By Jonathan Pleasant
After more than a decade, Tennessees oldest Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project is about to be completed. A large gathering of local leaders and officials from all levels of government met at the Sutherland Community Church last Friday to officially announce that public water will soon be made available. Spanning the terms of three separate county executives, the project has been an ongoing endeavor involving numerous governmental organizations in two states.
Highlighting the diversity of the effort, the announcement was attended by leaders ranging from local officials including Commissioner Huey Long and County Mayor Larry Potter all the way up to Representative Timothy Hill and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey on the state level and even federal representation from Congressman Phil Roe. Additionally Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander both sent representatives who stood alongside community residents and other officials including April Helbert, representing the Washington County Service Authority on the Virginia side of the project.
The idea of bringing water to Sutherland first began under County Executive Curtis Sluder back in 2000. Answering the pressing concerns of many of the citizens in the community, Sluder made the initial application to receive the federal block grant funds but was ultimately denied. The dream of providing public water never died and even when County Mayor Dick Grayson took over a couple years later, Curtis was still pressing the need to pursue the grant funding. Grayson quickly came on board and filed another application in 2002, this time finally receiving approval.
Grayson was in attendance at the announcement, expressing his excitement at finally seeing construction underway. I dreamed of this day, Grayson said. I never gave up. This is a reality that has come to fruition and how grateful I am to see the folks here that made it happen.
As Grayson went on to explain, the grant approval was just the first step on a long and convoluted journey mired with red tape. Hoping to connect up with existing service in Damascus, the first hurdle was in establishing a good working relationship with authorities in Virginia. That process went relatively smoothly especially with the eventual help of other individuals and organizations including Bill Forrester with the First Tennessee Development District.
In fact, work on the Virginia side of the issue ended up being far less problematic than some of the obstacles and requirements from within Tennessee, especially concerning easements and acquisition with TDOT and other state departments. The economic downturn of the past few years made things even worse, slowing efforts and increasing costs. Once all of the engineering, contracts, and paper work were far enough underway to allow the first bids to go out Grayson was shocked to find that the project was more than $200,000 over budget.
State and federal leaders stepped up with Grayson commenting especially on the efforts of Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and Senator Lamar Alexander. Ultimately time extensions on the grant continued to be made and extra funding secured, primarily from a huge $287,000 grant through the EPA. Regrettably this financial juggling created even more delays, postponing an effort that was much needed.
An unfortunate aspect of a block grant is that only one can be applied for at a time, meaning that this project has ultimately prevented Johnson County from accessing any other federal funds of this type until after completion. The time taken to reach this point has actually outlived some of the very residents it was intended to serve, sadly seeing some pass away without ever having a truly safe and reliable water source.
Although unfortunate, many of those in attendance were simply glad that public water will soon be a reality. Had circumstances been different, the project may have fallen by the wayside altogether. When Mayor Larry Potter took office back in 2010, much like Grayson, he quickly saw the importance of finishing the endeavor. Working hard with other new officials including Congressman Roe and State Representative Hill, Potter was able to prove the success of persistence, seeing the final paperwork through over the last couple of years.
Once completed the project will provide water to at least 36 homes and even more in the future, as well as to the campgrounds and facilities at Backbone Rock. The final cost nearly reached a million dollars with $500,000 from the block grant, $287,000 from the EPA, $69,746 from the U.S. Forest Service, and another $64,803 from local sources. Although costly, many residents who once depended on unreliable wells or even unsafe cisterns will now finally have access to one of the most essential services that many people take for granted, a fact that several officials seemed to take to heart.
According to Congressman Roe, I have a lot of problems when I go to Afghanistan and I realize that we are spending a million dollars per soldier per year to keep our forces in a foreign country, and we send further millions of dollars to Egypt or Pakistan, or wherever it may be, while we still have people living in our own communities that dont have water. Thats pretty tough for me to deal with.
Yet possibly the biggest continuing effort and one that often gets overlooked is the role of the people of the community themselves. Harold Manuel, a resident who has been involved from the very beginning was possibly one of the most touching figures at the meeting. Expressing his joy in seeing the work underway, Manuel went on to explain that after dozens and dozens of earlier meetings, the choice to make the final project announcement at Sutherland Community Church was a very significant and touching end to a more than decade long battle.
For all those involved the process of getting public water to the Sutherland Community has been a lengthy and sometimes doubtful prospect. Yet, through the persistence of local leaders and the much-needed help of higher officials in the state and federal government, progress is about to finally be made. Already the main water lines are installed up to the state line and in the coming weeks residents may finally be able to go their taps with a reliable certainty of what they will find.
Too often progress becomes defined by the construction of a new super highway or a new development in a vast urbanized area, but in truth small projects such as these that actually improve the lives of those who really need it may be the best progress of all.
By Jonathan Pleasant