayor David Brace explained, will be spent on the south side of the site, totaling around $40 million, for a state-of-the-art public safety complex consisting of city police, fire, pension, and city court.

The current plan also includes roughly $6.5 million for abating and demolishing most of the north side of the site. The original hospital building, built in 1929, is set to remain a historical fixture, open for redevelopment and surrounded by open lots for more development.

Once the deal is closed, Brace explained, the Knoxville Community Development Corporation would oversee the redevelopment area on the north side. The redevelopment area includes the Tennova Tower, or the Magdalen Clarke Tower.

City Council will vote on a resolution next Tuesday, which would basically simultaneously give Lincoln Memorial University the tower at the same time the property closes and becomes city property. The decision to allow LMU to turn the tower into an education center has already been approved by KCDC.

A big challenge throughout the planning process for city staff has figuring out what to do with the tower.

“It was not a need that the city had. So, we were looking at abatement and demolition of that building or some other re-purposing of that building. We had worked with the chamber and other community partners and really hadn’t found a user until Pete DeBusk and Lincoln Memorial University approached us,” he said.

LMU’s investment would save the city an estimated $700,000. Brace also said the decision would “add a partner that is known in our community that has successful projects throughout East Tennessee. It brings capacity for education right next to Fulton High School.”

Pete DeBusk, LMU Board of Directors Chairman, is excited about the prospect of bringing the school’s nursing program back to the site of the hospital. This deal would give them a lot more space, 18,000 square feet per floor, which he said will enable them to expand their nursing curriculum and bring several other academic programs with it.

DeBusk sees the move as a gateway of higher education and potential for the students in the area, like graduates from Central, Halls, and Fulton High Schools.

The chairman already pledged to bring their business courses and education over to the tower. And, he explained, sitting next door to the KPD headquarters, LMU also plans to bring their criminal justice sequence to the site, in hopes of future partnerships.

“Look what happened downtown Knoxville when we moved the law school at old city hall. It’s really helped that whole area… we expect this to help the area there,” he said.

Their overall plans, he acknowledges, will take years to complete. Their timeline, laid out in an agreement with the KCDC, states they’ll have the first two floors of the tower complete for the nursing school to move in by September 2021. The criminal justice and business programs would be moved in by September 2022. Their overall plan would be completed by September 2025.

DeBusk estimated their total investment to be more than $16 million.

“We will work very closely with those schools to try to improve the number of students coming out of high school, going to college, and we’ll try to really up the education to increase the abilities of these kids from that area of getting jobs.”

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