When Tim James returned to his alma mater, East Ridge High School, the stadium bearing his father’s name was already a memory.
“It was already a flat patch of grass,” the Pioneers’ head football coach explains.
Raymond James Stadium, home of the Pioneers, has staged a bit of a renaissance since that bleak reunion. Constructed too late (barely) to be used in the 2016 season, the shiny aluminum construct stands complete and good to go for future games and other school events.
Beyond that, it is representative of the community itself, which has had – and continues to have – an unprecedented surge in major construction as the literal gateway to the state undergoes a historic facelift.
Centered near, but not restricted to, Exit 1 on Interstate 75, something new and exciting is happening just about everywhere one looks. East Ridge is no longer a bad first impression.
“I’ll be honest. East Ridge is a very progressive community at this point in its history,” says James, born and raised in the community. “Our city administrators are actively seeking out new business and working towards rebuilding the infrastructure.”
No less than Brent Lambert, the mayor of East Ridge, concurs.
“In my lifetime, this really is the most sustained period of growth we’ve seen,” says Lambert, himself a lifetime resident of the community. “The closest thing I can compare it to is the housing boom right after World War II.”
Hamilton County, after much back and forth, funded the new stadium, which retains its Raymond James name. Coach James says he hopes the stadium is the first piece of a rebirth of Pioneer football. No time better than the present, he figures, since the team was 10-0 in 2015 (under then-coach Tracy Malone) and has gone three rounds into the playoffs – farther than any other Hamilton County public school – each of the last two seasons.
Since the team lost its locker room when the stadium was demolished, players have to change for home games in a classroom. Their weight room remains a dark, poorly equipped dungeon beneath the school.
“Athletically, we’re not far from where we were 10 years ago,” explains James, who departed to oversee the startup of the Heritage High football program at that time. “The physical plant has been maintained better, but the weight room remains a pressing need.
“The main thing that has remained the same is that we’ve still got great kids,” James adds. “They’re the best thing about playing football here. They’re ‘yes sir, no sir’ kids. The bottom line is that they’re just better kids.”
James, who admits he was on the verge of retiring as a coach when East Ridge came a-calling last April, has decided to shelve his plans to go full time into administration. He sees building and leaving a set of good facilities for the players as a worthy legacy for any coach.
“Will we get a field house? I don’t know,” he asks. “I hope to break ground on one in the next 12 months. We need some big hitters to step up, people who can. We have alumni who can and should step up.”
James could admit to being spoiled. At Heritage, everything was so new that no one had ever walked on the locker room carpet. After seven seasons there, he moved to LaFayette as an assistant where a newer school had even newer facilities.
“When a homecoming comes knocking, it means something, especially to me,” he explains. “I was really shocked when I saw that the stadium was gone. But, I have to say, it was an aged facility that had to go. The school had struggled to maintain it for many, many years.
“The city of East Ridge had gotten a complaint,” he adds. “A woman had fallen, broken her ankle I think, and once they inspected it, there was nothing else they could do.”
Rebuilding his lineup will offer its own challenges, but at least the Pioneers have, in James’ play on words, “a good structure for 2017.”
Even though they lose 2015 Player of the Year Traniel Moore, who was injured and MIA for nearly half of his senior season, East Ridge returns seven starters on offense, including quarterback Eric Bennett, and six on defense, led by Lorenzo Stewart, Times Free Press Best of Preps honoree, at linebacker.
“Spring practice is still a few weeks away, but we’re actually ready to go right now,” the coach explains. “People forget that we lost several good players off that 10-0 team, and that it took several weeks for things to come together. But they did and we went just as far in the playoffs as that team. If we’d been able to solve Sequatchie County, we would have been able to host a state playoff game in our brand new stadium.
“What I’m doing right now is trying to convince our players to run track in the spring,” James says with a laugh. “I tell them that running track can’t make them fast, but it can make them faster.”
East Ridge and a sense of history
This past week was another milestone week in the resurrection of East Ridge.
A massive interchange alteration on Exit 1 will soon be part of the landscape, as the quaint cloverleaf ramps will be removed in favor of widened and relocated straight-line ramps.
