Knoxville brings new ideas, technology to renovated Fleet Services campus

BY KATE COIL

While its campus continues to expand, the consolidation of Knoxville’s Fleet Services Department and traffic engineering staff at its facility on Lorraine Street has repurposed an old facility to meet the new needs faced by public works employees.

The public works service center has been part of the city since 1970, but hadn’t been upgraded since. The city realized the facility needed to be upgraded in order to provide the best service for city fleet vehicles and items like mowers and brush trucks to keep them in service as long as possible. Additionally, the city acquired two parcels of adjacent land to bring an administration building next to the fleet services facility.

The administration building now houses public service, traffic engineering, community rooms for local residents, and the city health clinic. The 4,600-square-foot building was designed by BarberMcMurry Architects. The Public Building Authority oversaw the project, and Blaine Construction served as the contractor.

Kristin Grove, director of property development for the Knoxville Public Building Authority, said the property was originally a flint mill in the city’s West View neighborhood. While the mill was only there for about 30 years, it left behind contamination the city had to deal with before redevelopment could begin.

“The flint mill was here from the early 1920s, and was closed down for quite a period of time beginning around the 1950s,” she said. “The land set empty for quite a period of time before the city acquired it. We originally intended for the administration building to be closer to the freeway. Once we started doing the work, we realized we couldn’t build on that land because it was too contaminated.”

In addition to rehabilitating the brownfield area, sustainability was largely taken into consideration when constructing the new facility. The building includes water-reducing plumbing fixtures, LED lighting, and energy use controls. Knoxville’s Fleet Management division is also working to be more environmentally friendly by use of compressed natural gas and propane fuel, specifying more electric vehicles, and obtaining a grant for a waste oil heater.

“All of the lights are on sensors, so they have on-off based on occupancies,” Grove said. “The building is also geothermal, which is a different heating element. One of the great features is our green roof, which our employees love. It helps cool the space below and provides a place for our employees to sit, hang out, and have their lunch breaks. Our windows and the open office also allow some of our employees to work without even turning on the lights because they have enough natural light.”

More than 140 employees use the campus daily, though many are public works crew members who come in at the start of their shift to clock in and receive daily assignments. Exceptions are the administration and engineering staffers who work in the administration building and those who work on maintenance out in the maintenance shops.
Health and wellness for employees was also an important factor of the administration building. Exercise rooms are available to employees, and the health and wellness clinic on the bottom floor provides quick medical services for city employees and their families – including a physical therapy clinic. Grove said the facility is efficient and allows employees to get treated for everything from colds to on-the-job injuries in a timely manner.

Outside of the administration building, the fleet services campus offers its own gas station and car wash for city vehicles in addition to all of the maintenance facilities. The original 1970s building on the site is now part of the crew services facility while new facilities have been built to serve as maintenance shops for city equipment.

Jeff Johnston, vehicle shop manager for Knoxville, said maintaining the city’s fleet of 1,500 is a tall order that requires both skilled professionals and equipment.

“Fleet services is responsible for all the equipment in the city of Knoxville, all the fuel brought in, and we run the Knoxville Police Department impound lot at our other facility,” he said. “We have two shops where we take care of all of our equipment. We have one called our light shop next to the impound lot, which is where we handle all of our small vehicles like our support vehicles, admin vehicles, and police cruisers. Here at our heavy shop, we work on everything from fire trucks to public works and service vehicles as well as all of our lawnmowers.”

The separation of the crew facility and the machine shops is less of a headache for workers.
“This area has showers and a breakroom for our employees,” Johnston said. “It is also where we do most of our research. If one of our mechanics has a problem he needs to research, he can get out of the shop and all the noise and be in a good environment to research that. Workers can also do their online training in here instead of having to be in the shop trying to decipher what is happening.”

A small engine shop oversees maintenance of the city’s propane-fueled lawnmower fleet and smaller utility vehicles or ATVs, a heavy shop that was renovated from the original 1972 to house maintenance facilities for everything from knucklebooms to street sweepers, and a fire shop that allows crews to work on city fire trucks and vehicles even with ladders completely extended. The complex also contains a welding shop that helps with various repairs, storage of the various equipment needs for repairs like large screws and tires, and a shed for storage of fluids like gas and oil.

“We had several issues before we had this facility,” Johnston said. “Modern fire trucks are getting bigger and bigger. To work on the engine or the cabin, you have to have the ladder up. Before, we would have to choreograph everything because if we fully extended the ladder it would go through the ceiling. Now, we can extend the ladder straight up and rotate the 110-foot-ladder 360 degrees. We can do all the maintenance on the ladder inside this building instead of having to do it outside.

Grove said the new fleet services administration building cost $12 million while the city is up to $22 million in acquiring property for the fleet services campus. The entire campus is about 12 acres at present. She said the city is presently in the fourth phase of plans for the site and still has one piece of property it would like to acquire for future development.
As it looks toward the future, the fleet services facility is already working to build its next generation of employees. The department recently partnered with the Community Action Committee (CAC) and the nearby Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) to create an apprentice program for hopeful mechanics at the facility.

Often, aspiring mechanics face roadblocks as they begin their careers. There’s a year of classes required to obtain certifications, and new mechanics must start off with a personal tool inventory, typically an outlay of $10,000 or more. With this apprenticeship, students earn money as they learn their trade. The apprentice is also overseen by a “mentor mechanic,” one of the city’s experienced Fleet Services employees, who can share a wealth of knowledge from years in the field.

Apprentices can acquire experience and required certifications that can help them join the fleet services division or launch other careers. Andrew Crowder, a recent graduate of Karns High School, is the first participant in the program and has been spending the summer working 30 hours a week at the fleet services building while also attending the nearby TCAT’s automotive technology program.