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County schools expect more normal

Loudon County Board of Education is planning and hoping for a somewhat normal school year for 2021-22.

Director of Schools Michael Garren wants to loosen restrictions as the number of COVID-19 cases in the community continues to fall. The board will vote Thursday on Garren’s plan.

“Essentially the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommended that we didn’t have to do temperature checks kind of midway through the year but we continued doing that, so we won’t start doing those,” Garren said. “With some of the activities, like we didn’t do any field trips, well if it’s safe to do field trips we’ll do field trips. The kids we kept the zoned in home rooms on the playgrounds so they didn’t interact as much.

“If we start off and everything’s going good, then everybody that’s out there can play together so they can play with their friends — those type things,” he added. “But if we start seeing issues with positive cases or lots of quarantines then we’ll back up and go back to our zones. We’ve got plans in place now from this year that we could do that. But there’s some other things, like when we’re tight on space like in the cafeteria, I want to keep that plan in place until we know that we can have a successful start and keep going and that not cause us issues.”

With board approval, Garren said he would then submit the plan to the state as part of ESSER 3.0, a federally funded stimulus program created through the CARES Act. Loudon County Schools is set to receive about $6.7 million.

Garren said he hoped to submit the plan by early July.

“The kids need some social interaction,” Garren said. “A good way to do that is through recess time because they’re outside, they’re not close to each other for an extended amount of time so they can still play and be out there. The offset to that would be the cafeteria and they’re still going to be a seat apart but they’ll get that social time during PE whereas this year whoever they sit beside when they got to school is who they were sitting beside when they left school and they didn’t get to play with anybody who wasn’t in their room.

“So a little more freedom but it’s freedom in a more safe space right now until we make sure that everything’s going to start off well for us,” he added. “I don’t know what August is going to bring like I didn’t know what this year was going to bring.”

Bobby Johnson Jr., board member, believes the plan is smart.

“Mike and his staff have done an excellent job,” Johnson said. “Principals and teachers and parapros and everybody, they’ve done an excellent job keeping us open this past year. I think to add to that we’ll keep pushing forward where our kids don’t skip a beat.”

Kenneth Presley, board member, agreed but hopes the district can soon fully return to a prepandemic approach. He emphasized gradually opening up.

“I’m ready to open it up and move on, but I guess we need to take it in baby steps just to make sure we don’t go back,” Presley said. “I think everything’s headed in the right direction and let’s give it a few weeks, few months and see how it goes and open it more up.”

Custodial increase

Board members will also consider giving HES Facilities Management a pay increase. The company is in the second year of a four-year contract for the district’s custodial services.

Dean Helton, HES Facilities Management senior regional manager, sent a letter to Garren in April.

“As you know this year has been challenging for many reasons, and our industry has not been immune to the economic pressures catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Helton said in the letter. “HES has an obligation to Loudon County Schools, to manage our costs and balance that with providing excellent service to the district. Therefore, our team would not be asking for an increase if we did not feel it was necessary to remain competitive in the market and counter prevailing wage pressure.”

Garren said this is the first time the company could receive a pay increase if the board votes in favor Thursday. HES could receive $20,100 more per year compared to the company’s request of $46,539.

Loudon County Schools currently pays HES $772,158 a year, he said.

“They’ve been doing a good job, and they’re struggling like every other company’s struggling on getting people to work at their current wages and material increases,” Garren said. “They’re buying more material because we’re washing our hands more, so they’re buying more paper towers, buying more soap, all those things increase cost and I think it’s only fair that we should help them out with.”

Johnson agreed with Garren, emphasizing a pay increase could be deserved.

“We haven’t had any complaints, they’ve been keeping up real well,” Johnson said. “Plus coming out of this pandemic, everybody’s having trouble getting people to work and they’re not different, they’re going to need some help. But it’s pretty fair so that way they can give their employees some raises and also handle some of the growth that they got going on.”

Drive-in theater almost here
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The LoCo Drive-In movie theater is just weeks from opening in Loudon’s Centre 75 Business Park.

Plans for the theater started in November with Gordon and Susie Whitener of The Whitener Company. Now, through Loudon Entertainment LLC, the project is set to open July 4 weekend if no complications arise.