“The bidding ended yesterday,” Lambert said this past Saturday. “The construction should begin around the first of April.”
The convoluted access road to the big, new Bass Pro Shop, which opened last July, will also be a thing of the past. And the sooner it goes, the better; Lambert understands several retail businesses that have contracted to build adjacent to Bass Pro, are now waiting until the highway construction is done. Once complete access should be 100 times easier.
“We don’t have any official gauge in terms of the traffic that Bass Pro has generated, but just prior to its opening, we received data that Exit 1 is the busiest traffic spot in the region with 120,000 cars per day passing that exit,” Lambert said.
The tangle that is about to commence is merely the continuation of a love-hate relationship between the city and the interstate. Lambert knows the history.
“East Ridge was incorporated in 1921. For years it was a farming community, and it stayed that way for a quarter of a century,” the mayor explained. “There was that housing boom right after World War II and the growth around Ringgold Road began. Those were days when it was part of the Dixie Highway, the only north-south route to Atlanta, and a lot of businesses on Ringgold Road became dependent on the traffic of U.S. 41.
“When I-75 opened, it helped in a lot of ways,” he continued. “But it took away from some of the established businesses that all of a sudden were by-passed.”
One by one, family-owned restaurants and retail stores that gave East Ridge much of its identity have disappeared forever. The most recent closing was possibly the city’s best-known landmark, Kingwood Pharmacy. The business shut its doors in October after decades as a throwback old-school dime store and pharmacy.
“It’s a sad thing that it’s gone,” Lambert admitted. “Those of us who’ve lived here a long time, like myself, could go there any time of year and find any kind of gift or decoration you’d need. But in some ways, I kind of understand it closing. So many of these family-owned businesses finally get to a generation where the family is no longer interested in running the business. In that case, you’d rather close it than see it run into the ground by people who have no sense of history.
“You know, Raymond James Stadium is a lot like Kingwood,” Lambert said. “In a way it’s sad to see it go, but it’s also a good object lesson. You cannot just construct something and let it go. You have to continue to care for it, to maintain it. We were guilty of not looking after and maintaining the stadium.”
Happy days are here again
But this is a time of looking ahead in East Ridge – and not just at the high school.
Beyond the $2 million interchange project, TDOT has on the drawing board a massive, $65 million project that will radically alter the 24/75 split, less than a half-mile north of Exit 1. But even the more modest interchange project has some intriguing scenarios. One that Lambert finds particularly interesting is one that routes the I-75 North on-ramp behind the Tennessee Welcome Center, allowing it to possibly tie it to a Camp Jordan spur.
But Lambert has an even better idea.
“Years ago, it was in Hamilton County’s transportation plan to connect Frawley Road with East Brainerd Road,” he says. “I live on Frawley Road. I would love to explore that one in depth. I think that would improve traffic conditions on both ends.”
When the interchange project is done, new hotels, a Zaxby’s and other retail businesses will spring up on the mud flat that surround Bass Pro. On the other side of the interstate, construction will begin soon on a Firehouse Subs and a Dunkin Donuts on the busy intersection of Ringgold Road and Mack Smith Road.
But perhaps the most impressive renewal in all of East Ridge is tucked in between Ringgold Road and the state line adjacent to I-75 South. The new, vastly improved Life Care Center is opening the first of three new facilities on a massive campus where, among other things once stood a Wendy’s, a HoJo Hotel, a Bob Evans and the old Life Care Center.
“The numbers provided to us two years ago indicated it was a $25 million project,” Lambert explains. “Not only did they acquire that extra commercial land, they bought every house on a short, dead-end street and closed the street to give them more room to the south. Supposedly, it will encompass three separate buildings when it’s all done, and I understand one of the new buildings might be the tallest in the city when it’s completed.”
The Life Care Center will incorporate a rehabilitation facility, skilled care (nursing home) and an assisted living center. But even when the center is complete, the rehabilitation of East Ridge will go on.
“It is,” Lambert says, “a good time to be the mayor.”