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Promised Lands

A federal program bestows upon municipalities surplus property for recreational reuse

Officials with Hamilton County, Tenn., and the city of Chattanooga are excited to have their very own fixer-upper project.

Thanks to the National Park Service's Federal Lands to Parks program - which redistributes federal property for public recreational use at no cost to local governments - the city and county recently finalized their acquisition of 2,757 acres of a 6,700-acre site formerly known as the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant.

The plant opened in 1942 and was in service through the end of World War II and during both the Korean and Vietnam wars, but has been lying fallow since the mid-1970s. Because only about 1,000 of the site's acres were used for TNT production (there are also about 200 storage bunkers scattered throughout the property), much of the remaining site remains in its natural state.

"A lot of the site was never touched," says Steve Leach, administration director for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Authority. "It has steep uplands. One area has a vertical escarpment about 300 feet high for rappelling. It has good base woodlands, so there's a variety of wildlife. There are a lot of security roads and service roads scattered throughout, with the potential to be turned into trails. The reuse potential for this property is just incredible."

Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker agrees. Last November, he unveiled an ambitious Outdoor Chattanooga Initiative that seeks to transform the city into the "Boulder of the East" - the outdoor recreation Mecca of the South, with the former VAAP site as its centerpiece.

Bill Huie, program manager for the Federal Lands to Parks program's southeast regional office, has been working with local officials since 1998 on a plan to usher the former ammunition plant into its afterlife. Still, he admits Corker's announcement caught him by surprise. "This has turned out to be something really significant," says Huie of the city's new initiative. "I didn't realize they appreciated the land so much."

Truth be told, local government officials have simply been waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. "This site has been relegated to open space for so long, and the community has grown around it," says Leach. "Amazingly enough, we're going to have a 3,000-acre park in the city of Chattanooga and in the center of the county. It's just fabulous. All of a sudden, we've got this jewel right in the center of our community."

Communities across the country are discovering their own recreation jewels. In fiscal year 2003, 23 properties totaling 3,843 acres were transferred out of federal hands and into those of local governments in 14 states and Puerto Rico. According to the federal government, 13 of those properties had a combined value of $32.8 million.

Despite the program's no-cost transfer policy, Federal Lands to Parks program applicants should be aware of incidental costs and other important considerations. First of all, government entities must have a realistic reuse plan for the site. "They have to come up with some sort of public recreation or leisure-time use that meets the needs of their citizens," says Huie. "They have to show what they would do with it, that the land is suitable for that proposed use, and that they are capable of coming up with the money for all of that - whether it be through a bond referendum, grant money or some other means."

This is especially critical throughout the environmental cleanup stage. Before the National Park Service can transfer land, all contaminants, if they exist, must be removed. This was the case in the densely populated city of Waltham, Mass., which in 2001 received a 25-acre parcel for reuse as recreation fields. That property was originally part of the 65-acre Frederick C. Murphy Center, an Army hospital in the 1940s and '50s that later belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers until 1998. In 1999, the City of Waltham jointly applied for the property with two other groups, Bentley College and New Jewish High School. The U.S. Department of Education handled the schools' land acquisition. The college developed recreation fields on its 20-acre parcel, while the high school used its share for a 115,000-square-foot building and athletic fields.

The city and its two partners cooperated in acquiring federal and state funds to raze the existing buildings, with Congress appropriating nearly $2 million to help cover the demolition work. However, according to Waltham planning director Ronald Vokey, over the past two years the city has spent twice that amount on its own for asbestos removal, the cost of which Waltham officials are hoping to recover. "As part of the process, the federal government said that asbestos had to be removed from all buildings on the site," he says. "The government said it would pay for anything found outside the buildings' footprint, and we found it."

Now that the asbestos has been removed, the city is redeveloping its parcel into four multiuse, synthetic turf fields and two softball diamonds (construction bids for the turf fields were expected to be awarded in May). "Waltham sorely needed these fields," Vokey says. "Considering that we're eight miles outside of Boston in a highly urbanized area, to have the opportunity to get land, good land, is great."

It is unusual for a surplus site as large as what exists in Tennessee to fall into a local government's hands. (Although last June, Talladega County, Ala., received through the Federal Lands to Parks program a 2,832-acre property most recently owned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The county intends to convert the site into the largest regional park in Alabama.) That said, Hamilton County and city of Chattanooga officials are even more grateful for the opportunity they've been given. If everything falls into place, they expect that by this time next year, area residents will have available to them a vast passive recreation park.

"Because we won't do a whole lot of building, we expect this to be inexpensive, relatively speaking," says Lee Green, manager of projects and facilities with the Chattanooga Department of Parks, Recreation, Arts & Culture, adding that despite the necessary development costs, the end justifies the means. "We're talking about 2,800 acres in the center of an urban area. You just don't find that kind of land every day. If it weren't for the program, this initiative wouldn't be happening. Nothing we've imagined would have been possible."

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