“Honestly, the only thing left done is for the video board to be finished,” Gordon said. “The foundation and everything’s already in. It’s just putting up the steel, putting up the screen and finishing a little bit of groundwork and putting a fence around it.”

Crews have been working on the property since Loudon County Commission and Loudon City Council approved a lease agreement earlier this year, which was for five years at $200 per month for the 10.31 acres behind Goodfellas Wine and Spirits off Highway 72.

Loudon Entertainment has an option to purchase the property for $40,000 per acre. The lease automatically renews after five years unless terminated, and the developer has first right of refusal.

Gordon said while the property will be used for movies old and new, he hopes bigger events can be planned for the property that can hold up to 400 vehicles.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a Thursday through Sunday drive-in, but we plan on kind of special events there, including concerts,” he said. “We plan on showing football in the fall there.”

According to the LoCo Drive-In website, plans include presenting movies, sporting events and concerts. The idea is to appeal to all ages and demographics.

The 35-foot by 63-foot Samsung LED video board — called LoCo Tron — can be used any time of the day, which Gordon believes could set it apart from other drive-in theaters.

“We found so far that it’s pretty unique anywhere,” he said. “There aren’t many or any that we know of full video boards that are used for a full-time, year-round drive-in.”

The drive-in will have concessions, restrooms and a space for local food trucks, which LoCo Drive-In operator Jacob Nelson said will be rotated nightly. There will even be a playground for children.

Nelson said the goal is for the property to have a family friendly environment.

“If we’re having a Sunday matinee where we’re showing an animated or a kids movie, we want to really encourage families to come out and be able to — if the kid doesn’t want to stay in the car, maybe they want to watch a movie and they don’t want to be in a crowded movie theater and be quiet, sit here like this, just let them go have fun and play on the playground,” Nelson said. “It’ll be really nice and new and state of the art.”

A drive-in movie theater has been Gordon’s dream for years. Timing was critical.

“For me it’s more of a nostalgia-type project that I’ve had on my mind for 25 years or so, but I certainly was motivated by COVID ... and the fact that we have video board technology in our company’s history back in the 2005 through 2008 years,” Gordon said. “All of it just kind of came together and it felt like the right time to do it. ... I think the location is great with the I-40 (and) I-75 intersection and the fact that we can kind of draw anywhere from Chattanooga up to north of Knoxville and of course east and west of there as well.”

For more information, visit www.locodrivein.com.

Loudon group inspiring runners
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When Julie Tate began a personal exercise journey in 2014, she had no idea she would end up inspiring over 100 Loudon residents to grow in their own running experiences.

After Tate had a child at 34, she began looking for ways to be more active. She downloaded a running coach application on her cellphone.

“It’s a training app for teaching yourself how to run,” Tate said. “I put that app on my phone, and I got my baby stroller, and I started going out in Loudon at the walking track by the swimming pools and using that app, and it starts out walk/run. You walk more than you jog. And in 30 days, you can run a 5K. I did it, and it was so hard, but I did it. I just fell in love with running.”

Tate figured if she could push herself to run a 5K, anyone can. She longed for a way to get a group of dedicated runners together.

In 2014, she came up with “Loudon Lacers,” a Facebook group for active people in the city.

“I grew up in Loudon,” she said. “I went to school in Loudon, and I just wanted people to know anybody can be a runner. I just had it in my mind that you had to always be a runner, you had to have a certain body type. I started the group and had a lot of friends that joined. They’d walk, run, bike. If you’re moving, you’re a Loudon Lacer.”

The group, which now boasts 116 members, is a positive place for people from all backgrounds and levels of activity.

“I just created it for inspiring and motivation and quotes and memes and people to share if they were going to be walking or running in town if anybody wanted to join up, kind of like a meeting place I guess you could say,” Tate said.

Casey MacKintosh was one of the first to join in 2015. She never considered herself a runner, but now she’s completing half marathons. MacKintosh said Tate is a “great motivator” and radiates positivity.

“It doesn’t matter how far you are, if your goal is a 5K, if your goal is a marathon,” MacKintosh said. “We see local races, we’re like, ‘Hey, check this out.’ We sign up. We meet together. We dress alike. We order shirts that are the same.”

