KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — A Knox County commissioner is pitching the idea of the county buying the distressed Knoxville Center mall and related big-box properties as the future home of government, including courts and school system administrative offices.

Seventh District Commissioner Charles Busler's resolution asked Mayor Glenn Jacobs to "explore the possibility of purchasing the Knoxville Center mall property" for the switch. Most county offices are in the City County Building downtown.

Busler said his idea includes the so-called big-box properties at the mall such as the former Sears, Belk and Dillard's. To make his idea work, Knox County would have to acquire those separately owned parcels. One just sold in February, records show.

Those sites have title to some of the hundreds of parking spaces at the nearly 1-million-square-foot mall north of Interstate 640, records show.

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Busler's idea is big, and it comes with big challenges. It also conflicts directly with a project two Knox County mayors and staff members have been working on for two years.

"I’m just looking for the future," Busler said. "Think about how good that would be for the Knox County taxpayers."

Mayor Glenn Jacobs was skeptical, raising several problem points. 

During the Dec. 9 County Commission Work Session, he said he thinks the old mall property should stay in the private sector.

Other leaders objected to the idea of putting the property in public hands, saying it would be too expensive using tax dollars to retrofit the building.

"I think to spend time and resources when we know we have real issues in the county that need real attention and real money and resources... frankly, I think it's a waste of time and effort right now," commissioner Larsen Jay said.

The commission voted to to see how much it would cost for a study on how the mall property could be used or redeveloped in the future. 

Idea raises many questions

Busler's vision echoes points raised by Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley in a column last month. Hunley also opposes the county moving the school system to the long vacant TVA Tower East as Jacobs and his staff are proposing.

Busler is critical of that idea and said he has many questions about it. 

County finance officials estimate it'd cost at least $10 million to buy the bulk of the Knoxville Center mall site. 

It opened in 1984. It has been losing tenants for years. Mall ownership announced in late October they would be closing it to reassess its future.

Busler estimates it would cost $20 million to $30 million to buy the properties. It would require design and renovation work.

Assuming the county could buy all the necessary mall area properties and their associated parking, that means the public could have plenty of free parking while conducting their business. Drivers who have to go to the City County Building on Main Street now usually have to pay to find a space downtown.

The move would also shorten the trip that Sheriff's Office personnel must make to transport prisoners back and forth to court. The main detention center is in East Knox County on Maloneyville Road. Some prisoners, however, remain at the City County Building.

Busler said the move would allow the school system to consolidate all its administrative and support properties into one site. It would negate Jacobs' proposed easement deal to move to the TVA Tower East starting next year.

In addition to county offices, Busler's idea affects the criminal and civil courts, judges, the Register of Deeds Office, the Trustee's Office, the Knox County Sheriff's Office, inmates held in the lower jail levels, and dozens of city of Knoxville offices, to name some of the many.

He concedes it could take up to eight or 10 years to complete.

The commissioner suggests the City County Building, overlooking Fort Loudoun Lake, could go back on the tax rolls for private purchase. That's assuming everyone including the city and the District Attorney General's Office moved out as well.

He said consolidating school and county offices would put other county properties back on the tax rolls. 

It would, however, take Knoxville Center and its related big-box stores off the rolls.

He thinks consolidating government offices at the old mall would boost commercial development in the surrounding area. Businesses would want to locate near the old mall, he said.

"If we just leave it set right there, we're going to have a depressed area," he said.

Busler said he hasn't had time to talk with Jacobs about his idea.

The mayor, however, was doubtful. It took two years to finalize a proposed move of Knox County Schools' administrative offices to the TVA tower, he said. Putting together the kind of deal Busler is proposing would likely take much longer, he said.

The mayor also said officials can't overlook the fact that the city would have to move out of the City County Building as well. That itself raises multiple questions, assuming the city would even be agreeable, he said.