By Brad Hicks
The Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County last week chose to move forward with the planning pitch presented by the First Tennessee Development District.
This decision was made during the Friday, May 26, meeting of the full JEDB. The board was to select either the proposal from the regional planning agency or a proposal from Benchmark Planning, a Charlotte, N.C-based planning firm.
Both the FTDD and Benchmark previously presented their proposals to develop a consolidated comprehensive land use plan for Unicoi County. This plan is intended to help steer future development for all of the county, including Erwin and the Town of Unicoi.
The wheels leading to Friday’s meeting were set in motion several months ago when the JEDB set out a request for proposal to field proposal submissions from companies interested in developing the comprehensive land use plan. Benchmark, a firm that focuses on comprehensive planning, downtown master planning, economic development and regional planning, was the sole company that responded to the RFP.
In its response, Benchmark presented a proposal detailing a 17-month, multi-phase work program. In late March, Benchmark Planning President Jason Epley traveled to Unicoi County and met with the JEDB to further discuss the proposal. Epley said the planning project would involve two phases. The land use and economic development plan would represent the first phase, while the comprehensive plan would represent the second component.
Epley told the board, work on the data-driven land use and economic development plan could begin soon and would run through late 2017. The comprehensive plan component, which Epley said would build upon planning completed during the first phase, would begin in early 2018 and be completed in November 2018.
Benchmark officials estimated that completion of both phases of the plan would cost a little less than $100,000. According to the company’s proposal, the first phase of the project was estimated to cost $47,750, and the second phase was estimated to cost a little more than $50,000.
The JEDB met in April to consider approval of the first phase of Benchmark’s proposal. However, as the company’s bid was being discussed, Town of Unicoi Recorder Mike Housewright inquired about the JEDB’s “internal capacity” to complete the planning itself. Housewright said planners with the FTDD could likely complete the planning if provided with the JEDB’s specifications for the project.
Ronda Sawyer, a community planner with the FTDD, told the board during that April meeting that her agency would be willing to complete the planning if its services were sought. Rather than voting on the Benchmark proposal, the board, instead, voted to allow the FTDD to present a proposal of its own.
Cory Osborne, community and transportation planner with the FTDD, presented the agency’s proposal during a JEDB meeting held earlier this month. Osborne said the comprehensive land use plan document would include both elements of a land use and transportation plan, along with other components. He said the framework of the document would be broken into several categories, including a community profile, land use and development, housing, utilities and infrastructure, transportation and mobility, parks and recreation, economy, and implementation.
According to the FTDD proposal, the agency would break the project up into three phases to be completed over a 16-month period.
Osborne said the FTDD’s estimated cost for completion of the plan is $53,101. Around $51,000 of this cost is for the projected labor involved in the plan’s development and is based on 675 FTDD staff hours. If the labor hours exceed the 675, the price of the plan’s development would not increase as it would be capped at the $53,101, Osborne said. If the plan takes fewer than 675 staff hours to develop, the cost would be prorated and the cost would be reduced based on the actual hours spent developing the plan, Osborne said.
Along with Osborne and Sawyer, Vagn Hansen with Benchmark was present during Friday’s meeting. Each suitor was allowed to explain to the board what their respective entity would bring to the table in development of the comprehensive land use plan.
Hansen said Benchmark would bring with it a team of experienced planners who have completed projects throughout the country, adding Benchmark has a track record of positive results.
“We have experiences from all that work that we can bring here and have people at Benchmark that are very well-qualified and have lots of personal and professional experience doing this kind of work,” Hansen said.
Hansen said the company’s planning process would be thorough, involve the public, and would “take care of all the communities equally.”
Osborne said FTDD planners already know the community, having assisted with projects locally and throughout the region. Osborne said numerous objectives and goals previously outlined in local plans have been achieved, adding the FTDD provides planners to the county and its two municipalities, meaning FTDD representatives will still be in the community throughout the plan process and once the plan has been completed.
“What we bring is knowing the community very well,” Osborne said. “We’re already here. We’re already working here. We know what some of the strengths and weaknesses are, and we have a lot of relationships that we’re going to have to lean on in order to put this plan together that’s already in place. I think that’s a strength not to discount. And some of the best planning practices, we’re also aware of those. We see what’s going on across the state. We speak with planners from all over the place, and Ronda and myself work in 16 different communities, so we see a wide range of different experience and different challenges, different strengths over those communities, and we’ll bring those to bear as we’re taking a more local approach on this particular plan.”
Like Benchmark, Osborne said the FTDD’s planning process would be data-driven and involve public input.
When asked to provide some insight on the cost discrepancy between his company’s proposal and the FTDD proposal, Hansen said Benchmark is a private business that pays taxes and benefits and is not funded through governmental membership dues.
“That’s the main reason, I would imagine, that there’s a difference in cost,” Hansen said.
Hansen added Benchmark had agreed to work with the JEDB by reducing its estimate from its originally-projected cost.
Osborne reiterated that the FTDD proposal is framed on the projected 675 staff hours, at a cost of $75 per hour, it would take to complete the plan.
“In terms outlining goals and strategies and objectives for the communities, as well as focusing on the strengths you have currently, I think both plans probably contain the same level of implementation as far as getting things going as soon as the plan’s over. It just may look different and be in a different package.”
Prior to the board’s vote, JEDB Executive Director Tyler Engle said cost should not be the panel’s first consideration, reminding members the JEDB presently has at its disposal for planning $50,000 in previously-awarded U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Development Grant funding with another $25,000 through the Governor’s ThreeStar program potentially on the way.
But members of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County cited the agency’s estimated price as well as its familiarity with and prior work in the community as their reason for supporting the FTDD proposal.
“There is an inherent value (with the FTDD) in the sense that they are stakeholders, they are members of our community,” Housewright said. “I think everybody in the room knows that there’s sometimes friction between our communities, and I believe that the Development District has seen that friction, that they understand the agendas and the goals of each of the communities. I think there’s an inherent value in helping them help navigate that. Additionally, I think there’s a great value in having the continued relationship with them beyond the planning and on into the implementation.”
“I feel like First Tennessee has kind of been a partner with us and they work with us on a lot of different projects,” Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said. “I think they are aware of our community needs and can help us plan for our future.”
The motion to accept the FTDD proposal was made by Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and seconded by Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch. JEDB Chairman Lee Brown cast the lone dissenting vote on the measure.
The JEDB on Friday also unanimously approved its budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. A $158,000 operating budget has been projected for the upcoming fiscal year.