The group doesn’t necessarily run together. Instead, members will post when they’re going on runs and invite others. Loudon Lacers can often be found meeting up for a run at Liberty Park on Saturday mornings.

“It’s not necessarily that we all run together, but we’re just very like-minded I would say,” Tate said. “We love running for different reasons. Some people are very competitive. Some people want to run races. Some people just want to be healthy. It’s just an encouragement group. We lift each other up. We cheer each other on at races. There’s a couple of hometown races that we try to get a Loudon Lacers group together to support local things like Run LoCo.”

Debi Arp moved to Loudon about six years ago. The group helped her find lifelong friends.

“I saw them running one day after I got done running, and I started looking up online as far as this particular group and became acquainted with some friends after that,” Arp said. “They invited me to come run with them on Saturday mornings because I was still working at the time and that was the one time everybody could get together to run together. I really enjoyed the emotional support plus the physical support, too. We always have a good time. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a very special time during the week.”

County budget vote nearing

Loudon County Commission is mere weeks from voting on a “good” 2021-22 fiscal year budget.

A public hearing is set for 6 p.m. June 28 before the commission workshop at the Loudon County Courthouse Annex. Budget committee members will have a finalized document ready for consideration by full commission at 6 p.m. July 6 at the annex.

“It’s been a good budget cycle this time,” Van Shaver, county commissioner, said. “We always have challenges that we have to try to meet. We want to be sensitive to everybody’s request. We think we’ve done a good job providing as much as we can to as many departments as we can, but I think this is a good budget.

“... One of the things that we’re really proud of is to be able to do $1,000 raises — that was real important to all of us to try to show all of our employees we appreciate the work they’ve done,” he added. “We were able to give some departments new staffing that they had requested. Everybody didn’t get everything they wanted, but we were able to give a little bit here and there and maybe in the years to come we’ll be able to give more and that sort of stuff. The ability to help with our employment within the county was real important to all of us.”

The County General Fund’s ending balance for this year is estimated at $8.2 million, Tracy Blair, county budget director, said.

“I still think we’re very solid,” Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, Loudon County mayor, said. “A lot of time went into it — we’ve been a little bit more giving I’d say with this budget. Revenues have just absolutely been incredible throughout the year, so I think we’ve been able to address some issues and at the same time still be fiscally responsible.”

Included in the budget are a $1,000 annual wage increase for all full-time employees and a 2% increase for part-time employees.

Bradshaw said the move will hopefully retain staff.

“I think if you look, most of our part time are either — we’ve got a few — but a lot of our part-timers are students or retirees and it’s not folks that depend on it so they’re getting a 2%,” Bradshaw said. “Then if you look at our full-time employees where we’re losing folks at is our new employees, our two-years-and-under employees, and so I think we give them that boost and that’s going to be make it more competitive. There’s going to be around 25 or so that’s not going to get the same as if it was a 2% that are longer served, but I think it helps keep our new employees here instead of us training them up and then them finding a better job somewhere else.”

Seven additional full-time employees are being recommended, including one each for the property assessor, county clerk’s office and recycling center, three corrections officers at the jail and either a patrol deputy or investigator.

The proposal also includes $200,000 Adequate Facilities Tax for education capital projects.

The anticipated certified tax rate is $1.5160, with a penny value of $225,256. Bradshaw hopes to have approval from the state for those rates this month.

“Depending on the state and how backed up they are,” Bradshaw said. “This will be the first time since I’ve been in office that we’ll miss our July 1 deadline, but that’s just part of doing the business. I think we’ve still got a good track record and hopefully the state will get that to us pretty quick.”

Shaver doesn’t believe a decision to vote in July will make a difference.

“In my course of being here we’ve been up into September, late in September getting them done,” Shaver said. “The lack of the ability to get it passed by the end of June has nothing to do with any budgeting issues whatsoever. It’s a matter of wanting to get the certified tax rate official from the state before we do it so we don’t have to have two separate meetings. It’s always late coming in on appraisal years, so a week’s delay is of no consequence whatsoever.”

The delayed vote will also allow all commissioners to be present, which is something commission chairman Henry Cullen wants.

“I won’t adopt without everybody there,” Cullen said.